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How does Fitbit find its way back to fitness and financial success?

I've wanted to love Fitbit since long before the Apple Watch: I bought my first tracker (a Fitbit Zip) in 2012, in theory to help me stay active while working from home — but secretly because I wanted to see if a step tracker could track roller derby. I quickly found my answer: not if you don't plan to kill it with sweat in a few practices.

After my unfortunate experience with the Zip, I stayed abreast of Fitbit's offerings at work but didn't have the spare cash to justify getting one for personal use. And, of course, once I got an Apple Watch, any Fitbit hardware lust I had faded into the distance.

Muddling the message

The thing is, I still love Fitbit's message and community; it was one of the first companies to really capitalize on everyday fitness, focusing on getting people moving daily without needing to be a gym nerd. Like the Tamagotchi craze of the 90s, Fitbit made tracking your steps an obsession — and one that you could share with your friends. Fitbit's excellent app made connecting to your smartphone a piece of cake and viewing your data even easier.

But Fitbit struggles with retention. If people don't get hooked on the social network aspect or find enough value in the data, it's not unusual to see a user's Fitbit find its way to an abandoned drawer after a few months. Unfortunately, in chasing the holy grail — a tracker with enough valuable data to continually keep users hooked — it appears that Fitbit has lost its focus.

I look at the product line now and my head hurts:

I can figure out from sizes that these accessories are organized by least expensive to most, but beyond that, if I'd never heard of the Fitbit line, I wouldn't have the least idea which product to buy.

The Zip kind of looks like a Tamagotchi, so I'd assume (as a stranger) that it would track steps; both the Blaze and Surge kind of look smartwatch-y; and the One, Flex 2, Alta, Alta HR, and Charge 2 are… all bands with various thicknesses that probably track things?

From a consumer perspective, the whole line feels disorganized and split: Instead of adding new features to existing products, Fitbit has slowly grown its product line to encompass a sextet of circular bands and two clip-on trackers, all of which have slightly different features.

From the main page alone, I don't know who these bands are for. I don't know why I should buy them as a fitness newbie or a pro. The dropdown menu is a bit better, categorizing each into their main features, but I still don't know why I'd get an Alta over a Flex 2.

It's not until the product's individual page that you really get a sense of each's strengths and weaknesses: the Alta has a screen and HRM-enhanced sleep tracking over the Flex's lack thereof; the Charge has GPS and fitness level tracking while the Alta HR just adds a heart rate sensor.

But even there, I look at Fitbit's lineup and I shake my head. The Flex, Alta, and Alta HR are separated in price by $49.95 ($79.95 if you go for the HR's special color editions). Are users so fickle that they need three different price points for tiny extra features (sleep tracking and heart rate)?

Company in crisis

As much as it pains me, a lot of balls in the air does not a professional juggler make. And Fitbit is a company made up of a lot of moving parts.

It's trying to compete in software with its Fitbit social app and Fitstar and Fitstar Yoga exercise programs. It targets casual fitness users with the Zip, One, Flex, and Alta. The Alta HR, Charge, and Surge offer advanced fitness tracking, while the Blaze offers a cheaper alternative to the fitness smartwatch. It's even supposedly working on Beats X- and Jaybird-style exercise headphones.

In theory, having many active products in development isn't necessarily a terrible thing; diversifying allows you to keep from ending up a one-hit wonder. But Fitbit's current line isn't so much trying to diversify as it is lacking focus. In trying to constantly capture the fitness narrative, the company has been repeatedly reinventing the wheel — building product after product from scratch without taking lessons and workflows from the previous model.

Sales flagged in 2016, despite the company's two newer high-end trackers, the $200 Blaze smartwatch and $150 Charge 2 (which iMore writer Luke Filipowicz previously described as "a fitness tracker on steroids"). Though Fitbit shipped over one million Blaze trackers a month after its official release, by the end of the year Fitbit had to let 107 employees go (opens in new tab) due to Q4 earnings losses.

I had hoped that this served as a wakeup call for Fitbit. At the end of March, Fitbit formally reorganized its leadership team (opens in new tab), with Chief Business Officer Woody Scal and EVP of Interactive Tim Roberts departing the company; both had joined the company in its early days. Roberts oversaw software and design, including many of Fitbit's social projects and third-party integrations.

The company also promoted Samir Kapoor to Senior Vice President of Device Engineering (from his former VP role), and hired a new EVP of Operations, Jeff Devine, to "[streamline] the integration between firmware, hardware and advanced R&D, with the goal of speeding up the company's product development process."

In addition, Fitbit announced that it was focusing its products around two major categories: Consumer Health and Fitness, and Enterprise Health (focusing on providing more accurate health tracking data to insurance companies and other health providers).

