Fitbit smartwatch investigation: Fitbit is hell-bent on building an Apple Watch rival

Experts and insiders tell us what to expect – but is Fitbit missing a trick?
Fitbit smartwatch: An investigation

Fitbit is definitely building a 'proper' smartwatch. In case the acquisitions of not one but two smartwatch makers – Pebble and Vector – last year weren't big enough clues, we now have it direct from CEO James Park's mouth. "We believe we are uniquely positioned to succeed in delivering what consumers are looking for in a smartwatch: stylish, well-designed devices that combine the right general purpose functionality with a focus on health and fitness," Park said in a press release at the end of January.

So there it is. But what kind of smartwatch are we talking about? There were a couple of clues but not much to go on. So we turned to experts and industry insiders (some of who asked to remain anonymous) to help us figure out what to expect – and what not to expect.

Confirmed: Fitbit is going all-in on apps

Fitbit smartwatch investigation: Fitbit is hell bent on building an Apple Watch rival

In early January, Fitbit's CEO said in an interview that he wants to build a Fitbit app store "as soon as possible". Park also hinted that an app store would benefit Fitbit's corporate wellness programs.

"There are so many different applications [our partners] want to write," Park said, "from fitness-related ones to pill reminder applications. And we don't have the support in place for that right now, or any software infrastructure on our devices to run those apps."

We spoke to a source familiar with Fitbit's acquisition of Pebble in 2016 and he confirmed that this is no mere 'added extra' for Fitbit. It's going all-in because it wants to build a smartwatch to rival the Apple Watch.

"It wasn't 'hey, we really like what you're doing, we want to build a better watch with our expertise'. It was more 'no, we just want an SDK' [software development kit]," he said. "We were asking why are they buying us? Their answers: SDKs and apps and developers."

A second Pebble source told us: "Pebble has a best in class smartwatch developer experience. Fitbit most likely wants those software innovations to stand up an ecosystem with minimal effort."

George Jijiashvili, an analyst specialising in wearable tech at CCS Insight, sees potential problems here. "By going down the smartwatch/app ecosystem route," he said, "Fitbit will be up against the likes of Apple and numerous major device manufacturers who utilise Google's Android Wear platform. These companies have got vast marketing and R&D resources – making Fitbit's life very difficult."

And indeed, word has recently surfaced that Fitbit is struggling here. A report claims that the Fitbit app store will not be ready in time for the smartwatch's fall launch. Instead, the watch may launch with some custom-made apps, like the Blaze, with a full-blown app store to follow later, as a software development kit may not be ready in time.

We're also curious to see what Fitbit might do in terms of music. The Apple Watch has Apple Music and now Spotify is making an official app of its own. Fitbit, however, has no music platform, and getting Spotify to build an official app for its smartwatch might prove difficult. The Yahoo report claims that Fitbit has built in Pandora to let users store and play music on the watch, but the service is only available in the US, Australia and New Zealand, leaving a question mark over how this might work in other countries, such as the UK.

Too early to call: Fitbit will have a ready-made developer army

Now, Jijiashvili believes that the success of Fitbit with Pebble developers depends on what we see next.

"Pebble had a small but dedicated group of followers, which included app developers who all contributed to the growth of that platform one way or another," the analyst told us. "As long as Fitbit is able to integrate Pebble's platform in a way which is in line with Pebble developers' expectations, I believe that these developers are likely to work with Fitbit's new platform."

Fitbit smartwatch investigation: Fitbit is hell bent on building an Apple Watch rival

One of the Pebble insiders we spoke to broadly agrees, but predicts that because he "highly, highly doubts that much of Pebble's DNA is going to come out in this product," this might cause problems with the community.

"In general, their reaction was positive – like, maybe there's something here," he explained. "But it's not clear to me that the Pebble developer community is going to follow Fitbit."

Another suggested that Fitbit wants to "woo developers" but that "there's not much of an appetite right now." That might come down to how easy it is: "I think a lot of the more established developers would consider a straight port of their apps if it was easy to do, but the odds of a 1-1 match for any device they choose to make is extremely unlikely." The mentioned report on Fitbit's woes agrees that Fitbit is trying to entice third-party developers right now, but this may now take longer than it had intended.

