Nov 5, 2021
Fitbit was founded in 2007, originally as Healthy Metrics Research, Inc, by James Park and Eric Friedman. They had a goal to bring fitness trackers to market. They didn’t invent the pedometer and in fact wanted to go far further. That prize goes to Abraham-Louis Perrelet of Switzerland in 1780 or possibly back to da Vinci. And there are stories of calculating the distance armies moved using various mechanisms that used automations based on steps or the spinning of wagon wheels.
The era of wearables arguably began in 1953 when the transistor radio showed up and Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka started Sony. People started to get accustomed to carrying around technology. 1961 and Claude Shannon and Edward Thorp build a small computer to time when balls would land in roulette. Which they put in a shoe. Meanwhile sensors that could detect motion and the other chips to essentially create a small computer in a watch-sized package were coming down in price.
Apple had already released the Nike+iPod Sports Kit the year before, with a little sensor that went in my running shoes. And Fitbit capitalized on an exploding market for tracking fitness. Apple effectively proved the concept was ready for higher end customers. But remember that while the iPod was incredibly popular at the time, what about everyone else?
Park and Friedman raised $400,000 on the idea in a pre-seed round and built a prototype. No, it wasn’t actually a wearable, it was a bunch of sensors in a wooden box. That enabled them to shop around for more investors to actually finish a marketable device. By 2008 they were ready to take the idea to TechCrunch 50 and Tim O’Reilly and other panelists from TechCrunch loved it. And they picked up a whopping 2,000 pre-release orders.
Only problem is they weren’t exactly ready to take that kind of volume. So they toured suppliers around Asia for months and worked overtime in hotel rooms fixing design and architecture issues. And in 2009 they were finally ready and took 25,000 orders, shipping about one fifth of them.
That device was called the Fitbit Tracker and took on a goal of 10,000 steps that became a popular goal in Japan in the 1960s. It’s a little money-clip sized device with just one button that shows the status towards that 10,000 step goal. And once synchronized we could not only see tons of information about how many calories we burned and other statistics but we could also see
Those first orders were sold directly through the web site. The next batch would be much different, going through Best Buy. The margins selling directly were much better and so they needed to tune those production lines. They went to four stores, then ten times that, then 15 times that.
They announced the Fitbit Ultra in 2011. Here we got a screen that showed a clock but also came with a stopwatch. That would evolve into the Fitbit One in 2012. Bluetooth now allowed us to sync with our phones. That original device would over time evolve to the Zip and then the Inspire Clip.
They grew fast in those first few years and enjoyed a large swathe of the market initially, but any time one vendor proves a market others are quick to fast-follow. The Nike Fuelband came along in 2012. There were also dozens of cheap $15 knock-offs in stores like Fry’s. But those didn’t have nearly as awesome an experience.
A simple experience was the Fitbit Flex, released in 2013. The Fitbit could now be worn on the wrist. It looked more like the original tracker but a little smaller so it could slide in and out of a wristband. It could vibrate so could wake us up and remind us to get up and move. And the Fitbit Force came out that year, which could scroll through information on the screen, like our current step count. But that got some bad press for the nickel used on the device so the Charge came out the next year, doing much of the same stuff. And here we see the price slowly going up from below a hundred dollars to $130 as new models with better accelerometers came along.
In 2014 they released a mobile app for all the major mobile platforms that allowed us to track devices through Bluetooth and opened up a ton of options to show other people our information. Chuck Schumer was concerned about privacy but the options for fitness tracking were about to explode in the other direction, becoming even less private. That’s the same year the LG G Watch came out, sporting a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip. The ocean was getting redder and devices were becoming more like miniature computers that happened to do tracking as well. After Android Wear was released in 2014, now called Wear OS, the ocean was bound to get much, much redder.
And yet, they continued to grow and thrive. They did an IPO, or Initial Public Offering, in 2015 on the back of selling over 21 million devices. They were ready to reach a larger market. Devices were now in stores like Walmart and Target, and they had badges. It was an era of gamification and they were one of the best in the market at that. Walk enough steps to have circumnavigated the sun? There’s a badge for that. Walk the distance of the Nile? There’s a badge for that. Do a round trip to the moon and back? Yup, there’s a badge for that as well.
