Monday, May 27, 2019

Maybe Don't Get Too Excited Just Yet Over Google Buying Fitbit

Last Friday, Google plunked down $2.1 billion to acquire Fitbit. If you’ve been paying attention to wearables, the news wasn’t exactly a surprise. Google has been hobbling along in the smartwatch space for what feels like eons, and despite Fitbit shelling out $23 million to buy Pebble in 2017, its foray into smartwatches has been a mixed bag. It’s only natural that Google, with its deep pockets and a seemingly renewed interest in wearables, would extend a “helping hand” to a struggling giant. Fitbit gets some much-needed cash, and Google gets a beloved brand with hardware know-how, an active user base of 28 million, and a wealth of data. The deal looks smart on paper, but I’m not sold that buying Fitbit will miraculously solve Google’s wearables problem.

In a blog announcing the sale, Google’s Rick Osterloh wrote that he saw it as “an opportunity to invest even more in Wear OS as well as introduce Made by Google wearable devices into the market.” Again, no surprise. Even Google knows that the platform is a hot, stinking mess. Except making Wear OS suck less isn’t the main obstacle here. The platform was a buggy, unintuitive nightmare when it first launched as Android Wear, but since it rebranded to Wear OS, Google’s done a lot to make it more tolerable.

The issue is Google has a severe hardware problem. Wear OS watches have been tied to Qualcomm silicon, and the disaster that was Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 2100 chip is well-documented. Wear 2100 was already outdated by the time it launched, and Qualcomm dragged its feet updating it for over two years. Its successor, Snapdragon Wear 3100, didn’t see the light of day until very late 2018. Even then, there was only one affordable option—the Fossil Sport. It wasn’t until this fall that more 3100-powered watches even hit the market.

Without a meaningful chip, Google and other third-parties never had any reason to invest in Wear OS—hence why it’s been treated like a forgotten stepchild for so long. Players like Motorola, Asus, and LG simply left the game, while others decided they were better off creating their own software. Samsung decided not to bother and built Tizen, its own operating system that’s powered by its Exynos silicon. Likewise, while Huawei used Wear OS (then Android Wear 2.0) for its Watch 2, it opted for its own LiteOS for its most recent Huawei Watch GT.

Theoretically, that means the Fitbit acquisition should be a good thing. If the hardware is what kneecapped Wear OS, and Fitbit’s hardware has always been solid, then it would seem like a perfect fit. That is until you remember that Fitbit did its damnedest to avoid the Wear OS platform. When the time came to build its own smartwatch, it decided to buy Pebble and build Fitbit OS from scratch rather than play in Google’s sandbox for the aforementioned reasons. Forgoing Wear OS meant Fitbit the company didn’t have to put up with the platform’s hardware limitations. For example, the fact that Fitbit turned its nose up at Wear OS meant it could deliver 5-day battery life—a feat impossible with both the Snapdragon Wear 2100 and 3100 chips. What this also means is none of Fitbit’s existing technology is capable of running Wear OS. Moreover, Fitbit OS was borne out of the simple, relatively bare-bones Pebble software. Which means (you guessed it) Fitbit OS can’t power Wear OS hardware either.

What’s missing here is a chip that doesn’t suck. Qualcomm has clearly whiffed it multiple times. Google developing its own silicon isn’t impossible—it’s just expensive, risky, and time-consuming. Even if Google is snappy about either creating its own chip, or getting someone else to do it for them, any Made by Google-branded wearable has a lot of catching up to do. Apple’s already on its second generation of ECG-capable smartwatches, and Samsung’s not too far behind. It added ECG-capability to the Galaxy Watch Active2, and while the feature isn’t live yet, the ball is already rolling. Fitbit’s been quietly working on atrial fibrillation detection for a while now, but doing it by way of ECG doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Meanwhile, the best Wear OS watches currently have to offer is the Cardiogram app recently introduced on Gen 5 Fossil watches.

So if hardware benefits are long-term at best, that means the real prize for Google is that vast trove of Fitbit data—nearly a decade’s worth at this point. That, and access to Fitbit’s algorithms, could be invaluable in improving Google’s own health software. (To be blunt, Google Fit is just a sad potato of an app.) But with that data, comes the question of privacy. One of Fitbit’s greatest strengths is it has a highly-engaged community. With 28 million active users, it’s in Google’s best interest that Fitbit users don’t flee the platform en masse over fears the company will misuse that data. On that front, there’s good reason to believe Google will use the same playbook it did with Nest.

In 2014, Google forked over $3.2 billion for Nest and initially, the company was its own distinct entity. That was fine and dandy until early 2018—that’s when Google announced it would absorb Nest into its hardware team. The final death knell came at I/O 2019, where Nest became Google Nest. Products were renamed, and Nest users were faced with the “choice” to migrate their accounts over to Google—and everything Google’s privacy policy entailed.

It’s likely that Fitbit will continue to operate on its own for the time being. That absolutely has to do with the fact health data is sensitive on an entirely different level—something both companies acknowledged. “Strong privacy and security guidelines have been part of Fitbit’s DNA since day one, and this will not change,” reads Fitbit’s press release. “Fitbit will continue to put users in control of their data and will remain transparent about the data it collects and why. The company never sells personal information, and Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads.” Likewise, in Google’s post, Osterloh emphasized that “Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads. And we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move, or delete their data.”

Cool, except Nest said the same thing. In 2015, Nest Founder Tony Fadell told the BBC, “When you work with Nest and use Nest products, that data does not go into the greater Google or any of [its] other business units.” Now that Nest’s been fully absorbed, those promises are moot. Still, it took nearly five years to get to that point and it’d be pretty bold of Google to stick the knife into Fitbit before it has a viable smartwatch capable of competing with Apple or Samsung.

Truthfully, it’s hard to imagine seeing an advanced, high-quality Google-branded smartwatch in the short-to-mid term. If Google were so inclined, it could probably spit out a simple Fitbit Inspire-esque activity band and slap the Pixel name on it. Or, seeing as Fitbit just added Alexa to the Versa 2, the next Fitbit smartwatch easily could tack on Google Assistant as well. That’s not terrible, and a good start—but far from the polished Pixel Watch that we’ve all been waiting for.

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