Like many of you, I’ve eagerly followed every big announcement and digested every little tidbit that emerged from the Google I / O 2021 developer conference like a kid on Christmas Eve. I love where the Android design language is going with Material You. I can’t wait to try out the new AR features in Google Maps, and my inner nerd is very excited to be keeping track of where Google’s AI and ML skills are going and developing my own conversations with Pluto (which is, by the way Not a planet).
However, the part of the opening speech that I was most interested in was the section on Wear OS (which is now apparently just called Wear). During this part of the presentation we learned of Google’s plans for the portable operating system and devices, but one was there was not Mentioned in the keynote or in the Wear Breakout section – the future of Fitbit trackers. I have feared the possible neglect or killing of Fitbits trackers since Google announced it would buy the company, and I hope my fears are exaggerated or misplaced.
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Wear things go
Google’s portable operating system started showing promise as Android Wear back in 2014 and was initially positively received by hardware OEMs such as LG, Motorola, and Samsung. But after years of suffering from the vine and being renamed Wear OS, many in the tech community were just about ready to throw in the towel on the project.
At the I / O keynote in 2021, we learned that Wear OS not only has a new name – Wear – but that it is being reinvented, reinterpreted and redeveloped in collaboration with Samsung. The two companies plan to get the most out of Tizen and Wear OS, provide some usability and design updates for major Wear apps like YouTube Music, Google Maps and Google Pay, and integrate fitness features from Fitbit.
Perhaps even more exciting: Google confirmed that future Samsung Galaxy Watches will run the new Wear operating system, and Fitbit CEO James Park promised that the next premium Fitbit smartwatch would too. Then there are the rumors of a Google branded Pixel watch that would obviously also be running Wear.
I know I’ve worked hard on smartwatches in the past and given Google’s track record with wearables, I’m not the only one with my skepticism here. However, some of the key promises of this new Wear roadmap, like better first and third party apps, better UI navigation, and better battery life, would address almost all of the public criticisms of Google’s portable platform, including my own criticisms.
Still, I’d prefer to wear a fitness tracker like my Inspire 2 or the upcoming Luxe. But will that even be an option for me in a few years?
Got off track
I had the opportunity to speak to Neil Shah, Partner and Vice President of Research at Counterpoint Research, about Google’s plans for Fitbit in general and Fitbit trackers in particular. According to his analysis and research, the future for Fitbit trackers may not be as promising as I hope it will be.
Ideally, Google would like to position Fitbit as a more fitness-oriented wearables (in the future mainly with the new Wear operating system) and the Pixel Watch as a premium option with an emphasis on communication and lifestyle. We believe that by the end of next year most of the Fitbit portfolio should switch to Wear, which would get the most out of everything – Wear, Tizen and Fitbit OS.
When Fitbit launched its newest devices, including the Inspire 2 tracker, last fall, it cited an IDC report that fitness bands and trackers represented nearly 40% of the fitness wearable market. At the time, I took that (and the subsequent announcement of the Luxe) as a sign that the company was determined to keep creating fitness trackers in the future, but since those devices were not mentioned in the new announcements from the Wear platform, I got a little nervous about her future.
The recent growth in the fitness tracker has been driven by emerging economies, but experts do not expect this to continue.
“Fitness bands have been popular in developed markets … but many of those customers have / have switched to advanced smartwatches,” notes Shah. “Also, fitness bands have proliferated in cost-conscious, high-volume emerging markets where smartwatches weren’t affordable. The bands were mostly driven by players like Xiaomi, Realme and the long-tail of local brands that add to the total volume share of wearables.”
Shah told me that many / most of these emerging market customers have already started the transition to “simple smartwatches with a proprietary OS / TROS” which are much cheaper than more premium devices. He compared this transition in these markets to that of feature phones to smart feature phones to smartphones, and that in the future it is likely that “bands will continue to descend into the sub-$ 25 market”.
After the idea that the tracker market was shifting from Fitbit to other OEMs, Shah said he felt that the Xiaomis and Amazfits of the world are unlikely to be bringing wear to their low-cost bands. “It will mainly be proprietary RTOS (real-time operating system) for fitness trackers,” said Shah.
Source: Neil Shah / Counterpoint Research
Given these trends, I asked Shah if he believed Fitbit would continue to make its basic trackers, or if Google would ultimately just cede this area to the multitude of (mostly) Chinese OEMs like Xiaomi, Amazfit, and others.
“Fitbit’s fitness bands as a percentage of the user base have shrunk with the upgrade to smartwatches, so I see the number of models being launched and investment in basebands will decrease as Google would love to have Wear on every Fitbit [device]This can help build the user’s knowledge diagram and serve their business model for the long term, “said Shah.
Having Wear OS on more devices is better for Google’s business model.
“If you look from the perspective of the business model, in the future Google wants to collect more data and offer a visually better and more comprehensive fitness service via sensory and contextual smartwatches than bands.”
These trends and market forces certainly provide context for why Google may want to discourage Fitbit from making more basic fitness trackers in the future. I just hope they don’t do that for a long time.
Android Central reached out to a Fitbit spokesperson for comment on this story but didn’t get a response in time for publication.
Let’s close together
What do you think? Do you expect Google and Fitbit to keep their line of fitness trackers going into the future, or do you think the future lies with Samsung and the new Wear platform? How would you feel if Fitbit trackers were dropped? Let us know!