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How the Fitbit Sense plans to beat the Apple Watch with health data, not features

Fitbit Sense Lifestyle Yoga Sapphire Sport Mh
Fitbit Sense Lifestyle Yoga Sapphire Sport Mh (Image credit: Fitbit)

There has been a lot of news and noise regarding smartwatches and wearables over the past few years. Much of that discussion has centered around the Apple Watch and how it is leaps and bounds ahead of other "smart" watches and wearables. And it's true. The Apple Watch is way more capable than any other wearable in terms of apps, notifications, processing power, and in many cases, health and safety. It is the do the most things for the most people device, and that's why it dominates.

Despite how well Apple is doing in this space, one could argue that Fitbit kicked off the wearable revolution well before the Apple Watch burst on the scene. Many have suggested that Fitbit has been doomed ever since Apple's device took hold, and Fitbit has indeed seemed to waver a bit and make a few blunders over the past few years. However, I think Fitbit might just have found a foothold for itself again and is setting itself up to step up and stand out as a holistic wellness brand, regardless of whatever happens with its pending Google aquisition.

This move has been a long time coming

Fitbit Premium guided workout plan

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Well before publicly shopping itself to potential suitors, Fitbit saw the writing on the wearables wall and began pivoting from relying on new hardware sales to focusing on recurring revenue opportunities. From a consumer perspective, this took the form of Fitbit Premium, a subscription service offering detailed health and wellness metrics and insights, along with guided programs for a month-to-month or discounted annual fee.

Fitbit's latest subscription gambit is a $55/month personal health coaching to keep people set on their goals.

Fitbit had other consumer-facing subscriptions before Fitbit Premium, notably Fitstar, a personal fitness platform the company acquired in 2015 and then turned into Fitbit Coach a few years later. Fitbit Coach subsequently morphed into Fitbit Premium in 2019, adding a comprehensive suite of personal coaching, fitness programs, diet plans and recipes, sleep analysis, mindfulness sessions, and more services that it continues to evolve to this day. This past week, the company launched a one-on-one personal health coaching (opens in new tab) service starting at $55 per month, potentially adding dramatically to that services revenue pool.

Over the past year, Fitbit has made a pretty impressive commitment to making its wellness services more inclusive as well. From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, the company extended the free trial period for Fitbit Premium from seven to 90 days. With its new lineup of health wearables it's extending that even further, from six months for the Versa 3 and Sense to one year for the Inspire 2, which looks to be among the best fitness trackers you'll soon be able to buy.

Our Mission: To empower and inspire you to live a healthier, more active life. We design products and experiences that fit seamlessly into your life so you can achieve your health and fitness goals, whatever they may be. - Fitbit.com

It's not just consumer services that have helped Fitbit recalibrate its path and refocus on its mission. The company has had its eyes on the corporate world for some time now with its Health Solutions division (opens in new tab). Fitbit has established relationships and programs with over 100 minor and major insurance providers such as United Healthcare, Humana, and Blue Cross Blue Shield as well as plans like Medicare and Medicaid. Through these partnerships, Fitbit offers the option of discounted or employer-subsidized devices, research opportunities, and custom health programs aimed at encouraging and facilitating healthy behaviors and lifestyles that can benefit employers and employees alike.

Beyond any hardware or devices, the evolution of these health and wellness services are what will make or break Fitbit's long-term success. But it's more than about generating revenue. The company has ambitious scientific research goals as well.

Getting in the research game

Fitbit Inspire 2 Lifestyle Sidewalk Couple Walking Lunar White Black

Source: Fitbit (Image credit: Source: Fitbit)

Few consumer-facing tech companies have focused as much on participating in or contributing to health research in recent years as Apple or Alphabet's (Google's) Verily. Both companies have partnered with governments and intergovernmental health agencies, universities, and research institutions on various health studies from AFib and asthma to diabetes and Parkinson's disease.

Fitbit's latest research study says its devices may be able to detect COVID-19 in patients two days before they're outwardly symptomatic.

Not to be outdone, Fitbit has also been working in close conjunction with medical researchers in areas such as weight loss, cancer research, heart health, and, most recently, COVID-19 detection. In fact, Fitbit just announced preminary results from an ongoing research study that suggested that its devices and algorithms could detect COVID-19 as much as two days before a person starts showing symptoms.

Much of this research has been accomplished with existing consumer-grade hardware, so it stands to reason that even more ambitious and potentially promising results might come from new products like the company's sensor-packed and health-focused smartwatch Sense, as well as whatever comes after that.

Fitbit's new hardware exists to fulfill its wellness vision, not the other way around

Fitbit Sense

Source: Fitbit (Image credit: Source: Fitbit)

At a press-only online event this week, Fitbit announced three new wearables that fit firmly into its overall wellness strategy — updates to two of its most popular trackers in the Inspire 2 and Versa 3, and the sensor-laden Sense health watch. While the former devices received some nice upgrades like improved battery life for the Inspire 2 and on-device GPS for the Versa 3, these were incremental improvements. The next chapter in Fitbit's evolving story was obviously the latter device; its Sense "smart" watch.

The Sense is Fitbit's answer to the common criticism that it isn't a "good" at smartwatches (though the Versa 2 is one of the best smartwatches for Android users). Rather than trying to compete with Apple, Samsung, and Garmin on features like processing power, app ecosystem, or communications tools, it is focusing its smarts on wellness monitoring and symptom detection. Writing for OneZero, longtime tech guru David Pogue commented that "Fitbit is in the business of making the invisible visible," and that it aims to do this through collecting all manner of health data to predict one's health outlook for the near and long-term.

The Fitbit Sense has the highest concentration of sensors on a smartwatch yet, but not all of them are FDA-approved yet.

