Fitbit smartwatch investigation: Fitbit's Apple Watch rival is coming

Experts and insiders tell us what to expect and we get the first leaked pics
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 have the first Fitbit smartwatch leaked pics and details 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.

Essential reading: Best smartwatches 2017

So there it is. But what kind of smartwatch are we talking about – and when is it going to launch? There were a couple of clues but not much to go on. Since then we've seen some leaked images and learned more about the internal workings. We've also spoken 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 smartwatch pics

Fitbit smartwatch investigation: Fitbit's Apple Watch rival is coming

This is our first close-up look at what we can expect from the Fitbit smartwatch in the design department. We have exclusively got hold of the images of the device, which a source close to Fitbit's inner workings has confirmed is indeed the finalised version of the smartwatch.

So what does it tell us? Well, that it looks certain to be based on the form factor of the Fitbit Blaze, the company's first smartwatch-esque tracker, showing off an identical button layout to the Blaze. We also know that there will be three different colour versions of the watch. You'll get to take your pick of a silver case with navy strap, a rose gold case with blue strap or a darker casing with a black strap. You'll also notice that the back of the watch protrudes, no doubt to improve the positioning of the sensors.

Fitbit smartwatch investigation: Fitbit's Apple Watch rival is coming

Speaking of the sensors, the first image does appear to give a huge indication of one new feature that Fitbit has planned, and that's a change up with the heart rate sensor. Fitbit, like many other companies that have built wrist-based wearables with heart rate sensors, has largely relied on the green light-based optical sensor setup. But these have proved problematic in terms of delivering accurate readings. It looks like Fitbit will be introducing a red light-based setup, to provide more accurate heart rate readings and also potentially unlock other biometric tracking including heart rate variability.

This isn't the first time we heard about the benefits of the red tech over green. When we spoke to startup BSX Athletics last year about its hydration monitoring wearable, it talked up the advantages of the red sensor technology claiming it's vastly more accurate than anything else on the market.

Fitbit smartwatch investigation: Fitbit's Apple Watch rival is coming

There's also an indication that there could be further sensors, which could mean that Fitbit may be also introducing features like a pulse oximeter to measure oxygen levels in the blood, something that appeared on the Withings Pulse tracker a few years ago and would further improve Fitbit's fitness tracking credentials.

These images firm up the ones that were leaked earlier this year (below), which first showed us that the watch will feature a large-ish (for Fitbit) square colour display, which looks to use that colour sparingly. That bodes well for talk of a four-day battery life from Fitbit sources.

Fitbit smartwatch investigation: Fitbit's Apple Watch rival is coming

The two screens show a weather update and heart rate, mid workout, a feature that was pretty much a given on this device.

The aluminium unibody and screen are flush with the strap, another departure for Fitbit's watches, plus the textured straps will come in black, muted blue and – we're sure – a whole range of other colours.

Fitbit smartwatch investigation: Fitbit's Apple Watch rival is coming

The sources of the leak also said that the watch will cost around $300 and be released this autumn. They also claim the watch will arrive with the following specs: a 1,000 nit colour display, GPS and NFC payments, plus storing and streaming music – but only from Pandora.

A Spotify app/partnership was apparently ruled out at some point. Thanks to Fitbit's most recent quarterly earnings announcement, James Park has confirmed that the smartwatch will be waterproof to 50m, matching the swim-proof rating found with the Fitbit Flex 2.

So what else do we know about the Fitbit smartwatch?

Confirmed: Fitbit is going all-in on apps

Fitbit smartwatch investigation: Fitbit's Apple Watch rival is coming

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, who confirmed that apps are no mere "added extra" for Fitbit. It's going all-in because it wants to build a smartwatch to rival the Apple Watch.

Read next: What we want to see from the Fitbit smartwatch apps

"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]," they said. "We were asking why are they buying us? Their answers: SDKs and apps and developers."