There's also no Eric Migicovsky figure, attending every meet-up and dev event, at Fitbit – at least not yet.

"I think the thing that people forget is these developers didn't build on Pebble because they made a lot of money or because it was prestigious," one source told us. "It was a hacker community, created with Kickstarter and there's something unique about Pebble and our story, and even Eric. There's a huge cultural gap between what Fitbit represents and what Pebble did."

Unlikely: An uber Pebble/Vector mash-up

Fitbit smartwatch investigation: Fitbit is hell bent on building an Apple Watch rival

After the two acquisitions of Pebble and Vector – known for 8, 10 and even 25 day battery life in smartwatches – the internet made a big assumption: that Fitbit wanted to build some kind of ultimate, ultra long-lasting smartwatch.

That's what ex-Vector CEO Joe Santana predicts we'll see: "I don't have access because they did not require someone of my background in Fitbit. But I think the Vector team is going to focus on developing a smartwatch more in line with what Vector was doing," he told Wareable.

"We were talking to Fitbit in mid-2016, after Baselworld. They were interested in the software side of things, and obviously battery life was a key factor. When it comes to what made Vector so attractive to Fitbit, having that single battery life story was very important. Fitbit has taken on the whole Vector development team, led by Bogdan [Ripa, now senior director, product management at Fitbit] who originally developed the Vector watch software."

That sounds promising, right? Well prepare to have your hopes dashed. One of our anonymous Pebble sources who is familiar with the Pebble acquisition begs to disagree.

"That's the funny thing," he told us. "Everyone on Reddit is saying they're going to make the uber Pebble Vector watch and it couldn't be further from the truth. They have zero interest in that."

And interestingly, that seems to be in line with the latest word that Fitbit is making something akin to the Blaze. The Fitbit Blaze isn't one of the better looking watches out there right now, so we're hoping the eventual smartwatch has a nicer design. Word is that the watch will have an aluminium unibody casing and have swappable bands, as we've seen with Fitbit's recent devices. The same report also claims the watch will retail for around $300, putting it in the same price bracket as Apple's smartwatch and contenders like the LG Watch Sport.

Likely: A fancy AMOLED touchscreen

Which brings us to the screen. The reason our Pebble insider was so sure that Fitbit won't bring out an all purpose smartwatch with a low power display is the Apple Watch-rival ambition. According to recent reports, the Fitbit smartwatch is set to rock a 1,000-nit display, which would make it as bright as Apple's latest watch.

"They're really thinking of it like – it's the Apple Watch competitor and because Apple has a shiny screen, we need a shiny screen," he said. "The problem Apple has is that it's Apple so they can't really ship a shitty screen. Fitbit has an opportunity to really establish a unique point of view but to them, it's apps and AMOLED displays and touch displays."

Fitbit smartwatch investigation: Fitbit is hell bent on building an Apple Watch rival

According to that recent Yahoo report, Fitbit's smartwatch should get about four days of battery, which, if indeed paired with a nice vibrant display, would be impressive. But interacting with the display is another matter, especially on a fitness-focused device, so Fitbit needs to make sure it can withstand some sweaty finger contact.

There's also a good chance that Fitbit probably won't fitting in Pebble's nifty Timeline feature, as the UI on the new watch has been described as very similar to the Blaze's. We may see some of Pebble's DNA in there, but don't count on getting anything similar to the same experience. "I don't have inside information but I highly doubt we'll see Timeline," our source said. "I don't think they have the people or the time to reimagine Timeline on a touch device."

(Pretty much) confirmed: It'll do payments

Way back in May 2016, Fitbit bought wearable payment technology from the financial tech startup Coin. It included IP and engineering personnel, but Fitbit said it wouldn't be using Coin's existing mobile wallet and it wouldn't be launching any devices with the tech in 2016. Well, it's 2017 now and if Fitbit releases an Apple Watch-style smartwatch with apps and no NFC payments, we'll eat your hat.