The Sense aims to achieve this in large part due to its impressive array of sensors. Not only does it feature a (much improved) heart rate monitor, SPO2 sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, and barometric altimeter, but it sports several exciting new technologies as well. These include a skin thermometer, an electrodermal activity sensor, and the ability to take an electrocardiogram (ECG). Fitbit thinks this new array of sensors, in combination with its algorithms, app, and the insights it presents through Fitbit Premium, will do a much better job of helping people stay healthy through early detection, monitoring, and personal action plans.

Now before you get too excited, it must be said that in order to enable much of this cool new technology, Fitbit will need to gain the approval of the FDA and other regulatory agencies around the world. This process not yet complete, but hopefully these approvals will be rolling out very soon.

Where does Fitbit go from here?

I'm excited to see if Fitbit can complete this transition from a fitness wearable company to a holistic health and wellness provider. It appears to be making all the right moves, and should its acquisition by Google go smoothly, it should have the resources to continue down this track.

I'm no medical professional, so I don't feel qualified to speculate on what kind of health features and services might be forthcoming down the road, but I do have a few wishes for the next round of product updates just in case Fitbit is reading this.

The next step for Fitbit wearables is to have some kind of always-connected safety mechanisms like Garmin and Apple offer.

For one, I think it would be awesome if Fitbit could integrate LTE into some of its wearables for safety purposes. I'm not talking about enabling messaging, calls, or even music streaming. I mean that the devices would benefit from a simple, persistent LTE connection so they could call for help or transmit a distress signal when they detect a fall or elevated (or lowered) heart rate, or if the user indicates that they feel unsafe. Picture something like Garmin's Incident Detection (opens in new tab) features, but without the need to have your phone with you. Perhaps Fitbit could cover the cost of the LTE emergency service in high-end wearables only, or it could include it as part of the Fitbit Premium subscription. Amazon has had success with this model with its Kindle e-readers, and I think this would be an amazing safety feature for Fitbit's future wearables.

As Google comes under regulatory scrutiny for its acquisition of Fitbit, both companies also need to double-down on efforts to make sure that consumer health data is secure and personal privacy is respected. Increased security measures like enhanced encryption, multi-factor authentication, and transparent privacy policies need to be implemented and followed, and there needs to be accountability in place for the public and regulatory agencies to trust these companies.

As a longtime Fitbit wearer, it does my heart good to see the company renewing its focus on holistic health and wellness. I look forward to reaping the benefits of these new devices and services as I continue on my personal health journey.

Jeramy Johnson
Editor-in-chief

Jeramy is proud to help *Keep Austin Weird* and loves hiking in the hill country of central Texas with a breakfast taco in each hand. When he's not writing about smart home gadgets and wearables, he's defending his relationship with his smart voice assistants to his family. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeramyutgw.

4 Comments
  • Well written positive & upbeat article and on the surface if I didn't know any better I'd be highly excited to purchase one of their newly announced products. BUT... Go take a look at their Versa subforum at community.fitbit.com and read the 2 weeks of utterly disappointed customers who have nothing but problems receiving firmware updates or even worse when they do their products are bricked Fitbit Moderators are not responding much and when they do the information is a canned/scripted response and in some cases they are supplying older outdated information that no longer applies Even worse than that is when their firmware bricks a customer's product they add insult to injury by offering the affected customer a discount on an outgoing replacement product. So they break it and tell you to buy a new one. Not ethical at all imo. Their marketing is fantastic and exciting but they fall far short of a well-rounded good customer service experience once you have to engage with their support side of the business. All good companies have issues but how one responds to issues and treats their customers post-sale really defines how they do or do not value their customer base. Fitbit forums are full of complaints, disappointment and general frustration. Sadly this speaks volumes as to how valued their customers are once the sale has been completed. I urge you to visit their community forums and see what I'm stating. I think you might be less enthusiastic to recommend them once you've read the complaints and issues, etc.
  • One thing to keep in mind is that in general people are more likely to post about problems/negative things than just praising a product. This is true for ANY online forum about ANY product.
  • While it is true that satisfied customers generally speaking do not post on support forums, you can still look at how Fitbit deals with their dissatisfied customers and, unfortunately, I agree completely with the original poster. It's not just the Versa hardware either, if you look at the Charge 3 and even the Charge 4 forums, the same complaints keep coming up time and again.
    Fitbit has a long history of ignoring its customers. One of their favourite tactics is to appease posters by suggesting they post their proposal in special request forums. This gives the poster the idea that something will be done with their idea if enough people vote for it. Fitbit NEVER does anything with these ideas. They often close the topic a few weeks later so people can't even vote for it anymore.
    Another problematic issues is that they have recently removed previously freely available metrics (hours slept, average hours slept, etc.) and have hidden them behind a paywall by making access to them a premium feature.
    I've owned multiple Fitibit devices and still own one. When it works, pray that it keeps working because if it doesn't you're stuck with very little help available from Fitbit. If you like a feature in the app, again, hope it isn't taken away because Fitbit ignores complaints as much as it legally can.
  • Sadly now Fitbit moderators are removing posts from their forum threads. These posts are not inappropriate but they are being removed because so many people are complaining about bad firmware that is still being pushed out which is bricking their watches. Rather than halt the firmware like cell phone manufacturers and carriers do and issue a statement they are erasing complaints and not addressing the problems. Very bad business practices. So many nice articles out there on their products but none of the writers ever investigate the post-sale side of the company. If they did there would be a lot less articles recommending Fitbit. Sadly it's always the consumer who gets the shaft. I wish the author of this article would go back and investigate further the issues plaguing existing customers for a very long time. It would be interesting to see if he still recommended them.