In recent months we'd heard that Fitbit was struggling in getting its app store running. One report claimed that the store would not be ready in time for the smartwatch's autumn launch, and it would instead be released with some custom-made apps, like the Blaze, with a full-blown app store to follow later. This was backed by a Bloomberg report that also claimed the app store had hit delays. Fitbit responded to the report that "any claims that the developer program is struggling is false."

Now CEO James Park has confirmed that the app store will be ready in time, and Fitbit is using a software development kit based on the software it acquired from Pebble. This SDK will, Park said, make it easier to build apps. However, at launch there will be a handful of third-party apps available in an "app gallery" within the companion app. Then, after launch, the SDK will roll out to every other developer.

Interestingly, George Jijiashvili, an analyst specialising in wearable tech at CCS Insight, sees potential problems here. "By going down the smartwatch/app ecosystem route," he told Wareable, "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."

Back to 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 has reportedly not been able to secure an attempted partnership with Spotify. Word is 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.

"All we can say at this point is that music is a really important part of the fitness experience, and you'll see functionality related to that," Park said in a recent interview with The Verge. "When it comes to the music industry, it's not just technical. There are business issues as well when it comes to offline playback."

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

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."

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.

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

"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. The latest report from Bloomberg claims Fitbit is letting developers write in JavaScript to make it easier to build apps, although the same report says that the company has "done little" to maintain a relationship with the Pebble developer community.

"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," they 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 with a four day battery life akin to the Blaze – since confirmed by the leaked images. Now, that's still 2–3 days better than most smartwatches so hold fire on the scoffing, and it also lines up with Park saying in May 2017 that the smartwatch would have "long battery life."

The rumours are that the watch will have an aluminium unibody casing, again in line with what we can see in the pics, 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. 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. The images don't give much away aside from the fact it will indeed be a colour display.

"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," said our Pebble insider. "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's Apple Watch rival is coming

Interacting with the display is another consideration, especially on a fitness-focused device, so Fitbit needs to make sure it can withstand some sweaty finger contact. It's not clear whether this is a touchscreen or not; the pause button in the leaked images suggests so but there's also two textured buttons on the side which may function like the old Pebble buttons.

There's also a good chance that Fitbit probably won't fit 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," said one of our sources familiar with the acquisition. "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, but won't be standalone

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.

What we now know for sure is that it won't have cellular, as confirmed by James Park himself to the FT. He said he felt this functionality was still "struggling for a use case", so expect the Fitbit smartwatch to be paired to your phone or Wi-Fi for connectivity.

Likely: Stylish but not too stylish

Well, we now know what it looks like – though bear in mind this might not be the final design. It's very Blaze-like, isn't it? 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. While we're not bowled over by those pics, we reckon a few tweaks to the Blaze design could make it more of a looker in real life, so here's hoping.

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. The images show heart rate tracking and James Park recently confirmed (in the earlier-mentioned interview with the FT) it will have not just GPS, but more precise GPS than we've seen from the company before. He also promised more biometric sensors, so start your guesses on what else the watch may be able to track.

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. Sadly, Jawbone is no longer functioning as a consumer wearable company, but we can understand why Fitbit might have been interested in its software 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." Word was that it was struggling with waterproofing too, but Park recently confirmed the waterproof design, so we assume it's on track. After all, 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.

Fitbit smartwatch investigation: Fitbit's Apple Watch rival is coming

Another interesting point is that Fitbit is working on some Bluetooth sports earphones (leaked image above) that will launch alongside the watch. The earphones are to be more Beats in design than, say, the Bragi Dash Pro or Apple AirPods.

Fitbit smartwatch release date and launch

So when is the Fitbit smartwatch going to launch? Initial speculation had suggested the wearable was supposed to launch back in the spring, but CEO James Park has since confirmed that it is on track for "delivery ahead of the holiday season". That might suggest an announcement will happen over the coming months before arriving just in time to nestle underneath the Christmas tree.

