Can Fitbit survive Google?

Google is buying Fitbit, which previously bought Pebble, and if my Twitter feed is any indication, not everyone is happy about it. Small, beloved hardware companies that are struggling to survive on their own being gobbled up by the big tech titans is almost becoming a cliche. But it's also affecting a lot of customers. Namely, us. So, let's break it down.

First, shout out to the biz pubs for keeping their headlines on this real:

  • Google buys Fitbit for 2.1 Billion to Boost Hardware
  • Google to Buy Fitbit, Amping Up Wearables Race

Boosting! Amping up! And the Apple headlines from last week?

  • Apple Revamping Smart Home Efforts After Falling Behind Amazon, Google
  • Apple Bets on New $249 AirPods Pro Amid Weak iPhone Sales

Falling! Weak!

C'mon friends, you're not even trying to hide it!

Anyway, in a blog post, Google's Rick Osterloh, Senior Vice President, Devices & Services said:

Over the years, Google has made progress with partners in this space with Wear OS and Google Fit, but we see an opportunity to invest even more in Wear OS as well as introduce Made by Google wearable devices into the market. Fitbit has been a true pioneer in the industry and has created engaging products, experiences and a vibrant community of users. By working closely with Fitbit's team of experts, and bringing together the best AI, software and hardware, we can help spur innovation in wearables and build products to benefit even more people around the world.

In a second blog post Sameer Samat, Vice President, Product Management, Android, Google Play & Wear OS;

We're looking forward to collaborating with Fitbit to bring the best of our smartwatch platforms and health applications together, and enabling our partners to build the next generation of wearables. 

In other words, Google was never able to translate the success of Android for phones into Android for other product categories. Not tablets. Not watches. Neither Android Wear nor Wear OS ever helped create any truly compelling or competitive products to really catch on with consumers.

That's in stark contrast to the Apple Watch, which has been increasingly successful building off the iPhone and iOS platform.

Samsung, one of the biggest and most successful Android phone vendors, though, eschewed Android for their own Tizen platform instead.

Likewise Fitbit, which also built its own OS and gained a devoted following… just not one big enough to actually sustain it as an independent company, unfortunately.

We can see that by the bargain basement price Google ended up paying — 2.1 billion, less than 2x earnings, where 3x is usually the baseline.

James Park, co-founder and CEO of Fitbit, in a more traditional press release:

Google is an ideal partner to advance our mission. With Google's resources and global platform, Fitbit will be able to accelerate innovation in the wearables category, scale faster, and make health even more accessible to everyone. I could not be more excited for what lies ahead.

Hardware, apologies for the cliche, is just hard. I think sometimes we get excited and hyperbolic when new products are announced, and companies try to Jedi-mind-trick us about how far they've come in such short a time.

But Google has struggled with hardware. As much as the market likes to criticize Apple for being bad at services, Apple services keep expanding, as do their profits from services.

Google, on the other hand, bought and had to fire sale off Motorola, keeping only the patents and the aforementioned Osterloh. Google Glass shattered in the market. The Pixel Phones have never sold well and been plagued by different hardware issues over the years. The terrifying Boston Dynamics zombi-bots came and went. They bought HTC's design team and while I really like the looks of the Pixel 4, it's unclear how well that team is assimilating into Google. The Pixel Slate was so panned so badly they canceled the entire category. The original Pixel Buds didn't take root and the new ones aren't slated until next year. And they never managed to release the long-rumored Pixel watch.

Even software is tough, much less ecosystem. Bugs are one thing but establishing platforms — well, there's never a guarantee. Just look at Microsoft with mobile.

And, yeah, Google with tablets and watches. Particularly watches where, they've bought technology from Fossil and now the entirety of Fitbit.

Sameer Samet said:

When we introduced Wear OS by Google (then called Android Wear) five years ago, wearable tech was pretty nascent. 

Five years ago, Apple announced the original Apple Watch and it went on sale the next spring.

Much like Google's initial reaction to the iPad was Honeycomb, which really helped nobody and nothing, the announcement of Android Wear just didn't have much there, there.

With Android for phones, Google was smart but also fortunate. There were a bunch of skilled phone makers on the market who knew how to make the hardware. Samsung, Motorola, HTC, and others. Google undercut Microsoft and took over the software part of the modular play.

With tablets, there was Tablet PC, but it was nowhere nearly as competitive or innovative a space until the iPad. With smartwatches, there was Microsoft's spot, Pebble, and precious little else, until Apple Watch.

At the silicon level, it was and remains even worse. Apple is on the S5 system-in-package already, and is evens stuffing H1 systems-in-package into our ears now with AirPods Pro, and Qualcomm has only managed to serve up some twice rehashed old phone chips with a co-processor. They have more on the way, but it's hard to see them being able to even afford to invest in wearable silicon when they have profit and loss on each chip — unlike Apple which worries only about the whole device — without a successful market. Chicken, meet egg.

So, will Google + Fitbit be able to do any better than Google was alone? Maybe. I'd dearly love for there to be real competition for the Apple Watch on the market.

Apple is good at competing with themselves. See the previous music player market and the current tablet and watch markets, which were and are essentially iPod, iPad, and Apple Watch markets. But they're always best when they're competing against strong competitors, and that's always best for us, the customers.

But, with Google, it's never just about the product. It's about the data.

And that's where the biggest challenge in all this lies. People who love Fitbit LOVE Fitbit. The company. Their products. And their community. And they may not share or transfer that love over to Google. They may even be suspicious about their data and Google's intentions towards it.

Osterloh, to his credit, seems to understand this, saying:

this is a big responsibility and we work hard to protect your information, put you in control and give you transparency about your data. Similar to our other products, with wearables, we will be transparent about the data we collect and why. We will never sell personal information to anyone. Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads. And we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move, or delete their data. 

Now, when Google talks about privacy, what they've been talking about to date is privacy from third parties and data retention with Google — giving you the ability to delete it once they've extracted all value from it. Which is totally not the same thing.

So, we'll have to wait and see how all of this is implemented.

Of course, Google doesn't sell anyone's personal information, it's way too valuable for that. And they don't have to run ads against all types of data either. A lot of it can be used to build the all-important algorithms that power everything internally.

So far, though, there are just too many questions and not enough answers. The end result some consumers will probably want to see, finally, is a Pixel Watch. Something that can help point the way forward for all of Google's Wear OS partners and kick-start a better, brighter computational watch world for everyone.

And for Google, it's to have a fleet of Watches out there, Pixel and otherwise, just collecting all the data they need to keep building that Star Trek computer they've always wanted to take from fiction and make fact.

And we, all of us, are going to have to very carefully navigate between their interests and hour, love for Fitbit and what Fitbit becomes.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.