Whatever changes have been made internally, however, they have yet to affect the company's external presentation. Fitbit still has a lineup replete with different trackers. Spring 2017's Alta HR tracker replaced the older Charge HR, but both the original Alta and Charge 2 remain active products.

Additionally, Yahoo Finance reporter JP Mangalindan claims that the Fitbit Blaze's smartwatch successor continues to be riddled with delays, pushing launch back to Fall 2017 at the earliest.

"In one of the more final prototypes, the GPS wasn't working because the antennae wasn't in the right place," one of those sources told Yahoo Finance. "They had to go back to the drawing board to redesign the product so the GPS got a strong signal."Fitbit's design team also ran into problems making its smartwatch fully waterproof, even though that's a key design element for the Apple Watch Series 2. Indeed, it's still unclear as of the publication of this article whether the device will launch with the waterproof feature. If it isn't waterproof, critics may perceive it to be an inferior product to Apple's — especially given that the device will launch roughly a year after the Apple Watch Series 2.

Mangalindan also reports that the watch will have a similar build to the rather clunky Blaze, which — like many smartwatches before it — wasn't great for small wrists.

Fitbit's desire to continue to compete with the Apple Watch makes sense from a logical perspective: As one of the originators in the tracking space, the company sees the potential for both profit and adding more fitness professionals to its community. And this isn't the first time a Fitbit product has been delayed; almost all the company's trackers have had internal hardware hiccups that required dropping features before launch.

But in throwing so many resources at this one problem — an issue that Fitbit may not even be well-equipped to solve — the company is neglecting what made it popular in the first place: simple, easy, and fun fitness tracking.

The power of fun fitness

Like Apple, Fitbit's strongest asset is in its software. The Fitbit app is fun to use and builds community and camaraderie amongst your friends; at the end of 2016, Fitbit reported 23.2 million active users and claimed the title of the largest social fitness network in the world. Additionally, Fitbit's 2015 Fitstar acquisition provided the company with the resources to help its users train and see measurable improvement.

Between its scientific resources, social network, and training options, Fitbit has the potential to deliver users (and companies) with smart, specific data that truly helps them improve their lives. But for the company to be able to process that data, people either need to be using Fitbit hardware, or Fitbit needs to change its policies about hooking into third-party systems like the iPhone's Health app or the Apple Watch.

Ultimately, if the company plans to continue in the fitness space, it needs to distinguish itself from its competitors and prove what makes Fitbit a brand worth buying. The company may not currently see smaller startups like Misfit (opens in new tab) as a threat, but if they keep iterating while Fitbit stays stagnant, there will soon be a problem.

For instance, Misfit's newest tracker, the Flare, takes direct aim at the Zip, One, Flex, and Alta. Like Fitbit's entry-level tracker, it's just $59.99 and offers up to four months of battery life, but also offers a capacitive touch screen, a sleeker look on your wrist, water resistance to 50 meters, taggable activity types, and sleep tracking. It also offers limited functionality with your phone, letting you customize its side button to control devices or snap a photo on your phone. To get all of these features in a Fitbit, you'd need the $130 Alta. Worse, the $59.99 Zip looks positively archaic when compared to Misfit's newest tracker.

But anyone can make a new low-end tracker. What's most interesting is Misfit's software pitch: You can upgrade the water-resistant Flare to track your swimming laps with an in-app purchase. On its own, it's a tiny gimmick, but in the larger scheme of the world, in-app purchases and subscriptions have proven extremely successful at continuing to hook users into an ecosystem where they might otherwise have gotten bored or tired of the product.

Where does Fitbit go from here?

Right now, Fitbit still has the edge with its software and community, but that's not going to last if the company isn't careful.

There is so much potential in an interconnected device that helps you actively manage your fitness and health, but trackers have so far publicly focused on gamification and data fetishization — challenge your friends, track your steps. Fitbit has a ton of smart people working on making the software more powerful, and the company's venture into Enterprise Health makes me think executives are aware of the potential power of health data on a companywide scale. But the company isn't alone. Apple and Google have both put significant resources into building their health and fitness teams, hiring doctors and engineers to better understand how people can track their information, visualizing it effectively, and what parts are most important.

If Fitbit can't figure out how to balance its software, entry-level hardware, and smartwatch goals, it may well be relegated to a drawer — eclipsed by the Apple Watches, Gears, and even Flares of the fitness world.

