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
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."
That said, Park threw some shade at the Apple Watch last April: "I think it's a great product and Apple's a great company, but it's a product that probably does too much." We're also curious to see what Fitbit might do in terms of music. The Apple Watch has Apple Music and now an unofficial Spotify app for offline playback. Fitbit, however, has no music platform, and getting Spotify to build an official app for its smartwatch might prove difficult.
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."
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."
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
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."
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.
"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."
If Fitbit does go down this route, it could be missing a number of tricks. The first obviously is battery life – if the Fitbit smartwatch has a 1–2 day battery life, many people will not be happy. The second is the problem of a touchscreen used by fitness-focused customers who might be sweaty, surfing, wearing gloves… the list goes on. And it means that Fitbit probably won't be building a re-working of Pebble's nifty Timeline feature.
"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.
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.
What about fitness?
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.
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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