Pebble, of course, was eventually acquired by Fitbit, which makes Google’s purchase today a kind of “wearable turducken,” as CNET’s Scott Stein put it on Twitter. Jawbone failed, badly. Basis Science sold itself to Intel. Misfit went to Fossil. Lark become a software company focused on chronic conditions. Mio Global was split into two businesses; the software still exists under a different name, while its hardware became a part of Lifesense. Microsoft never bothered to ship another Band.
Fitbit continued to develop new wrist wearables at a steady pace, evolving its product line from clip-on trackers to wristbands to a sport watch to smartwatches and back again to lightweight wristbands. Since its inception, Fitbit has sold nearly 100 million devices.
“Fitbit has really been an early success story,” says Jitesh Ubrani, research director at IDC. “They were early in the space, and they became the de facto standard. Consumers would look at other wearables and still call it a Fitbit.”
That wouldn’t always be the case, though, and analysts say two major factors contributed to this: The launch of the shiny, covetable Apple Watch in the spring of 2015, and the squeeze from Chinese electronics giants Xiaomi and Huawei. Xiaomi’s Mi Band, launched in 2014, cost just $15, and could do most of the things a $130 Fitbit could do.
On the day that Fitbit became a publicly-traded company, in June of 2015, Fitbit cofounder and CEO James Park sat for an interview on Marketplace that might be haunting him a bit today.
“Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, Tim Cook comes to you and says, ‘I’ll give you, James, $2 billion for your company.’ What do you say?” the reporter asks Park.
“Um,” Park says, and after a pause continues, “We’ve never really been focused on exits as a company. Really, the key to our success has been being really heads-down and focused on growing the business over the years.”
Now that Google has scooped up Fitbit, the question becomes whether it’s good for the personal health-tracking market that few wearable startups still exist, and that the power and control over our data lies in the hands of a few giants: Apple, Google, Samsung, and prominent Chinese companies whose internal operations are even more opaque.
That’s what regulators will likely be asking as they examine the deal. In the immediate term, Google says it will “never sell personal information to anyone” and that “Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads.” Fitbit, likewise, says the company never sells personal information, and that Fitbit health and wellness data won’t be used for Google ads. (Both companies declined requests for interviews.)
One of the potential negatives for consumers, says Ubrani, is that even if Google vows not to sell ads against your health data, it could find other creative ways to monetize whatever you’re sharing through your wrist.
“They have the data, so they can tie software and services together to try to sell more of their other services,” he says. That’s both the upside and downside of interoperability, of your software working across your phone, your laptop, your smartwatch, or potentially even your smart glasses—when it works, it works, but it’s another access point into your life for one of the tech giants.
Consumers may also be rightfully concerned about privacy and security. Facebook’s privacy missteps have been a “watershed moment” for these issues in the tech sector, Ubrani says, and privacy policies are being scrutinized more.
But ultimately, it’s these same large tech companies that should, in theory, have the resources to address privacy and security problems as they pertain to consumer health, too. “When it comes to my own data, I would trust a much larger company that has checks and balances in place and the resources to secure my data,” Ubrani says, “because they also have the best talent that’s out there.”