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

20 Comments
  • I love my fitbit, however, I'm on my third because the battery dies out and cannot recharge. the last one I sent an email but it is now out of warranty :(
  • The problem is, eventually people will figure out that the 'fitness craze' is operating off the wrong kind of data. What Fitbit (or Apple Watch) measures (outside a few vertical applications) is relatively meaningless. Unless you're doing things right (both with exercise, but especially diet) the biggest impact is between some movement, and no movement. I suppose in that regard... for the person who formerly sat in a chair for 12 hours, being reminded to get up and walk around every hour or two will make *some* impact. Do we really need a Fitbit (or Apple Watch for that?!). However, if this is really about health, beyond the above, than a LOT more focus needs to be placed on correcting diet. And, then where exercise is concerned, it's doing a small to moderate amount of the *right* kind (which a Fitbit or Apple Watch is unlikely to help much with). 5-10 minutes of strength training or high-intensity exercise is more valuable to health than running a marathon each week. (In fact, the latter can actually be dangerous or detrimental.) Our bodies aren't simplistic calorie machines. The eat less, exercise more as a generality is a fallacy. It's about the right kind of exercise and hormones. If you really want to make a health impact, it's about education, lifestyle shift, and THEN a bit of the right kind of exercise. I suggest following this resource:
    http://theshawnstevensonmodel.com/podcasts/
    Since it's a podcast, you can even get that education in while you're doing your Fitbit steps. :)
  • I have a lot of apple products and have been thinking about the Apple Watch but its way too expensive for what I needed. I'm just getting back into being active and needed something simple to track my heart and steps. The Alta HR just came out, so I got that and I've been very happy with it. The battery last me for a week and I enjoy the sleep tracking as well done with the app. It does just enough for what I need. I didn't need all the Apple Watch does or its short battery life. The Alta HR is small and light and I often have to check my wrist to see if I'm still waring it. Since it feels like its not there. The Alta HR is helping me. I haven't been active in 3 years or hardly on my feet due to health problems. So I want to see how my heart is doing. The Alta HR tracks my heart all day and night. I am grateful for this tool and it is helpful to me. Its just what I needed.
  • Fitbit may suffer from what I call "first mover disadvantage", similar to MySpace and Yahoo.
    Also, from what I've seen tech in sports holds great promise, but remains fragmented. As fitbit tries to grow, each segment will be crowded leaving little room for attractive margins and growth.
  • FitBit lost a lost of credence when the Charge models were shabbily built and fell apart after a few months. Even the Charge HR that replaced it suffered from the same issues. It was cheerfully replaced by Fitbit after 6 months- the FIRST time, but since they clock the warranty from ORIGINAL pair date, when the second one fell apart 7 months after that, it was now out of warranty. I complained and reminded them that the wristband issue was a KNOWN problem for quite awhile and I would be taking our business elsewhere in future. Surprisingly, they "reconsidered" their position and is now sending a THIRD device. The glut of models can't help either with quality control since they're trying to get the latest out there before they might be ready and fully tested. US car makers had the same problems in the past. Too many models and combinations of equipment almost doomed any chance at quality.
  • I've owned several Fitbit devices and IMOP they suck. Nothing but synching issues and broken bands.
    All they have is name recognition.
  • I want Fitbit to be successful or at least to stick around for a long time. They have amazing software, great community, and even better stats to keep you motivated. Can't say the same about the hardware. Their Charge trackers are awful as the bands don't last long enough. I switched to the Blaze now and like it a lot. Surely it lags far behind Apple Watch, but for what I want (battery life and very detailed stats, including amazing sleep stats) these products don't even compare. Not really interested in Apple Watch. Not into fashion. I'm interested in functionality.
  • UV exposure tracking would be a good move. As Spring moves towards Summer people who spend a lot of time in offices are going to go out in to the sun and get sunburned. A fitness tracker that knows how much UV radiation you've been exposed to and warns you would be interesting. I saw that withings is tracking oxygen level with one of their devices. Another device maker tracks respiration rate. I am not sure that community is the biggest seller for fitbit. When you rock climb, cycle, swim or practice other sports Fitbit does not know unless you use the app and tell it. It's a shame that none or at least most devices are not waterproof. I upgraded from one device to another because I wanted to track floors climbed and then I wanted to update because I wanted to track sleep. Fitbit could expand their community reach by allowing people to track steps via mobile phones. They're missing out on a larger user base.
  • How can you talk about Fitbit without asking where their acquisition of Pebble fits in?
  • My thoughts exactly!
  • Agreed. I was waiting for my Pebble Time 2 to arrive when Fitbit snatched them up. The dropped the the Pebble hardware which real shame. The Pebble 2 and Time 2 were real smartwatch/fitness combo that put the Blaze to shame. Waterproof, heart rate monitor, 10 day battery life. The Pebble worked with Apple and Android. Fitbit could have integrated the Pebble with their phone apps and released them under the FitBit brand and we wouldn't be reading this article.