Last year, James Park told Fortune that one use case would be buying a bottle of water at the end of a run, showing that fitness would still be the focus.

"The proliferation of contactless payments across the developed markets and the increasing adoption of Apple Pay and Samsung Pay means that infrastructure and consumer awareness for this technology is ripe," said CCS Insight's George Jijiashvili. "This is where I believe the Coin assets will come into play."

This is another area where Fitbit may not be able to compete with Apple. Will iPhone users want to add their credit and debit cards to another in-app wallet if they already use Apple Pay? We shall see, but word is that Fitbit is set to include contactless payments in its smartwatch.

Likely: Stylish but not too stylish

As with the touch control issues above, Fitbit doesn't want to alienate its core fans. Vector's Joe Santana predicts: "Fitbit doesn't want to move too far from the activity tracking point of view, because it's a core position, so they're not going to come out with just a fashionable smartwatch."

That's despite Fitbit's recent push into designer accessories for the Alta as well as Park's own statement of intent that we should look forward to something "stylish" and "well designed". Fitbit is already working with Tory Burch, Vera Wang and Public School on bands and accessories for its trackers, so we assume it's putting customisation partnerships in place to rival Apple's designer tie-ins, ready for the launch. But as we said, signs so far point to something designed like the Blaze. While we're not hugely enthused by that idea, we reckon a few tweaks to the design could make it more of a looker, so here's hoping that's what's happened.

What about fitness?

Fitbit smartwatch investigation: Fitbit is hell bent on building an Apple Watch rival

Funny you should ask that because – well, this is what we know least about. It could just be the case that we see the same sensors and tracking capabilities we've seen on Fitbit's previous devices. The Surge has GPS, the Charge 2 does VO2 Max and guided breathing etc etc.

We're still waiting for the next technological breakthrough from Fitbit. Way back in December 2015, Park said (and we haven't forgotten): "We're definitely going to be releasing devices with advanced sensors that help people track not only more accurate metrics on what we're doing today, but additional metrics as well.

"I can't talk specifically, but things people are going to be interested in in the future are blood pressure, or stress, or more stats about their athletic performance. Those are all things that we're working on and we'll continue to release over time." Sure that could mean VO2 Max and guided breathing but we're going to assume Fitbit is cooking up something more impressive.

We also know Fitbit tried (and failed) to buy Jawbone at the end of 2016 – the deal would have meant Fitbit acquiring Jawbone's software assets and Intellectual Property but no price could be agreed. Make of that what you will – someone should buy it soon though and do something with its promising platform.

Back to that report on Fitbit's current troubles, and apparently GPS is one things it's tripping up on. The company allegedly had to go back to square one here, as the GPS wasn't working properly in the prototype unit. "In one of the more final prototypes, the GPS wasn't working because the antennae wasn't in the right place," a source told Yahoo. "They had to go back to the drawing board to redesign the product so the GPS got a strong signal." Waterproofing is also not guaranteed, as the same report goes on to state that Fitbit has had problems here too. We're optimistic that Fitbit will get this sorted, as it knows waterproofing it will make it much more appealing to fitness fans, and as Apple now offers the same ability in Watch Series 2, it will look worse if Fitbit rolls out a device that can't be taken into the pool.

Another interesting point is that Fitbit is said to be working on some Bluetooth sports earphones that it will launch alongside the watch. Said earphones are to be more like the Beat X in design than, say, the Bragi Dash or Apple AirPods.

A big opportunity

In a line, it's worth Fitbit acknowledging that the Apple Watch already exists so we don't need another one. It's selling pretty well with iPhone users and even though, as Jijiashvili points out, "Fitbit does have its brand on its side; its name is synonymous with fitness tracking", that's not necessarily enough beyond trackers.

One of our Pebble sources told us his rosiest outlook: "I hope they manage to keep the non 'phone on your wrist' approach to smartwatches alive. If all that's left is Apple and Google LED/LTE/GPS, one-day battery eye candy then we will have missed out on truly functional companions."

