Google’s $2.1 billion purchase of Fitbit will, if nothing else, be an excellent test case for California’s new consumer data privacy law, which takes effect in January. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) requires companies above a certain size let their customers know what kind of personal data is being collected and what it’s being used for, and gives individuals a level of control over the collection and use of their data.
The activity, location and health data collected by Fitbit devices is highly personal. It’s also highly valuable to Google’s business model. Which is about collecting, cross referencing and publishing data. Fitbit collects a flood of data from its users, and Google will be sorely tempted to mash it up with geo-referencing, email, search history and every other kind of data it has.
Most users probably won’t care, and will probably see a benefit from the kind of cross referencing Google might do – correlating heart rates to real time air quality data, for example.
But some users won’t like that at all. If Google is transparent about what it’s doing, and figures out a user-friendly process and interface to implement the procedures that CCPA mandates, users should have the knowledge and tools to control who else, if anyone, profits from their data.
That’s a big if, though. The functionality of fitness and activity trackers depends on the ability to transfer the data collected from the device to a platform that can store the data and perform value added analysis. If it’s done well, adding external data will increase the value of the analysis, but it also means commingling data sources, often in a complex way. Users have to understand that interplay in order to give (or withhold) informed consent. Figuring out how to do that with health and fitness data is about as hard as the problem gets.
For Fitbit, snapping up Pebble removes a real competitor in its segments, but for Pebble, it will rue the day that the company apparently turned down a $740m takeover bid from Citizen – the Japanese watchmaker.
With the buy, Fitbit gains access to a team that designed the Kickstarter success, which saw Pebble raise around $30m from backers looking to snap up one of its designs. Pebble has turned its attention to activity tracking in recent quarters, expanding on its initial focus on notifications, although it appears that its heart-rate monitoring is not as accurate as it should be.
According to IDC figures quoted in the ReThink article, FitBit is doing okay, shipping 5.4 million gizmos in the third quarter of this year, blowing Apple out of the water – Apple Watch shipments crashed to 1.1 million units, about 5% of the market, in the third quarter, a huge year-on-year decline from 3.9 million and an 18% market share.
The current generation of smart watches and operating systems have overcome many of the early problems with battery life and limited functionality. The real problem is the lack of killer apps. Vertical apps like activity trackers and heart rate monitors fit really well into cheaper, one trick pony devices, as FitBit’s increasing sales figures show. And the all-in-one crown still belongs to smart phones. The gap between the two categories is closing, and in the process squeezing out smart watches.
The fitness tracker category is going to huge this holiday season. It’s hard to go to a meeting without seeing a Fitbit or a similar bracelet on the trendiest wrists in the room.
Most people seem to use the devices for step counting, to reassure themselves that their normal daily activity is an adequate workout. It’s useful feedback, and a lot of people seem to be altering their routine to maximise steps. Some companies have incorporated fitness trackers into corporate wellness programs, and that’s positive too. When a product becomes ubiquitous, it also becomes a default gift for the hard-to-buy-for.
The real question is whether this is a typical fitness fad, like office treadmills or boot camp workouts, or if it represents a long term change in fitness awareness and proactive health management.
At this stage, it appears to be the latter. From my personal – and not statistically valid – observations, actual usage has a half life of two or three months at best. A fitness tracker might appear on someone’s wrist, but it’s gone within a few weeks or months. Any fashionable workout routine, however benign, loses its novelty value and simply becomes another chore.
There’s one technological improvement that could change the equation, though, and that’s longer battery life. If the tracker is something you have to remove periodically to recharge, then the odds are high that sooner or later you’ll just leave behind for good one day. On the other hand, if you can put it on your wrist and forget about it for two or three years, like a wristwatch, then the case for long term adoption and usage will be a lot better.
The Fitbit Flex shipped this week. I previewed it at CES. It’s a jelly bean-sized device that snaps into a wristband and monitors your movement. The data is uploaded to a smart phone or computer, and you can mine some information about your health and fitness.
It’s a smart phone peripheral. If you’re tracking, say, sleep patterns, sensors inside of a phone would not be optimal. You might sleep with your phone next to you, but you won’t have it on you. That’s why wearable computing has a future as peripheral sensing, display and control devices.
The Pebble smart watch is another good example of how wearable computing is evolving into very focused products. The priority for smart watch makers is to optimize battery life and fashionability with a small set of features. More functions mean shorter battery life and a clunkier look. Casio also has a watch that acts a smart phone peripheral. It’s targeting a two year battery life and has even smaller feature set.
Fitbit is getting it right, for the time being. The form factor of the Flex works, even if you’re wearing a watch. But long term, a lot of this technology will converge into a single smart watch. The easy part is shrinking sensor hardware and energy consumption – that’s a continuous process that you can count on. The harder part will be integrating software, both on board the watch and in smartphones, in a way that meets the needs of athletes. That could take a couple years or more. In the meantime small, special purpose devices like the Flex will have a chance to find a market.
Introduced at the show last year, 2net securely connects personal monitoring and measurement devices – glucose meters, activity trackers, blood pressure monitors, for example – to health professionals. It provides the gateway and and the backend servers, plus the Internet connectivity when necessary.
It's turned out to be a catalyst for wearable electronics. BodyMedia and FitBit are in the 2net family. So's Fitlinxx, which was showing its Pebble activity monitor. Not to be confused with the Pebble smart watch which debuted at CES yesterday. That's a trademark fight waiting to happen.
Corporate wellness programs are its target market. The half dollar sized device clips to a shoe or a belt and records steps taken, calories burned and other fitness metrics. It uses a proprietary 2.4 GHz data link to upload data to a hub, usually located on the company premises, and then on to the 2net platform.
They're just starting to move into the consumer space. Instead of installing a hub, consumers plug a USB dongle into their home computer and go from there to 2net, which then links them to their health care provider or fitness coach.
Between its Tricorder X-Prize competition and its $500 million health-related corporate venture capital fund, Qualcomm is betting that the health sector will be driving the growth of networked services, wired and wireless alike. So far, it's paying off.
The FitBit is the bit that fits inside the wristband.
Along with Alabama, Pepcom was a winner tonight. The second of the three major press group gropes at CES, it featured a tailgate party theme and the Notre Dame/Alabama game on big screens. Nearly 200 companies set up small displays at the MGM Grand, showing new products and new brand positioning.
Nexia was in the latter category. It's a re-branding of the Schlage Link home automation system. By establishing an independent brand identity, it can better position itself as a home automation platform for any Z-Wave compliant product.
Other home automation plays included…
Arrayent, a middleware company that's protocol agnostic and works directly for manufacturers, who then set up whatever relationship they want with consumers. More about them later.
Whirlpool, which is taking a well-considered step backward and focusing on networking appliances for truly useful reasons, rather than just slapping stuff onto refrigerators and washing machines.
Nest, which makes a thermostat that connects via WiFi to a server and watches what you do. The end result, they say, is that it learns your habits and adapts accordingly, eliminating the need for consumers to program it.
There were some interesting wearable computing products. Fitbit is an accelerometer that snaps into a nice enough looking wristband and monitors your fitness activities over the course of the day.
Basis was showing a wrist device that monitors your daily activity too, as well as your heart rate, perspiration and skin temperature, and gives you a health assessment via an app or web portal. And Martian Watch is a cool accessory to your smart phone. It sits on your wrist and lets you give voice commands and receive text messages via Bluetooth.