Fitbit Co-Founder: Pixel Watch Won't Kill the Fitbit
In an exclusive interview with CNET, James Park discusses Fitbit's future now that Google has announced its first flagship Pixel smartwatch.
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
When Google acquired Fitbit in 2019, I couldn't help but wonder if we'd soon see a fusion of Wear OS and Fitbit into one device. Would Fitbit become the new face of Wear OS? Would a true Pixel watch emerge, fueled by Fitbit? The answer, it seems, is yes. Google's newly announced and long-expected Pixel Watch, arriving in the fall, looks to use Fitbit software to create Google's answer to the Apple Watch. It's one of a number of products Google unveiled at this year's developer-focused I/O conference.
Last year, Google and Fitbit began discussing how the next generation of Wear OS watches and Fitbit would blend. The Pixel Watch looks to be that fusion point. How Fitbit fits into Pixel Watch remains more of a mystery. Will the watch's sensors be the same as Fitbit's recent sensor-studded Sense and Charge 5 wearables? Will Fitbit's existing watch faces and apps move over? And is the Pixel Watch a model for how future Wear OS watches will all someday run Fitbit software, too?
James Park, VP, GM and co-founder of Fitbit, is now heading Google's wearables division, leading development of the Pixel Watch. In an exclusive conversation with CNET, he discussed the future of Fitbit beyond watches, how he sees the Pixel Watch changing what Fitbit does and what excites him about the future of fitness. I also asked him about VR.
Park confirmed there will still be more Fitbits, including trackers, coming in the future, and that Fitbit's Premium subscription service is still a big part of the Pixel Watch's functions. Park also suggested that sleep tracking and other Fitbit services will evolve to places off-wrist and off-watch.
The below interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
Where do you see the Pixel Watch factoring into Fitbit and its future plans?
At a high level, the mission of Fitbit still continues at Google: It's to help make everyone in the world healthier. The Pixel Watch is going to be part of a family of devices from Google and Fitbit that fits into different ranges of prices. So you can have super premium devices under the Pixel brand. And then we'll continue to have Fitbit devices at other prices as well.
Do you see Pixel Watch being the whole Fitbit experience from the get-go, when it debuts?
I'm a little bit limited in what I can say. But clearly, over time, we want to bring as much of the benefits of Fitbit to Pixel as we can. Rick [Osterloh] talked about the continuous heart rate tracking and sleep tracking, which is really important initially to the Pixel Watches. This is not a one and done: We're going to continue improving the software over time.
Do you see the Pixel Watch being [an indicator of] the future direction for Fitbit's watches?
I think the way it all works together is really about price and feature set. I see Pixel Watch as being for the user who wants LTE and all the advanced health and fitness features, but there's always going to be people for whom some of that stuff isn't necessarily important. For them, a tracker with the most advanced health capabilities is going to be the device that they want, which is our Charge device -- it has all the latest health sensors, is slim, and has long battery life. The great thing about combining Pixel and Fitbit is that we're able to collectively offer these different devices. People can pick and choose what's best for them.
Will your Sense and Versa watches continue to be part of the future?
Some of the advantages of Sense and Versa will always continue. Those devices and the trackers have always had incredible battery life; they've been at fairly accessible prices for people. Those will continue to be very important.
I was curious about Google Fit. Do you see Fitbit and Fit working together more on the Pixel Watch?
I think for now, Google Fit and the Fitbit app are just going to continue as is -- I don't think we want to interrupt the experience for either set of users. Both user groups, which are fairly substantial, like the app they are using for a variety of reasons. For now, we don't see any reason to change that.
I know that there's a commitment to keep the data separate. At the same time, I can see people wanting to have Google services be more aware of the Fitbit stuff.
I'm excited about at some point bringing some of the Google experiences onto Fitbit devices where, for instance, if you're a runner, you could have integrated directions coming from Google right on your wrist. That's just a small example of how the integration works. But it'll work both ways: Google experiences showing up on Fitbit devices, and obviously the Fitbit experience showing up on the Pixel Watch.
