Google has just splashed US$2.1 billion to acquire Fitbit. Fitbit wasn’t necessarily in trouble but it was certainly in a bit of a pickle. Apple has a vice-like grip on the high-end segment of the wearables market and there’s seems to be no end of cheap, almost disposable trackers coming out from China. To Fitbit’s credit, they have a large and loyal user base, but if it wanted to grow, it would need a huge injection of cash.
On the other hand, Google’s Wear OS is sputtering and probably needs a drastic rethink even if the software itself is actually quite decent. Samsung, the world’s second largest smartwatch brand, has long ditched Wear OS for its own Tizen OS; and Google’s largest partner, Fossil, only has a piddling 4.1% market share in North America in Q2 this year. There are rumours that Google is finally ready to take things into its own hands and make a Pixel watch.
With these facts in mind, it seems like the union of the two makes sense. Fitbit needs money and Google has a ton of money. On the flip side, Google needs users and smartwatch expertise, which Fitbit has. But if you know anything about smartwatches, you’d know that one of the reasons why there hasn’t been a good Apple Watch alternative is because of the dearth of good smartwatch processors.
Apart from Apple and Samsung who develop their own processors, everyone else has to rely on third-party sources with Qualcomm being the most prominent. Qualcomm, however, has been slow to release new processors for smartwatches. The Snapdragon Wear 3100 was late to market and it’s built using an outdated process which has invariably affected its performance and competitiveness. Consequently, this has held smartwatch makers back.
Unfortunately, the entire situation is a bit of a catch-22. Qualcomm doesn’t see the need to focus on smartwatch processors because there are so few players in the space, but there are no players in this space because there are no good processors in which to use in the first place. And if the processor is the problem, then the acquisition is not going to do either party any good. To really compete with the Apple Watch would require a concerted effort from Google and whoever it is they are partnering to handle the silicon side of things.
Perhaps Google isn’t really after an Apple Watch rival and instead sees Fitbit as a treasure trove of data. After all, Google’s mission statement has been “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Both parties have issued statements that they continue to take privacy seriously and that the data will not be used for ads. Still, it's only natural for people to get fretful when they know their data is being used and accessed by others. In such a case, Google could use Fitbit's data to further develop its own health monitoring smarts for Wear OS or create more personalised experiences for other Google services.
Or maybe what Google would do is switch gears, ditch Wear OS since it isn’t going anywhere, and help Fitbit stay on course and make more feature-packed affordable fitness trackers and entry-level smartwatches. It’s hard to say that this point what Google intends to do with this acquisition since we are not privy to the company’s long-term thinking, and the whole deal doesn’t seem to make much sense on paper after further inspection. It might make a whole lot more sense if Google was buying a strong number two in the smartwatch market but Fitbit isn’t really that ― in fact, there doesn’t seem to be a strong number two behind Apple. For now, one can only hope that it’ll invigorate the smartwatch market and give Apple some much-needed competition.
Specifications are not everything. It's what you do with what you have that matters.