State of the user: How the Fitbit Ionic is sitting with people who bought it

How's Fitbit's smartwatch ecosystem coming along?
How users are finding the Fitbit Ionic
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The Fitbit Ionic is almost six months old. It marks a shift for Fitbit's strategy, moving toward fully featured smartwatches that will live alongside the fitness trackers it has built its reputation with.

A big part of that shift is the introduction of Fitbit's app store, which it calls a gallery. Developers can, for the first time, start building apps straight for Fitbit OS. There's also the debut of Fitbit Pay and music partnerships with Pandora and Deezer, and more to come.

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Fitbit is trying to build a foundation for its future, and that future needs a lot of users taking to its budding ecosystem to succeed. That begs the question: How are people taking to the Ionic, if at all? What are they liking, if they like anything, and are they actually using apps?

We found out.

Apps, apps, apps

State of the user: How people are using the Fitbit Ionic

When the Ionic first arrived, its app gallery was more like an app window. There were only four apps in total: Strava, Starbucks, Pandora and AccuWeather. Once the app store officially opened, more and more apps started making their way into the store.

Excited Fitbit users mostly wondered about the status of one app: Spotify. As they realized that Pandora was going to be the only real music choice, they began looking at filling other needs. Strava, Flipboard and The New York Times became popular options.

But it's still lacking in selection, according to users like Redditer Bucketheadmn. "When summer hits I'll use Strava quite a bit on my bike," he told us. "Beyond that I just keep checking the app store for more apps and see what I'd actually use."

If users want more apps… they need to let the devs know

Users and developers have recommended searching #Made4Fitbit on Twitter, which is a tag that new Fitbit OS developers are using – encouraged by Fitbit – to get some publicity for their apps. Developer Frank Martinez Jr is a former Pebble developer who has since jumped over to Fitbit. He says the Fitbit app situation is getting better, but that there are a couple of hurdles that need to be worked toward.

First, a lot of developers jumping over for Pebble are focusing on converting their apps for the Ionic and Fitbit OS. Once they do that, they have to figure out what kind of apps Ionic users actually want, which is difficult because the Fitbit user is considerably different from a Pebble user.

"If users want more apps, or specific apps, they need to let the devs know, either on Reddit or come to the Discord channel and talk to us directly," he tells us. "This is how it worked on the Pebble. Someone asked for something in a post and another dev would chime in and make it happen."

Martinez Jr. says if there are any apps he needs, he just builds them himself, which he says is a part of the "beauty of the platform."

What do they want?

State of the user: How people are using the Fitbit Ionic

What app experiences do Fitbit users actually want on their wrists? Well, hints can be taken from Fitbit's data on the App Gallery so far. The company says there are 117 apps and 231 clock faces.

However, it's the app situation that's a little more fuzzy. Top Fitbit apps on the Ionic include Today, Exercise, Weather, Alarms, Settings, Timer, Music, Coach and Relax. There's not a lot to extrapolate from there, as those are Fitbit's own built-in apps. Things get a little clearer when you see which third-party apps have been most downloaded.

I just keep checking the app store for more apps and see what I'd actually use

They are Starbucks, The New York Times, Hue Lights, Strava, Nest and Flipboard. So news, exercise and smart home. It's a bit of a potpourri, but it gives us a basic idea of what people are using.

By usage, the number one Ionic app is Flashlight. Then comes Leaderboard, Calculator, Treasure Trek, Altimeter, Calendar, Think Fast, Calc, Map and 2048. So while people seem to be interested in downloading news apps and smart home apps, what they end up using the most are simple utilities like a flashlight or a calculator. Oh, and games that make working out a little more entertaining, like Treasure Trek.

If you were to only count health and fitness apps, the app most used by Ionic users right now is Fitbit's own Relax app. That's followed by Strava, Leaderboard (again), Pill Tracker, HRPacing, Water Logged, Hydrate, MySwimPro and Tennis.

It's a little more difficult to find any insightful trends in health and fitness, other than – surprise – people wanting to workout and keep track of metrics.

The dev circle of life

State of the user: How people are using the Fitbit Ionic, and what they want

Creating an app ecosystem is easier said than done. Not only does Fitbit have to do a lot of background work to court developers to its new platform, but developers have to actually figure out what users want and then build novel new things that relate to those needs. But that's only if there are even enough users to make developing on the platform worth it.

Fitbit has been ramping up work behind the scenes with developers to make it as easy as they can, and Martinez Jr. points out that he, as a developer, understands it's Fitbit's first time leading a platform like this.

"This has led to a number of new standards and practices across the board, which have been made less bumpy by the great work of their developer evangelist, Jon Barlow," he says. "Jon is no stranger here; he did the same for Pebble, and likewise, he does his best to help maintain and grow the dev community at Fitbit. The development platform itself has matured leaps and bounds from where it began, and truthfully, their first offering was impressive to say the least. Still, like all things new, it also had growing pains."

One of those growing pains, according to developer Tim (who didn't want to give his last name), is that Fitbit hasn't opened up many APIs to developers. "It would be nice if there were more apps that take native control over the device and allow for for unique push notifications, unique dialer app, and unique music control from syncing with a native app on the device like Pebble had," he says.