But another wasn't so optimistic. "There's a lot more value that Pebble could have brought them that they didn't capitalise on," he said. "This is a huge lost opportunity for them."

Our two cents is that Fitbit can offer whatever it likes in terms of apps and additional functions like wearable payments, as long as it produces a device with a form factor that works for health and fitness users and a battery life that's at least in line with what its trackers offer. Essentially, it needs to offer something different to the Apple Watch.

Additional reporting by James Stables.

Do you think Fitbit can succeed where others have failed with smartwatches? What are you looking to see from its next device? Let us know in the comments.


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7 Comments

  • bkreative says:

    I switched from the Moto 360 to the Pebble 2+hr a few months back, I was sick of charging my watch every night. The pebble was awesome, did nearly everything I needed it to do. Sent all my notifications (that I wanted), gave me turn by turn directions, microphone to respond to texts, water proof, smart alarm, tons of watch faces, removable strap AND looks awesome. But the fitness tracking was lacking. 

    Then I heard Fitbit bought Pebble(like the next day) and I started using the fitstar app for fitness, and decided to try the GPS enabled Surge from Fitbit. The fitness tracking is awesome, and touchscreen is a nice.... Well... Touch (pun intended)...But the features (other than fitness) are lacking to say the least, compared to the $129 Pebble, the $249 FitBit is so dumb. It gives me text and phone call notifications and a few watch face options... And that's about it. 

    Let's just say I hope, plead, pray, that Fitbit builds an SDK platform and utilizes Pebble developers to build on some or all of these functions into a FitBit. They need it soooo bad. I would love to have both these watches in one, fitness, GPS and touchscreen from Fitbit and the rest from Pebble. Oh ya and throw in a connection to voice activated Google Now and you got a customer for life. 

    In my opinion there is a huge long-lasting battery watch market, it was my number reason for selling it either company.  And because Fitbit bought Pebble, the pioneers, they have a responsibly to build a combined 7-10 day battery, fitness super watch. I'll even give feedback for free to help them make the perfect watch. If they don't I wouldn't be surprised if Garmin or Motorola or some other company does it first. 

  • dezign999 says:

    I'm interested to see how FitBit expects to woo Pebble devs to their platform. We are in a period where devs are losing motivation to develop for a dead platform and moving to other devices due in part to a lack of communication from FitBit wth regards to developer relations and it's eventual SDK. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, every Pebble Dev worth their salt got free hardware from Pebble well in advance of public launches to start developing or porting existing software to the new units. There were also the Pebble Developer retreats, an all expenses paid trip out to San Fran for a week of good food, drinks and coding. There's a reason Pebble Devs were so loyal, we loved Pebble and Pebble loved us back. Your move FitBit.

  • xX0 says:

    i dont see a future for fitbit if they cant be useful in a 3dui environment. if they cant track hands but apple and google build tools that will be in wearables with their os, then everybody with mixed reality glasses will have their gadgets and they wont buy another one. 

  • yesvanthsv says:

    What is your final conclusion?

    Is Fitbit going to make a smartwatch or not?

    Should I wait for Fitbit smartwatch or not?

  • Gin says:

    I love the idea and I hope they get to it so I can get one. I want one now. 

    I don't want to wear a fitbit and a smartwatch when I can have it all in one. Way more convenient.

  • Lewdvig says:

    if a surge 2 with ant+ or bt smart pairing came out I'd be so happy. Power is the only thing missing from my Fitbit cycling workouts. Love my Surge, have tried everything else and keep coming back to it. 

  • Dankmemer says:

    Yeah... If it doesnt have Android Wear or a skinned Android version is just not worth it, imo.

    You cant sideload install whatsapp, mozilla, full youtube, etc if it doesnt have some version of Android.

    I mean... They should at least put an actual mainstream SoC inside of it (like Snapdragon 400) if they are gonna make their own proprietary OS, so developers from XDA could port Android Wear or Lineage OS to it.

    Meh... If those comments actually matter to anybody.

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