And we could add friends in the app. Now we could compete to see who got more steps on the day. And of course some people cheated. Once I was wearing a Fitbit on my wrist I got 60,000 steps one day as I painted the kitchen. So we sometimes didn’t even mean to cheat. And an ecosystem had sprung up around Fitbit. Like Fitstar, a personal training coach, which got acquired by Fitbit and rebranded as Fitbit Coach.
2015 was also when the Apple Watch was released. The Apple Watch added many of the same features like badges and similar statistics. By then there were models of the Fitbit that could show who was calling our phone or display a text message we got. And that was certainly part of the Wear OS for of Android. But those other devices were more expensive and Fitbit was still able to own the less expensive part of the market and spend on R&D to still compete at the higher end.
They were flush with cash by 2016 so while selling 22 million more devices, they bought Coin and Pebble that year, taking in technology developed through crowdfunding sources and helping mass market it. That’s the same year we got the Fitbit Alta, effectively merging the Charge and Alta and we got HR models of some devices, which stands for Heart Rate. Yup, they could now track that too.
They bought Vector Watch SRL in 2017, the same year they released the Ionic smartwatch, based somewhat on the technology acquired from Pebble. But the stock took a nosedive, and the market capitalization was cut in half. They added weather to the Ionic and merged that tech with that from the Blaze, released the year before. Here, we see technology changing quickly - Pebble was merged with Blaze but Wear OS from Google and Watch OS from Apple were forcing changes all the faster. The apps on other platforms were a clear gap as were the sensors baked into so many different integrated circuit packages.
But Fitbit could still compete. In 2018 they released a cheaper version of the smartwatch called the Versa. They also released an API that allowed for a considerable amount of third party development, as well as Fitbit OS 3. They also bought Twine Health in 2018
Partnered with Adidas in 2018 for the ionic. Partnered with Blue Cross Blue Shield to reduce insurance rates
2018 released the Charge 3 with oxygen saturation sensors and a 40% larger screen than the Charge 2. From there the products got even more difficult to keep track of, as they poked at every different corner of the market. The Inspire, Inspire HR, Versa 2, Versa Lite, Charge 4, Versa 3, Sense, Inspire 2, Luxe. I wasn’t sure if they were going to figure out the killer device or not when Fitbit was acquired by Google in 2021.
And that’s where their story ends and the story of the ubiquitous ecosystem of Google begins. Maybe they continue with their own kernels or maybe they’re moving all of their devices to WearOS. Maybe Google figures out how to pull together all of their home automation and personal tracking devices into one compelling offer. Now they get to compete with Amazon who now has the Halo to help attack the bottom of the market. Or maybe Google leaves the Fitbit team alone to do what they do.
Fitbit has sold over 100 million devices and sports well over 25 million active users. The Apple Watch surpassed that number and blew right past it. WearOS lives in a much more distributed environment where companies like Asus, Samsung, and LG sell products but it appears to have a similar installation base. And it’s a market still growing and likely looking for a leader, as it’s easy to imagine a day when most people have a smart watch.
But the world has certainly changed since Mark Weiser was the Chief Technologist at the famed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, or Xerox Parc in 1988 when he coined the term "ubiquitous computing.” Technology hadn’t entered every aspect of our lives at the time like it has now.
The team at Fitbit didn’t invent wearables. George Atwood invented them in 1783. That was mostly pulleys and mechanics. Per V. Brüel first commercialized the piezoelectric accelerometer in 1943. It certainly took a long time to get packaged into an integrated circuit and from there it took plenty of time to end up on my belt loop. But from there it took less than a few years to go on my wrist and then once there were apps for all the things true innovation came way faster. Because it turns out that once we open up a bunch of APIs, we have no idea the amazing things people use with what then go from devices to platforms. But none of that would have happened had Fitbit not helped prove the market was ready for Weiser’s ubiquitous computing.
And now we get to wrestle with the fallout while innovation is moving even faster. Because telemetry is the opposite of privacy. And if we forget to protect just one of those API endpoints, like not implementing rate throttling or messing up the permissions, or leaving a micro-service open to all the things, we can certainly end up telling the world all about things. Because the world is watching, whether we think we’re important enough to watch or not.