Recently, Google announced that it was acquiring the fitness wearables brand Fitbit in a deal valued at just over two billion dollars. There has been a great deal of debate (at least in tech circles) on what this means for Google, for Fitbit, and for consumers and their data privacy. Will Google kill off the Fitbit brand and move the talent to the WearOS group? Will they develop that long-awaited Pixel Watch? Will they drive Fitbit into the ground and sell it for parts like they did Motorola?
These are all valid questions, but I'm not here to talk about any of that right now. Don't get me wrong, I care a great deal about these issues, particularly about what Google plans to do with the treasure trove of existing Fitbit user data, and how it plans to securely manage that data moving forward.
No, what I want right now is to give a voice to the not nerdy and the nearly nerdy... those of us who love our Fitbits because they're good fitness trackers, not because they're tiny wrist computers or communications devices. Inside my techie bubble, I feel like I might be a bit of an outcast in this regard, but I'd also like to think that I'm not alone. Aside from my own anecdotal observations, which I'll get to shortly, I wanted to first take a quick look at what the industry data says about wearable trends in order to better put my arguments and feelings in context.
Fitbit's wearables status the metrics of fitness trackers
Fitbit is an icon in the world of fitness trackers, and its mind share for wearables is unparalleled, with the obvious exception of the Apple Watch. Indeed, despite years of financial decline, a recent report by Canalys shows that Fitbit is still in a solid second position in terms of wearable market share, trailing Apple but comfortably ahead of Samsung, Garmin, Fossil, and other manufacturers. No doubt the wearables breakdown for Apple, Samsung, and Garmin is heavily skewed toward smartwatches, but Fitbit's breakdown HAS to trend more towards their fitness bands like the Charge 3, Inspire and Inspire HR, and even kid's versions like the Ace 2. Heck, I'd wager there are still a decent number of Charge 2s and Altas in the sales mix as well.
Fitbit is #2 in wearables right now, and the majority of those sales are basic fitness trackers.
Indeed, Fitbit's own financial reports bear this assumption out, showing that over 65% of their revenue came from those specific trackers that I mentioned above (and the Versa Lite). Their data also shows that basic tracker revenue increased by 51% year-over-year at the time of the report.
Like most people who are paying attention to this sort of thing, I've definitely noticed Apple Watches take over as the dominant wearable out in the real world. But they're not the only tracker I see on a daily basis. Because my family and I are runners, I see a ton of Garmin running watches, and I've even caught a rare Galaxy Watch sighting in the wild. But the trackers I see second most to Apple Watches are still Fitbits (and not the Versas or Ionics). I know this is purely anecdotal, but I live in a fairly large city and travel around the country and internationally on a somewhat regular basis, and this pattern is pretty consistent wherever I go.
Call me basic the merits of fitness trackers
Call me basic, but I don't care. I've tried smartwatches from Apple, Pebble, and yes, even Fitbit, but I have always come back to the standard fitness tracker. In fact, I'm currently sporting a Fitbit Charge 3, special edition (yes, that's my hairy arm at the top of this article). I've been seduced by the promise of notification triage, simple text responses, and checking the weather or my Twitter feed on my wrist, and I've always come away feeling like all that connectivity and functionality wasn't really worth it for me.
Call me basic, but I love the non-smartwatch trackers.
I've talked to a lot of people who wear a standard Fitbit tracker about why they like it over something like a traditional watch or even an Apple Watch, and I tend to get a fairly standard set of answers. Mind you, this is not just people in my age group, but people twenty or more years younger than me as well. I think there are four fundamental reasons why folks still love their Fitbits — wearability, ease of use, affordability, and reliability.. or, WEAR (yes, I went there). Let me explain...
First and foremost, we love our Fitbit trackers because of how they feel. Bands like the Charge 3 or Inspire HR are not very wide or thick, and thus don't feel like Grampa's old clunky retirement watch. Heck, most of us sleep with our Fitbits for the excellent sleep data they provide, and we could never feel comfortable doing that with something bulkier. A lot of people from my generation (Gen X for life!) and down to my kids' age didn't really grow up with a traditional wristwatch, so putting something like that on our wrists feels foreign. I have also found Fitbit trackers to be popular with women, children, and those with smaller wrists who feel that these are less obtrusive on their arm. The fitness bands can also be dressed up to look like nice bracelets or even jewelry or dressed down for fitness activities without looking out of place. That versatility seems more apparent on a smaller band than on a larger watch, at least for many.
Secondly, I consider myself more tech-savvy than most people I know (you would hope so, considering my job), but I have to admit that I really appreciate the ease-of-use that a basic fitness tracker affords me. All of the data that I care about seeing (time, steps, calories, sleep data, and a few other metrics) is right there on my wrist, and I don't even need to look at the app if I don't want to. Yes, I can see push notifications, but TBH I've turned almost all of those off because I have learned to appreciate having at least some distance from the never-ending stream of notifications and responses. I know that you can filter your notifications on something like an Apple Watch, but with so much more capability comes more temptation to respond. I am learning to value the disconnect a bit more these days, and I appreciate that my basic fitness tracker doesn't tempt me any further.
I also think that the simple design and scaled-down interface of these trackers makes them feel less threatening to those who are not so tech-savvy. If Google kills the basic tracker and takes away that non-threatening vector of health data, they might be shooting themselves in the foot, particularly when it comes to learning more about the health of the very young and the very old.
Thirdly, and let's not glance over this, but fitness trackers are way more affordable than most smartwatches, and in my opinion, they are a better value for the money. A brand-new Charge 3 is about $150, and you can get a new Inspire for around $70. Compare that to an Apple Watch Series 5 that starts at $399, and you can see where we might scoff a little at the price. Plus, smartwatches are more likely to become obsolete during their lifetime than a fitness tracker that doesn't have sophisticated software to maintain or upgrade.
Finally, we come to reliability. Admittedly, I stretched this a bit to fit my acronym, but hear me out. Not only do I think you can get a longer, more useful life out of a basic fitness tracker (my son, who breaks EVERYTHING, has had his Alta HR for over three years!), but they last longer in daily/weekly use. I love that I can reliably get almost a full week out of my Charge 3, and that means I can wear it to bed every night to track my sleep patterns. It may not mean much to you, but it matters a great deal to me. I just can't get that kind of reliability from most smartwatches at this point.
I implore Google to keep the basic Fitbit fitness trackers around for a long time to come, not only because they still hold significant market share in the wearables space, but because they hold even greater mind share among casual fitness fans. I still feel that for most people, it's easier to swallow spending around $100-$150 for a few good years of fitness tracking, and I think these bands feel less complex, less cumbersome, less distracting, and quite frankly, less threatening for many. If Google really wants to be a player in the fitness data space, I think the value of Fitbit's brand — the trust that people have in their fitness trackers can go a long way into seeing that they succeed.
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