A big opportunity

In a line, it's worth Fitbit acknowledging that the Apple Watch already exists so we don't need another one. Based on everything we've seen, Fitbit will end up with a sporty Apple Watch rival that could sell well if the GPS, waterproofing and four day battery life come through.

More recently, Park said Fitbit's still-not-official smartwatch would come with Fitbit's "own unique perspective" and feature "long battery life, coupled with an amazing interactive experience, and one of the largest fitness social networks." The company definitely wants to lean into what it's good at.

The Series 2 is 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."

In the latest Bloomberg report, several members of the team are cited as considering the watch to be sub-standard and, according to the report, "a project the company should never have embarked on". One is quoted as saying: "They're building something that people internally never believed in. They look reactionary not strategic."

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.

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.




15 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.

  • aed says:

    IMHO, the only way that fitbit can retain and build on their customers is to improve the battery life and quality of the build.

    I don't want a smartwatch replicating phone activity on my wrist, I want a good looking, tough, watch with all the health functions of a fit bit. 

    I'd like notifications of email/sms/messaging apps and maybe the weather but no more. Anything else is a waste of time and battery.

    How about a smaller casio gshock/protrek type health device with everything that's on a fitbit, but with the battery life of a pebble?

    I was looking at the data on the fitbit app yesterday and I could see my weight loss over time, I could see how I was sleeping better than I have been, I was conscious that I need to do more steps in a day. I'm aware, that I'm not logging water/food as I should. 

    This is what fitbit is about and what it should concentrate on. Forget chasing apple, you'll just lose customers ... Stick to what you're good at. 

    • JonDavid says:

      I totally agree. Don't try to just be an apple knockoff. I've owed different smart watches over the years (Sony being my first) and the Pebble was hands down the best. I was hoping Fitbit would take the best of themselves and the best of Pebble and create the ultimate smart watch. I agree that I have no interest in a battery draining "phone" on my wrist. Give me everything the Blaze does plus the ability to reply back to text messages via voice like my Pebble Time, toss in a huge choice of watchfaces and I'm a loyal Fitbit customer for years to come. Their app is wonderful for health tracking. Build on what you have. Learn from Pebble and leave Apple to Apple. 

      • markdg10 says:

        JonDavid, agree with everything you said.  Love my Pebble but at a $300 price tag for a new Fitbit compared to the Pebble leaves me out.  Don't think I would pay that out of the box nor do I believe other Pebblers would.

        M

    • datalore says:

      I think you're right on the money. Don't try to out apple apple. Fitbit needs to create the best watch/fitness tracker they can. If this watch gets 4 days of battery life and is waterproof and tracks all my health metrics I'll buy it in a heartbeat. 

      • markdg10 says:

        For $300??  I think Fitbit really needs to rethink their price point.

        M

  • markdg10 says:

    Been a Pebble User for about 2 years.  Love everything about the Pebble especially the apps, battery life and waterproof.  Pebble has quite a following.  Fitbit should not mess with what's been successful.  Have the basics like the Pebble and add the bells and whistles that Fitbit deems are necessary (i.e Health, heart rate monitor cash pay, Music, etc..) but and a big but is don't price it out of the market.  At a $300 price tag i don't think I would go for it.  Be smart Fitbit and price it correctly for the market place.

    M

    • datalore says:

      I agree. The truth is trying to compete with Apple is just foolish. Make the best watch/tracker hybrid you can and stick to what you're good at. I want fitbit to make it, but the reality is if they can't manufacture a waterproof smartwatch in 2017 they don't deserve to survive. If this watch gets 4 days of battery life and keeps the health tracking I'll buy it; if it isn't waterproof I'm moving over to garmin. I love the fitbit app and think it's the best in the business, but they need to catch up. 

  • omi says:

    If fitbit adds a golf yardage app to this new device and markets to this sport at launch, investors will be extremely satisfied with their 4th quarter results. No other golf watch would be able to compete with the battery life this wearable has to offer at its price point and the features it will provide. 

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