It’s great software and sensors that are winning the day, riding the cutting edge of smartphone development.The Fitbit One was an excellent silent alarm clock, before the accident.
Three times a week, at 5 a.m., it would rouse me from bed to go running. In fact, it worked so well that I grew to anticipate its quiet rhythmic buzz, often waking up as much as 30 minutes before it went off.
The day after I banged into a doorframe and accidentally mangled the metal clip that held my Fitbit in place, I began to learn something else about such devices: They’re remarkably vulnerable to competition.
The San Francisco company that produces the sleek multifunction fitness tracker has just won $43 million in new financing. Fitbit will use the money to accelerate its hiring of hardware and software engineers, designers, product managers, data analysts, and marketers. But insofar as the company employs those people to design new hardware, it will be fighting a battle the company will ultimately lose to software.
Back in my Fitbit’s glory days, I wore my Fitbit nearly every day after receiving it as a gift, eagerly tracking the rise and fall of my daily step-counts. I’d clip it to my shirt each day as I put my iPhone in my pocket. I tracked my sleep, running, and stair-climbing stats, putting its mighty, embedded accelerometer to work.
The day I banged into the doorframe, I set both the Fitbit and its replaceable clip down. After repairing the clip with pliers to avoid spending $14.95 on a replacement, I discovered the battery had lost its charge. Annoyed that I couldn’t find the $19.95 charging cable included with my Fitbit, and still interested in my step-count, I recalled a free iPhone app called Moves to track activity created by Finland’s ProtoGeo. Thirty seconds later, I was tracking my steps again using the hardware I already carried everywhere, an iPhone 5. I no longer needed to remember to charge my Fitbit, and Moves cleverly kept a logbook of my daily whereabouts by using my iPhone’s built-in GPS.
Moves marked the end of the line for my Fitbit. (Truthfully, my waning interest in personal health stats also marked the end of the line for Moves, which I eventually deleted.) But the experience illustrates the growing threat smartphones pose not just to Fitbit, but an entire class of gadgets, including the Nike Fuelband and Jawbone Up. When it comes to tracking personal health data—a requirement for moving us closer to an age of truly personalized healthcare—the fix is in. It’s great software and sensors that are winning the day, riding the cutting edge of smartphone development.
Smartphone software can replicate every major feature of the Fitbit, from sleep-tracking, a feature of certain Fitbit trackers, to wireless syncing for keeping my activity data up-to-date.
There are, of course, cases in which only tailor-made hardware will do (okay, Glass). But those cases are few and far between.
Happily for Fitbit and its venture backers—Qualcomm Ventures, SAP Ventures, SoftBank Capital, Foundry Group, and True Ventures—the company has not even come close to losing the race with its competitors. Fitbit’s software is nice to look at and easy to use.
Fitbit has smartly built on its ability to pull data from nearly every major smartphone health tracking app into a dashboard, providing an at-a-glance overview of the user’s health and fitness stats, given a reasonable dedication to consistent tracking. The company’s plans to spend its new millions on data analysts, designers, and software engineers will undoubtedly help advance its mission to capture clear and actionable data for people who see this as a way to improve their own health.
Meanwhile, it has already solved my clip-bending problem by introducing a new generation of wrist-worn Fitbits in January. I hear they’re wonderful.
August 14, 2013