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
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 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. 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
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
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 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.
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