What Google's Fitbit Buy Means for the Future of Wearables

When Fitbit launched its first product in 2009, the activity tracker didn’t even share data to a smartphone app. Instead, it wirelessly connected to a base station that had to be tethered to your computer. The clip-on itself displayed some information, but Fitbit’s website was where you’d find visualizations of your personal activity data. It was a kind of gateway drug to what would become our full-fledged, 2010’s, quantified-self addictions.Over the years Fitbit would become known for its accessible hardware, but it was its software—its mobile app, social network, sleep tracking, subscription coaching—that made it stand out in an ocean of fitness wearables.
Now Fitbit has come full (activity) circle, and is being bought by one of the largest software companies in the world. Google says it is acquiring Fitbit to bring together “the best AI, software and hardware” in order to “spur innovation in wearables and build products to benefit even more people around the world.” It complements Google’s vision for “ambient computing,” as my WIRED colleague Louise Matsakis points out ; gives it more technological armor to compete with Apple Watch; and could help Google do deeper in the healthcare market.
Although Fitbit’s position in wearables has weakened over the past three years, it was for a long time the clear leader in activity-tracking wearables. It opened the floodgates for a decade of innovation around Bluetooth and Wi-Fi-connected wrist dongles, ones packed with sensors, displays, and batteries that got better each year. But things quickly grew weird in wearable land. Many wearable startups didn’t make it, while others, like Fitbit, got bought by Big Tech.But now that giant tech corporations are fully invested in health trackers—Apple, Xiaomi, and Huawei held the lead in the global wearables market as of the second quarter of this year—the future remains uncertain for smaller players who are still trying to have an impact. And, even though there’s a chance that Google’s plan to buy Fitbit may not pass muster with regulators, it is possible that there might even be some upside to having massive tech companies become the central repositories for our daily health stats.
Back in TimeNot long after Fitbit launched its first tracker in 2009, the private company Jawbone, which was already a successful maker of audio products, pivoted to wearables. The company’s first wristband, called the Jawbone Up , actually plugged into a phone’s 3.5mm headphone jack to sync the band’s data (back when phones actually had headphone jacks). A year after that, in 2012, Nike launched FuelBand , another polymer wristband that was supposed to motivate its wearers, in this case through a proprietary—and seemingly arbitrary—metric labeled “Fuel.”
Others soon crowded the space. In late 2012, a company called Basis Science launched the B1 body monitor , which stood out because of its optical heart rate sensors, something the earlier wristbands didn’t include. A Bay Area startup called Lark shipped the Larklife band , which tracked both daytime activity and nighttime sleep and was so clunky that one of my editors at the time referred to it as a celibacy band. A Canadian company called Mio Global launched the Mio Link in early 2014, a device that was recognized as one of the first fitness trackers that transmitted continuous heart rate readings. A company called Misfit even had a low-powered wearable that ran on coin-cell batteries never needed to be plugged in.

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Subscribe to WIRED and stay smart with more of your favorite Ideas writers.The fitness watch stalwarts, Garmin and Polar, start jamming even more sensors into their already capable watches, and beefing up their mobile applications. Microsoft shipped something called the Microsoft Band , and after that, the Microsoft Band 2 .And then there was Pebble. After a remarkably successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, Pebble started selling its smartwatch—this was a smartwatch, not a wristband—in 2013. In many ways, Pebble was emblematic of this era of wearables. It was scrappy (designed in a Palo Alto garage), it was agnostic (it played nice with both iPhone and Android), it had its own smartwatch operating system and app store (An app store! For a tiny watch!) Later versions of Pebble would also embrace health and fitness-tracking as a core feature set.