Workflow is another major pain point, says Ish Ot Jr, the leader of Rebble, the project looking to retain functionality for Pebble devices once Fitbit pulls the plug. Though he has lost interest in developing on the Ionic because it isn't as fun or compelling as Pebble, he says there were a couple things in the Fitbit OS workflow that need work.

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This includes workflows for tracking changes in software, which would end up requiring developers to download entire files to their computer in ZIP to manage, which Ish Ot Jr says is a "nightmare" and not "the workflow most developers are used to."

Another major sticking point is emulation. Sometimes, software development kits will include an emulator that allows developers to quickly and easily preview software before uploading it to a device for testing. Not in Fitbit OS.

"Another massive thing I actually reported on day one is there's no emulation, so the only way to develop for this thing is if you spend $300 on a watch," Ish Ot Jr says. He points out that there are awesome, impressive things in Fitbit's development system, like how devs can build watch faces in five minutes with little technical knowledge. However, he says the company still has "a long way to go."

One of the exciting things about this new opportunity is having that much larger of an audience.

For developers who have jumped over from the Pebble ecosystem, one growing pain is adjusting to the needs of Fitbit users, which differ from the needs of Pebble users. For example, as Tim notes, Pebble users were more interested in smartwatch functions. They wanted notifications and unique watch faces. Fitbit users, for the most part, are more interested in fitness, and developers porting things over – or looking to develop new apps or watch faces – need to consider that.

There's also the presence of health data in Fitbit's ecosystem, as well as a more consumer market compared to Pebble, says Ish Ot Jr. And then there are the hardware differences. Pebbles don't have touchscreen and instead rely on hardware buttons, which means developers have to learn new user interaction methods in addition to catering to a non-geeky audience, Ish Ot Jr points out.

Despite the early growing pains for Fitbit OS and the Ionic, Ish Ot Jr says there is a compelling argument for developers to sign up – even if they're former Pebble developers. Pebble, he says, only sold about a million or two million devices totally – Fitbit has the potential to do much more than that.

"One of the exciting things about this new opportunity is having that much larger of an audience. That's a good argument as to why you'd want to try."

The simple things

State of the user: How people are using the Fitbit Ionic, and what they want

So the app situation for Fitbit OS and the Ionic in particular is in a bit of a catch-22, as is often the way. It needs users to give developers more incentive to build great apps, but users won't download apps until there are good ones. So what's a company looking to break into the world of smartwatches to do?

Well, it has to lean on the design of the actual product – and that yields some good news and bad news. The bad news is that the Fitbit Ionic looks the way it does. It's not the most attractive wearable in the world, but the worst part is that it comes in one size, and that size is big.

On Fitbit's own community forums forums, there are several threads filled with women complaining that the Ionic seems too big for their wrists, and that they're hesitant to purchase it. Other female users say they went ahead and purchased Ionics, but returned them after seeing how big the device is on the wrist.

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While not every woman or person with smaller wrist will hesitate at the Ionic's size, its 48mm height – angled bezels included – puts it in the territory of the Garmin Fenix 5. Consider for a moment that most smartwatches aimed at women sit at around 38mm.

Making a device that's appealing to all women is extremely important for Fitbit. According to a Hitwise report from February 2017, more women purchase Fitbits than men, 72% to 27%. While we still don't know how many Ionics Fitbit has sold, we do know that it looks like it isn't selling amazingly well.

There is good news though: the Ionic comes with several features the design enables, making it a must-own device for a number of people. Tim, for example, points out that its nearly week-long battery life was a big influence in his purchase of the Ionic. And really, battery life seems to be a primary motivator for a number of people.

That included someone who switched from an Apple Watch to Ionic because of its sleep tracking ability (an ability that the Watch can't yet meet because of its one-day battery life). The other draw is Fitbit itself, which has been at the fitness game longer than Apple has, which comes with some advantages.

Fitbit has slowly built up its companion app into a one-stop shop (save for Fitbit Coach). You get your sleep data, you get your workout data, you get social features, you get coaching. Everything is there, and everything is easy to understand and use.

Apple's one-two punch of Health and Activity don't measure up. Health is still a dumping place for all your health data, but it can be convoluted for an average user to browse through. Activity is easy to understand, but it only stores data for your activities, and won't include things like water or food or even sleep. There are some basic social features, like accomplishments and sharing, but it's not to the level of Fitbit's social game. Apple will eventually address these things, but it'll take time – time which Fitbit has invested already.

For some users, it's important that the Ionic delivers as a fitness device. Bucketheadmn is one of the users who says it accomplishes this and – despite the app situation – it makes the Ionic great. "It has met all expectations as a fitness tracker first and a smartwatch second."

So while the app situation isn't great yet, and the lack of better music options is a sore point for many users, it's the simple things that have attracted users to the Ionic – should it fit their wrist. Simple things that include battery life and a fitness-first focus. These things aren't as sexy as an app store, but if Fitbit is on its way to building a true ecosystem, they are the things that'll help it get there.