Some of those Google experiences, too, make me think of ambient technology, which Rick Osterloh often talks about. There's certainly been that in Google services, across devices. Do you see Fitbit extending even more beyond the watch and into other areas of the Google ecosystem? There's that Nest sleep tracking that popped up last year.
One change that happened for Fitbit, as we've gone into Google, is we see the health experience that we're creating well beyond just our device. We want to extend it to more surfaces. You see that with Pixel, you've seen that with Nest. We'll be looking at other opportunities that we can do that. It's part of our goal: How do we help hundreds of millions of people, or even a billion people, with their health? If it's just restricted to Fitbit devices, that's not going to happen.
My mind goes to Pixel Buds, or even possibly exercise equipment, connected TVs, there's so many things that Google does that feel like they could interact with Fitbit.
If you think far out ahead, and I'm not talking about any specific roadmap we have, you're right, the health experience can be extended to so many different things. Because if you think about someone's workout experience, health experience, they're using so many different devices. They're working in the gym, they're working out at home, they're working out outside. There's a lot of different places for this health experience to really manifest itself.
This is way beyond watch, but I look at VR fitness, gamified fitness, it's already sort of happening -- Meta linking with Apple Health, for example. It seems like there's a lot of opportunity for games and other types of ways that Fitbit can work.
Yeah, I think VR is interesting; obviously gaming and fitness has always been a logical combination. That was actually the inspiration for Fitbit, coming from the Nintendo Wii and using motion sensors to really get people more active, not just sitting on the couch. I think AR and VR are really cool opportunities for fitness. You already see cycling glasses today with projected steps and things like that, I know there's swimming goggles that are AR. As these devices get more sophisticated, actually more wearable for people, I think it's going to be really interesting in terms of what health and fitness features we can add on to them that really helps people out.
Speaking of services, do you see Fitbit Premium paid subscriptions still playing a big part of the Fitbit strategy with Pixel Watch?
We do. The way I've talked about in the past is I don't think that, from a business model perspective, health and fitness and an ad-supported model serve the best needs of the user. That's why we've made the commitment that the health and fitness data that we collect will never be shared with the Google ad systems. Premium will continue to be an important part of our strategy, because I think as people find value and they're willing to pay for it, that's great.
What do you hope to achieve most with this Pixel Watch?
It's got an amazing industrial design. The first element of wearables is creating that desirability, that excitement for people to wear it. I think we've pulled it off. The second step is, both in terms of Google smarts and the health and fitness experience, just making it seem naturally smooth and intuitive. The processing capability and graphics capability on these more advanced devices will be tremendous. I'm looking forward to super fluid interfaces. That's important, creating that ambient experience -- not just in computing, but to be a part of your life and not be a source of friction.
Will this show up as an app, or will it be a widget, or do you imagine it being kind of always there, living in the fabric of the watch?
It'll evolve over time. But what we can do now, as a combined company, we can make the experience way more integrated. I think it was more likely that the experience would have been disjointed as separate companies, just trying to negotiate how much of the experience can be put into clock faces ... but since there's one team doing the product now, the decision making on how integrated to make it is really, really easy.
When you mentioned AI, I think of a couple of things -- one would definitely be voice assistants, but also automatic recognition of routines or proactively suggesting things, maybe insights, or coaching, a proactive intelligence?
There is a benefit of a lot of Google experience and knowhow, especially machine learning, to be able to bring up these insights. One of the key things that users have asked us over the years is: I get a lot of benefit out of all this data, but what does it all mean? What should I be looking for? Can you be more proactive? I think there's a huge opportunity there as we apply a lot of the Google machine learning expertise to the data that we collect from our users.
Will current Fitbit watch faces and apps be able to dovetail with things on Wear OS? How would that work?
