A Google Fitbit means new possibilities and questions for the smartwatch
Commentary: Google's Fitbit acquisition will lead to a new Google watch on the horizon. But will Fitbit users get their sensitive data pulled into a bigger ecosystem?
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
ExpertiseVR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tabletsCredentials
Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
The expected thing happened: Google is acquiring Fitbit for $2.1 billion. What this all means, well... depends on who you are. Fitbit? Google? The wearer of a Fitbit or a Wear OS watch? Google's hardware head, Rick Osterloh, confirmed the news Friday morning and also directly confirmed that there are Made by Google wearables to come.
Having reviewed many, many Fitbits, including the just-released Fitbit Versa 2, and having worn many Wear OS watches, I have thoughts on where this is going. And why it's happening.
Google's Pixel watch gets a killer fitness platform
Maybe forget about calling it a Pixel watch, and just call it a Fitbit?
So many watches, powered by Fitbit
Fitbit is about data. The company's years-long collecting of steps, sleep, weight, heart rate and more builds databases that turn into insights, demographic observations and a lot more for the company.
That data will belong to Google now. How that gets handled, well, we don't know yet. But the more devices that collect data, the better the data is. Fitbit has a lot of fitness trackers, but Google has dozens and dozens of Wear OS watches, including tons from Fossil Group.
Now imagine all those watches, saying "powered by Fitbit," and funneling into one database.
Wear OS gets its brand recognition
Google tried to expand its footprint by partnering with traditional watch brands like Fossil, but that didn't necessarily make more people aware of Wear OS. Fossil makes plenty of smartwatches, but many of its smartwatches look just like regular watches.
Fitbit, however, is a known quantity. People say "Fitbit" instead of "fitness tracker." Fitbit was a top 5 wearable company this year. Maybe Google should keep Fitbit as a product name, and get rid of the name Wear OS.
Gartner analyst and Senior Director Alan Antin sees some advantages to Fitbit already being in an FDA clearance fast track program, but adds that Google's parent company, Alphabet, "already had something like this going with Verily and Project Baseline. I don't know that they added a ton there."
Did I mention data?
I remember attending Fitbit's Versa 2 event late this summer and being reminded of Fitbit's massive amount of collected data. Fitbit's footprint in enterprise and health insurance and wellness programs is also massive. Let's assume Fitbit's existing hardware eventually gets replaced. It's the data and the subscribers to Fitbit's service that really matter. Fitbit today has over 28 million active users, according to the company. Fitbit's app has a lot of community features. If Google can find a way to harness all of that (and not make it creepy or invasive), that's a big kickstart to wherever Google's planning to go with wearables next.
"This is really more like a long term play. Fitbit has, because of tens of millions of users, quite a database of health information," says Gartner's Antin. "It instantly gets Google a big footprint."
"By buying Fitbit, Google is acquiring customers and data. I think it's a good move given Google has failed so far in wearables and Apple is so far ahead with [Apple] Watch," agrees analyst Patrick Moorhead, who also sees plenty of reason for consumer concern. "I think customers need to be asking the question about privacy and what Google is going to do with all of their personal health information."
"We'll also honor the privacy commitments that Fitbit has made. User privacy is very important to us as we provide user choice, control and data portability. We provide tools for users to control their data, including deletion and correction. Google has been a leader in providing users with the ability to export their data if they want and we'll be bringing Google's robust data security and portability standards to Fitbit," Dickinson said.
"I also think wearables are an important piece in ambient computing, which is another area where we saw Google's interest," says analyst Carolina Milanesi of Creative Strategies. Ambient has been Google's catchphrase for the past year, between emerging technologies like Jacquard and Soli and smart home solutions.
Google has had plans for deeper coaching and AI-driven guidance in health and fitness, and this is what Google's next watch (or, Wear OS platform) was expected to introduce. Fitbit's Alexa-enabled Versa 2 tried to glom an assistant on, but it didn't weave it into the watch's core functions at all.
Fitbit's recent dip into subscription coaching services could open up another path. So far I haven't been wowed by Fitbit's Premium offerings, but Google could bring more expanded capabilities.
My biggest concern, and I'm sure Fitbit owners will agree, is where all this fitness and health data goes next. While Google is pledging privacy, it's a lot of very personal info that's suddenly living inside a much bigger ecosystem. It's unclear what will happen next. Gartner's Antin sees not much reason to panic: "These guys are super careful about anonymizing data. People don't need to worry."
The data, in the long run, may be more about coaching and subscription services. "I know there is a lot of talk about data and search and advertising, but I started to think that not everything Google will be doing in the future will be about that," says Milanesi. "Data will matter more for AI than ads and I expect Google to move more into paid services."
(Updated at 3:15pm ET with comments from Google on the acquisition)