The biggest name in wearables is facing the most challenging period in its 10-year history.
Fitbit has had a rough go in 2017, starting with lousy financials and a round of layoffs that eliminated six percent of its staff. The struggle continued later in the year when Fitbit as the top wearable maker in the world for the first time, thanks the Apple Watch.
Fitbit isn’t one to shrink from a fight, though — that’s the whole point of being an active, fitness-first operation, right? The company has put the wheels in motion to find new success, as many think the market for wearable gadgets has rebounded, and it’s projected to double by 2021.
New releases, new results?
Fitbit’s latest round of products hitting the market this October is the first step. The company is breaking ground with its hardware, entering two entirely new segments instead of just doubling down on the same old formula of wrist-based fitness bands.
The big news is the Ionic, Fitbit’s first true smartwatch (the company released the Blaze back in 2015, which was technically a smartwatch, but was focused more on fitness than smarts). It’s a step forward for the company, but it comes at a time when many consumers — and even manufacturers — are questioning the utility of smartwatches completely.
Don’t count Fitbit CEO James Park among the doubters. While he acknowledges smartwatches have faced some tough times lately, he’s confident Fitbit has the right formula to make a successful one.
“What we feel will unlock the next phase of growth in the category is actually the killer app,” he told me at an event Fitbit threw for the press to announce its new products. “We feel the killer app is around health and fitness. That positions us, Fitbit, really well because that’s been the focus of the company since the very beginning.”
Park said the best way for Fitbit to find success with Ionic will be to avoid some of the feature bloat that’s afflicted other smartwatches. Instead the Ionic’s specialty is what he calls “general focus features” like smart notifications and NFC payments, to go along with Fitbit’s signature fitness-tracking functions.
The same philosophy applies to the company’s wider hardware strategy. Ionic launches in October alongside the Flyer, a set of wireless exercise headphones. The Flyer will be the first product in the Fitbit line without some kind of sensor and fitness tracking function, which makes it a somewhat of a surprise.
Park said the Flyer isn’t signaling a shift toward more general gadgets, however. Fitbit wanted to complement the Ionic’s built-in music functions, so the company decided to take advantage of the opportunity to create the headphones.
Putting the ‘smart’ in smartwatch
Fitbit knew exactly which features it wanted to include in Ionic, namely the company’s proprietary sensor package, heart rate monitor, infrared and optical sensors for blood oxygen levels (AKA SpO2), and GPS for fitness-first functionality in a compact package.
Once Park’s team knew what it wanted, hardware-wise, it had two choices: Make their own, or latch on to the compromising experience that is Google’s Android Wear platform. Park said Android Wear wasn’t really an option for Ionic, though, because he didn’t think its hardware requirements would mesh with Fitbit’s plans.
The only way for Fitbit to make its own watch on its own terms was to build its own, along with its own OS — so that’s exactly what the company did.
Fitbit didn’t construct the system from the ground up, however. The company had an ace in its back pocket: Pebble, the Kickstarter darling turned DIY smartwatch ecosystem whose assets Fitbit scooped up at the end of 2016.
The new OS was built based on Pebble’s open platform. Thomas Sarlandie, the company’s director of software engineering, believes fitness apps might be the one effective use case for on-wrist apps, which is why Fitbit is prepping for a robust App Gallery. He said the developer community won’t be pressured into making only fitness-focused apps, but with an SDK that gives them access to all of the device’s sensors, Fitbit predicts most will skew in that direction.
I had a chance to toy around with the platform during the prelaunch event. I have absolutely no coding experience, but I was still able to pick up the basics quickly to create my own watch face.
The Ionic will launch with a few top-line partner apps, like Starbucks, Strava, and Pandora. Fitbit also provided some Pebble veterans access to the SDK ahead of the launch, so the App Gallery will launch with some community apps, too.
Fitbit is also planning to leveraging its health tracking capabilities for a wide range of wellness monitoring beyond just logging daily steps. The company will home in on conditions that stem from poor heart health, chronic disease, stress, well-being, and more specifically, sleep apnea.
The brand’s heart rate sensor and new SpO2 reading capability, which comes via the Ionic’s new infrared and optical sensors will allow wearers to keep close tabs on new aspects of their health. Fitbit claims they might help detect serious medical conditions before they cause too much damage.
Fitbit’s heart rate monitor is already proving itself invaluable. According to a TIME report, readings from a device with the PurePulse sensor was able to help doctors treating a patient suffering from atrial fibrillation (a-fib). The Apple Watch has had some success with this type of functionality already, although the heavy lifting comes from the algorithms found in an app called Cardiogram.
Park compares Fitbit’s future plans in the healthcare space with the maintenance systems found in cars and airplanes.
“You can almost think of wearables in the future as almost like a check engine light for your body, where the detection of health conditions isn’t necessarily upfront and center, but it is something that’s always on continually,” he said. “If there’s something wrong, it lets you know, and lets you know what steps to take next, whether it’s to change your behavior or contact your doctor.”
Finding some new teammates
Fitbit has some new partnerships that could potentially raise its profile even higher in the most profitable areas in the sports world.
The NBA recently announced that it will be one of just seven companies taking part in the league’s new sponsorship program, which places the Fitbit logo on Minnesota Timberwolves jerseys starting next basketball season. The new initiative marks the first time a major American professional sport has allowed corporate sponsors real estate on the previously sacred uniforms — so Fitbit’s inclusion is a big deal.
But another move in the wider sports industry could be even more valuable.
The company has entered a multi-year strategic partnership with German sportswear and apparel giant Adidas, according to Daniel Shaw, one of Fitbit’s Senior Product Marketing Managers.
The first fruit of the deal will drop early next year, when the pair will debut a special Adidas edition of the Ionic preloaded with Adidas workout programs.
“We’re just looking for opportunities to see where it makes sense for them to bring their expertise and us to bring our expertise to come up with solutions for athletes,” Shaw said when I asked him what’s coming out of the deal. “We wanted to put 1 and 1 together to make 5, and hopefully 10.”
Adidas just took a big chunk of market share from industry leader Nike, which was believed to be untouchable. The paring with Fitbit draws an interesting line between the rivals, too: Fitbit’s biggest smartwatch competitor, Apple, has already partnered with Nike for the Apple Watch Nike+ edition.
Fitbit’s strategies could attract a bigger audience, but remember: The company is staking its success on a $300 smartwatch, the type of product which has led to success for only one brand, Apple. The rapid growth projected for the segment is expected to be driven by watches, however, so there could be something here if users are ready to embrace the new platform and everything else Fitbit has to offer.