  • "How does Fitbit find its way back to fitness and financial success?" Simple answer...it doesn't. It is what I call drawer tech. Total fad and stupid. After initial excitement wears off, these are found in a drawer years later without charger and no way to hook up. Data they produce is mostly useless. Eat right and workout. Not hard to figure it out. I still can't believe people fall for and pay for this gimmicky BS.
  • I have a Charge HR and the quality is simply horrible. I found out on the discussion group I am not the only one: a flood of complains. The band lasts like 6 months and breaks, among other problems. Makes most users run away from the brand. The software and app are OK but quality...
  • Honestly I don't have anything against Fitbit and some of their trackers are kind of cute. But when it comes to utility, most of their products fall flat - except their ageing original Charge. However for me Charge is too boring .I have waited eagerly for Blaze, and kind of liked it when it announced. But I was disappointed by the lack of GPS and 'real' water resistance. Same is the case for Charge 2. Now I use a Garmn Vivosmart HR Plus for daily use and Vivoactive HR whenever doing some serious activity. I would like a tracker from FitBit if it is 1. Seriously waterproof
    2. GPS enabled.
    3. Count stairs climbed.
    4. Counting less 'false' steps ( counting car gear changes as steps).
    5. Reasonably sturdy. I have had a look at fitbit appication, and really liked the simplicity of it. So, please Fitbit. Make use of the expertise when you acquired Pebble and produce a kick-*** fitness tracker.
  • Devices don't help people get healthier, smarter or better looking.
  • I think that Fitbit story would resemble the rise and fall of many other companies that were swallowed by Apple & Google giants and their incredible capacity of spreading their tentacles to areas that compliment or enrich their business. Previous examples were Palm (hand held devices), Nokia (mobile phones) or, maybe accidentally and much more surprisingly, Kodak. Another example could be Spotify, in a near future. Apple and Google are now including in their mobile ecosystems frameworks to collect and use health data, and many manufacturers are building devices to integrate with these frameworks, which make Fitbit competitive position weak, not only in its software proposition, but also in the hardware (big companies are now in the health game such as Garmin, Samsung and Apple). The golden days are over for this company.
  • I honestly think fitbit would be best off being bought by Apple or Google. Either that or make their software compatible with the Apple Watch or Android Wear. They have a huge user base, if they could keep people using their software, that has to be better than this downward spiral. Fitbit's hardware is either one dimensional, exercise tracking only, or, is a poor excuse for a smartwatch. I want something that ticks all the boxes. The Apple Watch does it. I use the watch for its basic notifications and then use runtastic for my fitness tracking. I would much prefer using fit bit software though, as I think its much better, but not good enough for me to wear two devices. There is only so much "share of wrist" and Fitbit has lost its relevance.
  • FWIW, I still love my Fitbit One and I wear it clipped to my shirt or in a pocket, despite wearing an Apple Watch. Why? Because I do a lot of my walking (an hour or more a day) at a treadmill desk, and my wrist is steady enough that I don't get 'credit' for a bunch of my steps... But the Fitbit gets them all! Also because the Fitbit, unlike the Apple Watch, has a good handle on 'gamification', comparing my 7-day average step count with my (1-2 dozen) Fitbit friends; supporting "step challenges" for a workweek, a day, a weekend, etc. As for product quality... I bought my Fitbit One back in November 2012 and I'm still wearing it, though it DOES appear to be dying - it won't sync with my phone or iPad until I reboot it, for a few days this week... And when it gets into that state, it drains the battery in 9-10 hours. Frustrating. But I ordered a new one on Ebay and it'll be here early next week... :)
  • I have had the Charge2 for around 4 months, and I have to say I like it a lot. I got it on sale ($109 vs $149), which was a plus! I did not want to spend big bucks on the AppleWatch- which for me is too big, too expensive, and does more than I care to do with my "watch". With the Charge2, I get fitness info, and more. I love the notifications from my text and phone, so I don't have to take my phone out to see who is calling, and can quickly ready most texts to decide if I need to dig out my phone to respond. The silent alarms are a gentle way of waking up (although if I have to be up really early, I do set a separate alarm for 5 minutes after the silent one goes off!), the reminders make me aware of how little I sometimes move while sitting at my desk, and the step tracking and calorie burning helps me stay on track every day. I am disappointed in the latest software/firmware release where they have been touting better sleep analysis for a couple of months, but it isn't actually available (even though their marketing materials say it is). That just frustrates current owners and causes potential new owners to give pause to purchasing the device. I hope they find a way to come back to success, as I think they have some good devices, and I like the price point for what you get.
  • Only 4 months? Then in about 3-4 months it will fall apart. Either the module with start pulling away from the band, or the strap will pull away from the display.