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Can Fitbit Survive Apple In The War For Your Wrist?

Apple’s new hardware and software are closing the fitness-tracking gap with Fitbit—and blowing it away as a smartwatch. But Fitbit’s not dead yet.

Can Fitbit Survive Apple In The War For Your Wrist?
[Photos: courtesy of Apple and FitBit]

It’s never a good time to go up against Apple. But Fitbit’s release of its first smartwatch, the $300 Ionic, in late August was especially rough timing. A new Apple Watch, the Series 3, was imminent, and this week it arrived with all the killer features pundits expected, including a $399 cellular LTE option (with $10 per month data plans). What’s more, the non-LTE Apple Watch starts at just $329, and the original Apple Watch, available with all of Apple’s software upgrades, is now discounted to just $249—cheaper than the Ionic and with way more apps.

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So is Fitbit doomed? If it tries to compete with Apple as a smartwatch maker, perhaps. As Apple’s Tim Cook noted yesterday during its big event, its watches just beat Rolex to become the best-selling watchmaker in the world, with sales up 50% year-over-year this August.

Fitbit, meanwhile, has been struggling: It posted a $146.3 million loss for 2016 and recently reported that, despite healthy growth in Asia, its second-quarter revenues in the U.S. had shrunk by 55% to $199 million. Sales of Fitbits are way down, too. Last year, it sold 5.7 million activity trackers during the second quarter. This year that figure dwindled to 3.4 million.

But going up against Apple, Fitbit still has an edge for people who are really keen on fitness tracking, and especially on health monitoring.

It also provides a lot of those capabilities in bands that are smaller and far cheaper than the Apple Watch. Fitbit offers two bands, the Charge 2 and the very slim Alta HR, both starting at $150, that provide many of the same fitness features as the Apple Watch, along with basic smart watch features like call and calendar notifications. Both devices have a heart rate monitor, as well an altimeter for measuring altitude changes during exercise—a feature new to the Apple Watch Series 3.

They lack GPS, but the Charge 2 can grab that data from a smartphone if you bring it along on your run (admittedly not an ideal scenario). The Ionic does provide GPS and a new set of sensors that measure blood oxygen level (SpO2), opening up the possibility to diagnose conditions like sleep apnea, in which people briefly stop breathing during sleep. (The Apple Watch doesn’t have an SpO2 sensor.)

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Related: Screw My iPhone, I Just Want The New Apple Watch


And while the Apple Watch has always included a heart monitor, Fitbit has arguably done more with the data. (Ninety-five percent of all National Institutes of Health-funded studies that include wearable devices use Fitbits.) At its keynote on Tuesday, Apple announced that it’s working with Stanford Health to see if it can detect a heart ailment called atrial fibrillation, or AFib. Fitbit is well into that research, too, in a study with Georgetown University. Early results show the tech should work, says Fitbit, even with its $150 bands.

In the spring, Fitbit also harnessed heart rate data to measure sleep, looking at fluctuations in heart rate to determine when a person is in different stages, such as REM or deep sleep.

The Big Edge

Battery life could be Fitbit’s killer app. The Ionic promises up to four days per charge (although GPS-dependent activities like running drop it to just 10 hours), and simpler trackers like the Alta HR can run for up to a week. That makes it easier to gather long-term, uninterrupted data. The new Apple Watch promises to only retain the 18-hour battery life of earlier models. It would be tempting to let it charge overnight, but you could miss out on sleep tracking.

Still, the Ionic is going to have a rough time. Though announced a couple weeks before the new Apple Watch, it won’t be available until several weeks later, in October–long after customers and the press have had time to ogle Apple’s new hardware and software. (The Series 3 Apple watch is available on September 22, and the discounted Series 1 is available now.)

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At launch, the Ionic will feature just 11 apps, only four of them made by third parties such as Pandora and the Strava social exercise network–vs. thousands of apps for the Apple Watch. Fitbit is about to release a software development kit so more people can build its Java-based apps, and it claims to have a lot of interest from developers. But developers can reach far more people with Apple Watch apps, using well-established programming tools.

Developers also represent possible competitors. While Fitbit’s data science team toils on the technology to detect AFib, for instance, it’s competing not just against the Apple-Stanford effort but against any institution and programmer who might take up that challenge, or any other challenge, to harness any of the Apple Watch sensors in new ways. That’s been Apple’s killer advantage since it opened the App Store in 2008: Apple outsourced innovation to armies of clever developers whom it doesn’t have to pay. Fitbit won’t build a similar army overnight, if ever.

In fairness, the Ionic is more than just a big fitness tracker. About the same size as the Apple Watch models, it features a bright color LCD screen to display Fitbit apps like the new Fitbit Coach, with animated demonstrations of exercises for user-customized workouts. That screen opens up a comparable canvas for developers to display any type of fitness, utility, or entertainment apps.


Related: The Very Best Superlatives From Apple’s Biggest Event Ever


The Ionic’s 2.5 GB of onboard storage can hold about 300 songs, loaded from a computer or synced from a streaming service (currently only Pandora is supported) and played over wireless headsets, including Apple’s AirPods. Like the Apple Watch, the Ionic also has an NFC chip for wireless payments. Its new counterpart to Apple Pay, called Fitbit Pay, is building support with financial institutions like Bank of America, Capital One, and HSBC, as well as the major credit card providers.

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In terms of utility, the Ionic pales next to the LTE-equipped Apple Watch. “The key announcement for Apple was cellular connectivity,” says Ramon Llamas, research manager for wearables at IDC, in an email. “While taking and making phone calls was the big value proposition, consider what such a connection can do (especially data) when the fitness and health apps Apple has been developing will really shine.”


Related: Can This Smartwatch Save Fitbit?


But Apple’s cellular-enabled watch is pricier: It starts at $99 more than the Ionic, along with a $10 monthly fee, based on plans AT&T and Verizon announced. (Sprint and especially T-Mobile, may come in lower when they announce details.) Not everyone considering a fitness tracker or even a smart watch will be up for that expense.

But they also might not be up for the narrower capabilities of the Ionic or the much narrower ones of the (albeit much cheaper) other Fitbit bands. If people commit to wearing something all day, they might want more than just a fitness tracker. And all the plethora of apps, with or without the benefit of a cellular connection, will make even the newly discounted version of the Apple Watch awfully compelling.

While Apple is ramping up its efforts in health data and fitness tracking, Fitbit’s experience and reputation gives it a slight edge there. One asset Fitbit has is a longstanding relationship with its outdoor-activity-focused fans, with 50 million registered device users. Positioning it as an upgrade for fitness fanatics might make the Ionic Fitbit’s “gateway drug,” capable of getting more of even us non-watch-wearers to start strapping on smartwatches. Then again, with competitive prices and tons of marketing and media buzz, Apple may not need any more of a gateway to hook buyers.

About the author

Sean Captain is a technology journalist and editor. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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