For the last few years Fitbit has been the dominant player in the growing and lucrative health and fitness wearable market. They have built such a strong brand that fitness wearables are all called “fitbits” in the same way searching on the web is now called “googling” (even if you don’t use Google) or photocopying was called xeroxing.
But that market dominance is coming to an end. One of the largest companies in the world, Apple, is pushing its way into the health and fitness market with the Apple Watch. And while Fitbit integrates south many other exercise and well-being services, they are hanging on like barnacles to a grudge with Apple and won’t make their platform available to Apple Watch owners.
Why is this? To answer that we need to look back a few years.
2014 – Apple introduces HealthKit
In 2014, Apple announced the release of a new set of developer tools called HealthKit. These tools allow developers to share health and well-being information. For example, you could potentially choose a set of smart scales from one manufacturer, an activity tracker from another and a nutrition management system from a third developer. If they all supported HealthKit, they could securely share their information.
Although this doesn’t sound like a big deal it is. Before the announcement of HealthKit during the release of iOS 8 in 2014, those applications would have directly negotiate with each other. Suddenly, there was a central broker for all those apps and services to make data sharing and integration easy.
Fitbit’s response to HealthKit
In 2014, Fitbit was the reigning regent of the fitness tracker world. They dominated the market. The Apple Watch was still seven months away – it was still a rumour at that time and there was no certainty that Apple was even going to release a watch.
So, when users started asking if Fitbit was going to add HealthKit integration they responded with the following:
We do not currently have plans to integrate with HealthKit… It is an interesting new platform and we will watch as it matures, looking for opportunities to improve the Fitbit experience. At the moment, we’re working on other exciting projects that we think will be valuable to users.
To be fair to Fitbit, this was a pretty reasonable response at the time. HealthKit was still new, they had a product pipeline planned and they were building their own ecosystem with some great wearables and scales, a very robust app, and a passionate and growing user community.
Apple’s reaction and the aftermath
Once Fitbit went public with their decision to not support HealthKit, Apple reacted viciously.
They immediately stopped selling Fitbit devices through their online store and pulled all Fitbit product from their bricks and mortar Apple Stores.
In contrast, the Jawbone trackers that integrate with Apple’s Health app via HealthKit remain available through Apple’s retail channels.
And this is the stalemate we find ourselves at today. Many of Fitbit’s hardware customers want to use an Apple Watch for tracking and exercise but find they can’t.
There are some partial solutions out there. I’ve been using an app called Sync Solver that sends steps from my Apple Watch to Fitbit. However, Fitbit won’t allow those steps to count towards group challenges – a key part of their social experience.
There is a long and passionate threat on Fitbit’s forums begging the company to reconsider its decision and integrate the Apple Watch into their product offering. Given steps counted by carrying your iPhone can be used by the Fitbit app (just add the MobileTrack virtual device and your iPhone becomes a Fitbit tracker) it seems a little petty to not allow the Apple Watch to be used.
What is Fitbit?
I think this is the heart of the question as to why Fitbit won’t work with the Apple Watch.
Fitbit offers two main products to customers: hardware and software.
The problem with hardware is that eventually your market advantage dissipates because it becomes commoditised. Look at the iPhone. In 2007 it was revolutionary. No one had conceived of making a pocket-sized computer into a mobile phone. Until that point, manufacturers like Nokia and Sony Ericsson started with a mobile phone and added some computing functions.
By 2012, just five years after the iPhone appeared, Google, Samsung, Huawei and others had emulated Apple’s approach, commoditising the smartphone’s basic design. Although all the smartphone makers say their design is superior to the others, the reality is they are all very alike.
Where they really differ is the software and services that the hardware gives access to.
When Apple released the first iPhone, the biggest player in the business communicator market was BlackBerry. BlackBerry failed to understand that their advantage was not their handsets but their software and services.
Fitbit’s hardware is not their advantage. Their software and community is their advantage over Apple. And, I think, the ability to create online communities is one of Apple’s great weaknesses. Remember iTunes Ping?
What can Fitbit do?
In my view, Fitbit stands at a fork in the road. They can stick to their hardware-centric business plan or look for ways to commercialise and drive revenue from their software and services.
If they stick to the hardware business as their key revenue source then they will slowly die. Their smartwatches and trackers are good but there are dozens of competitors out there who will take market share from them. And, to be frank, their hardware is competent but not outstanding – and I say that as someone who has spent plenty of money in Fitbit hardware and recommended it to friends and family.
If someone asks me for a basic tracker I suggest Fitbit because of their software and services. But if they want something more sophisticated then I suggest looking at Garmin, Polar or Apple.
Fitbit could start offering access to their software and services platform for a fee. There are 15 pages of comments from users requesting Apple Watch and Fitbit integration with a huge number of those commenters prepared to pay for the service.
Or their could go head-to-head with Apple, add HealthKit integration and make their trackers and smartwatches good enough to compete in the market with Apple and other tracker makers.