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Google’s Fitbit Takeover: Big Data or Big Wearables move?

Or maybe even both

by: - Last updated on: November 3rd, 2019

When the news was confirmed that Google had acquired Fitness brand Fitbit, for USD 2.1 billion, the first assumption that came to most people’s minds was that the search giant had grabbed the brand for its wearable expertise. And with good reason. After all, Fitbit has been one of the most talked-about brands on the wearables horizon, even though the sailing has not been the smoothest for it. Also, for all its efforts, Google itself has not had the best time in the wearables segment, with Android Wear (now Wear OS) not making the sort of impact many had hoped it would. Surely, getting Fitbit’s wearable expertise on board would help its wearable cause, perhaps even unleash the much-talked-about “Pixel Watch”, the device that many insist Google wants to make to beat the Apple Watch.

google fitbit
Image: @tallshmo/Twitter

Well, yes it would. But then think again. At the very beginning of the year, Google had bought Fossil’s smartwatch technology for USD 40 million, which had triggered the first talk of a “Pixel watch.” And that acquisition had seemed to make sense. After all, Google had the software, Fossil would add the design edge its wearables needed. What’s more, Fossil used Android Wear (or Wear OS) as a platform for its smartwatches. Some synergy there.

Fitbit is a much bigger player than Fossil in the smartwatch game. And a rather different one too. Its expertise was not just in hardware and design but on the software side too. And it pretty much had its own eco-system in terms of devices and software. Yes, it was a formidable brand, but unlike Fossil, it did not use Wear OS, and actually was in many regards, an opponent. What’s more, its hardware and software were very tightly integrated with each other, so running Wear OS on a Versa 2 (for instance) is not exactly child’s play, and honestly, neither is integrating Fitbit’s UI with Wear OS. It is not exactly impossible but it is certainly not the “copy and paste” operation that many geeks would have us believe – there would be issues like compatibility with existing devices from both brands and which devices (if any) can be updated to the new UI, app compatibility and so on. There will also be the very tricky proposition of blending the UIs in such a manner that neither set of users feels alienated – no one likes the UI of a device one has been using for a while changing radically.

I am not saying that there will no integration of Wear OS and Fitbit’s UI, just pointing out that it will not be a simple task that can be done within a few months, as some are implying – it could take years. There is a massive consumer base involved.

Which of course, brings us to the other side of the deal. Google is the boss of data and information, and well, Fitbit comes with a truckload of it, thanks to a user base that runs into millions. And there is a lot of information in there, ranging from heart rates to movements to exercise routines to sleep patterns. Yes, we know that assurances have been issued that Fitbit’s data will not be used to target users with ads. But it would be incredibly naive to assume that the user data will not come into play in Google’s plans at some stage in some manner. There are many who are already suggesting that Google’s acquisition of Fitbit actually might have more to do with data than with hardware. Just as many still insist that Google had acquired Motorola more for patents and software than for phone hardware – interestingly, the person heading Google’s hardware division (and who is likely to be closely overseeing Fitbit in Google), Rick Osterloh, is actually a former Motorola man himself. And speaking of user data, we do find it very interesting that when Apple stressed about how important it was to keep data to yourself in its latest privacy ad, one of the bits of information it talked about was “your heart rate after a run.” Hmm…we wonder if they knew something!

All of which makes the Google-Fitbit deal a very interesting and challenging one. Of course, the search giant did not acquire the fitness brand just to fritter away idle cash. But to simply categorise it as an attempt to strengthen its wearables or to grab user data is to oversimplify matters. It is also way too pessimistic to assume that that the brand acquisition will misfire, just as Google’s investments some other brands did (most notably Motorola) – the “brands go to Google to die” theory.

What’s important to note is that at the time of writing, Google has access to wearable software and hardware from four brands – its own, Fossil, Fitbit and Pebble, a smartwatch brand that Fitbit had acquired. Add user information and community and its own formidable software muscle to the equation, and it is easy to see why Google has given itself a great chance to do something great.

Will it be in terms of wearable hardware and software?
Or maybe just even wearable apps?
Or fitness apps on phones and earphones (Fitbit has that tech too, remember)?
Or better fitness sensors on its phones?
Or a vastly improved search algorithm based on additional user data?

We have no idea as of now. What we do know is that any – and all – of this is possible. How fit will Google get after this bit of a deal is going to be fascinating to watch.

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