That's something that we're going to have to figure out over time. But we do know that watch faces are the thing people interact with most on these devices. We've built up a strong community of third party watch face makers, and it's been really amazing to see how creative they are. That's something I'd love to see continued in the future across all of our portfolio.
The back of the watch suggests a variety of sensors -- I know Fitbit already has ECG, stress sensing and temperature on its Sense and Charge 5 devices. Do you imagine the Pixel Watch's sensors will be consistent with the Fitbit family?
I can't talk about the exact sensors on the Pixel Watch, but our goal is to bring the most advanced sensors across the entire portfolio. Over time, the Pixel Watch will have the most advanced health sensors. And we'll be selective on how all those features come across the entire portfolio.
Cellular is a new opportunity for Fitbit too.
The cellular obviously helps with the smarts aspect of the watch and the communication capability. I think the cellular capability around health is still a new and emerging opportunity. That's something we're going to have to figure out over time: how do the watch and the phone coexist? If both of them have that capability, what makes sense being done on which device?
A lot of people use Fitbits with iPhones as well as Android. How is the Pixel Watch approaching that?
I can't speak exactly to the strategy on the Pixel Watch and iOS support, but for new Fitbit devices, we don't have any plans to stop supporting iOS users, it's really important for the Fitbit lineup. It's all about how do we help as many people as we can?
A lot of people look at Pixel Watch as a product, but also knowing how Google works in its landscape of hardware partners, Pixel devices can sometimes be like living reference devices, showing how platforms can change. There were plans for Fitbit to develop its own Wear OS watch, too. Is the Pixel Watch also a doorway to a whole new landscape of Wear OS watches with Fitbit?
I'd love to see the Fitbit experience on as many surfaces as possible. That's something I commented on earlier; people have so many different and diverse needs around their health goals. This is something I mentioned in the past as well, specifically around with Fitbit and what's planned for Wear OS devices. That's definitely something we're evaluating just because I think Wear OS is such a super capable operating system. So it's something that we want to evaluate pretty carefully.
So are there plans for Fitbit to also run on any additional Wear OS watches?
I think our thinking on that's going to evolve over time. Wear OS is a super powerful operating system, and it brings a lot of interesting capabilities. Not just on the smart side, but it allows us some interesting capabilities on the health and fitness side. That's something that we're clearly going to evaluate for the Fitbit lineup.
The sleep tracking part interests me. How do you see that working on Pixel Watch?
Sleep tracking is a super popular feature of what we do. I think the sleep experience will come across in multiple different forums. I think it's not just going to be on wearables -- we're going to deliver it on Pixel and it always be on the Fitbit watches, but sometimes people don't like to wear anything on their wrist when they go to sleep. That's where the Nest capability comes in. For sleep in particular, we're definitely thinking beyond the wearable to a lot of different surfaces where it's just more natural for people to have it in their life.
There's definitely a lot of interplay where a lot of sleep routines involve music, or sounds, or white noise and lighting and other important components. The home capabilities of Google can play a huge role there. Temperature as well, with Nest.
On the Pixel Watch, the opportunity for music and fitness paired with Fitbit seems big. The automatic switching of the Pixel Buds, and thinking about how people use music and fitness all the time. Where do you see those opportunities?
It's pretty massive. Google has an amazing property in YouTube Music as well. Very obviously, music and fitness go hand in hand. They're pretty inseparable. Over time, the team's going to figure out, what are the really amazing music experiences coupled with health and fitness? So that's definitely a pretty exciting area. It's not just the Pixel Buds. If you're doing a workout at home, music's an important component of that. Again, this multisurface capability really comes into play.
Companies have been also getting more into video workouts that pair with activities. Is that something you'll tap into too?
That's one of the most exciting things for me, coming into Google, whether it's Nest, or Pixel or YouTube, there's just so many ways that we can infuse health and fitness into these different areas, and do it a lot easier than we were able to before.