Fitbit buying Pebble will NOT help it crack the code on smartwatches

For some reason, discussions of smartwatches make me twitch. Maybe it’s because I got my first smartwatch over 10 years ago.* Maybe it’s because I’ve watched “the next great category” of mobile devices come and go or fling themselves repeatedly on the rocks of disappointment. Maybe it’s because I’ve played with sensors, data, mobiles, and wearables for a long time and have not seen anyone “crack the code.”

OK, call me a cynic and a curmudgeon. Yes, there are many others in the industry who (should) know more than I do. Though, I don’t see anyone really “getting it.” And, admittedly, I don’t like doing the “I can tell what’s not right” thing, rather than the “let me help you to the right place” thing of figuring out where the fusion of sensors, mobile, and wearable devices will head (though I do have many inklings).

A pebble in your shoe
The Fitbit CEO says they bought Pebble to help them crack the code on smartwatches. He says:

“We don’t think there’s been any product out there in smartwatches that combine general purposes, functionality, health and fitness, industrial design, and long battery life into one package.” [from: Fitbit CEO says buying Pebble could help it crack the code on smartwatches, The Verge]

Does he mean that not even Pebble has cracked the code? Because if Pebble hasn’t, then buying them won’t automagically impart the ability to crack the code to Fitbit.

In any case, the CEO of Fitbit is looking in the wrong place. I do not see anyone who has all the pieces in place to actually crack the code on smartwatches.

The future is here but unevenly and all that jazz
I mentioned I got a smartwatch over 10 years ago. It was a Suunto T6 (pictured), which connected to a heart rate band and a foot pod accelerometer (I didn’t buy the GPS pod because I already had a GPS pod for my phone). Suunto hasn’t stopped making, what they called, wrist-top computers. Nor have Garmin or Polar, Suunto competitors since that time. A good example of how these watches have evolved is, my favorite, the Garmin Fenix 3.

What lessons can Fitbit learn from Garmin, Suunto, Polar who have knocked it out of the park with smartwatches (ugh, “smart” is so stupid, can we just call then “watches” fercryingoutlout)?

True, Fitbit, and all the others, want to hit the large “consumer” market. Since Fitbit is obsessed with measurement, they mean “consumers” are all those people who don’t HAVE to measure themselves, such as the chronically ill, or those who aren’t DRIVEN to measure themselves, such as athletes or QSers.

Fitbit and peers seem to be proposing WHAT folks should measure and HOW. But their lack of success in getting traction with those consumers suggest that these WHATs and HOWs do not match the WHATs and HOWs that capture the consumer market.

By focusing on a driven segment, Garmin, Suunto, and Polar have been able to hone their offering to their customers and prove that watches with a lot of computing power and location awareness are something a segment of folks will pay for and keep using.

What’s the equivalent catch that will match what Fitbit and Pebble bring to the consumer segment with what the consumer segment really wants out of these devices?

Sales flop
We all know that these devices – from the fancy Fitbit pedometers to the expensive Apple watches – are not holding folks’ attention, especially when compared with the rabid attachment folks have for their phones. Everyone likes to track the sales of these devices that Fitbit and others are churning out. Why are we not talking about usage rather than sales?

Back in my day, Nokia wasn’t only bent on selling phones, but also thrilling the user so that the devices would drive up ARPU (average revenue per user, aka meterable usage) for carriers and a repeat purchase of a phone. Device success wasn’t just tied to sales, but usage and repeats sales.

What’s the equivalent of ARPU for Fitbit, Pebble, Apple, and others? What’s the churn? What’s the repeat purchase for subsequent models?

Can someone find me those metrics?

I’m not the first to grumble about this. There are been articles (here’s one from 2015) and analyst reports (PDF report from 2014), on churn and usage for some time.

Why don’t the vendors report these metrics?

Wooden strategy
The Palm had its humble origins in a wooden block that the designer carried around to capture how he would use a mobile handheld computer. Who is doing the equivalent to Palm and the wooden block, but with watches?

I have no idea how Fitbit and others are actually designing their mobile devices. But from what I see, there are folks approaching wearables from the device and sensor perspective, pushing the product promise around steps, accuracy, sleeping measurement, heart rate sensors, and so forth. Another group seems to approach wearables from the data perspective, focused on showing data galore to users.

The answer lies somewhere in between, where the success of wearables will be in the fusion of data, devices, and, most importantly, in how the user experiences that data and those devices. Hence, nobody seems to have the right go-to-market approach. Most of the vendors focus on the data and the device, the apps and developers, not the core human need that would get someone to buy it in the first place, that is, a need that is relevant to the general consumer.

Taking the measure of Fitbit
Fitbit (and I feel all the others) are using measurement as the main draw of all their watches and gizmos. Measurement is what folks who are DRIVEN or folks with chronic conditions HAVE to do. But is that what the general public wants out of a device they carry with them everywhere?

Fitbit, based on the quote above, has missed the trick if they want to get into the general consumer world of watches. And I know what happens when device manufacturers can’t think beyond their device features.

If you want to make a digital device on someone’s wrist absolutely essential, it’s not going to be due to wiz-bang sensors or measurement, or fantastical dahsboards or indicators of my steps or fitness.

A digital watch will be essential when it helps me work better, be better, communicate better, know better, feel better, get through my day and relationships better.

Ah, of course, we already have that digital device – it’s our phone.

My challenge to you
Put a frakkin’ wooden block on your wrist. Tell me why you look at it or want it to do something as you go about your day. How does it complement the things you carry, such as your keys, phone, and wallet – the things you check for before heading out the door, the things you would turn around for and go back home to get?

If anyone is studying this, let me know. If you think I’m full of krap, let me know.

Until then, I’ll be a curmudgeon, twitching every time someone thinks they can “crack the code” around smartwatches.


*Hey, if you go “WTF, the T6 isn’t a smartwatch.” Of course, by today’s expectations.  That’s like saying the PowerBook 100 wasn’t a laptop.