Fitbit Searches for Identity in a Crowded ‘Wearables’ Market

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

Before James Park and Eric Friedman co-founded Fitbit in 2007, Park recalled watching people play Nintendo’s Wii and become excited about utilizing its motion control capabilities. Suddenly, he said, it was cool to be playing sports games on a machine not usually associated with fitness.

“I was really amazed at the way motion sensors, which at the time were not a very prevalent technology in the consumer space, with amazing software … and through games like [Wii Sports] and Wii Fit [made] video gaming very active and positive, unlike the normal association we have with games–couch potatoes, being out of shape,” Park said during an innovators panel at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). “Eric and I thought, ‘How do we capture a lot of this attitude people have and put it into a more [tangible] form?'”

fitbit_foundersEric Friedman, left, and James Park, the co-founders of Fitbit. Photo courtesy of

That idea planted the seed for Fitbit, which eventually fueled the so-called modern “wearables” era. The original Fitbit–the Zip–was a small, visually appealing activity tracker that counted steps, distance and calories burned, and it quickly became immensely popular. Fast forward eight years to 2015, and the Fitbit family includes five more products, two of which were announced this week at CES.

The new Fitbit Charge HR and the Fitbit Surge (shown above) both include the essential features found on the other three devices: steps, distance and calories burned. The Charge HR, however, includes 24/7 heart rate monitoring, caller ID and sleep tracking, while the Surge includes all of the listed features plus GPS tracking and a larger display.

FitbitThe full Fitbit family (from left to right): Zip, One, Flex, Charge, Aria Smart Scale, Charge HR and Surge. Image courtesy of Fitbit

“When we first started the company, [not only was] the notion of ‘wearables’ still not very popular at all, but [we were] also not certain whether it could generate money for the company,” Park said at an innovators panel at CES. “There was a lot of skepticism, and a lot of investors questioning who would want this device.”

No one is questioning Fitbit now. The company owns 69 percent of marketshare in the wristband tracking industry as of last year, according to NPD Group, but the playing field is getting wider–much, much wider.

Until now, the industry tech writers have labeled the wearables industry as nascent, or up-and-coming. Fitness and activity trackers weren’t seen as much more than glorified pedometers for a long while. However, in the last few years, wearables have been on the verge of blowing up as Fitbit now faces competition from dozens and dozens of companies. Walking among the seemingly endless booths of fitness trackers and smartwatches at this year’s CES, sadly and ironically, made this writer quite tired.

From small start-ups to heavyweights like Samsung, LG and Sony, companies are churning out their own wearable tech. Samsung has their Galaxy Gear series; LG has their second G Watch R on the way; and Apple is poised to join the party this spring with the Apple Watch. Lenovo also unveiled their Vibe Band VB10 at CES this week, and Motorola’s Moto 360 has been selling well of late. Even clothing brands like Guess and Swarovski have teamed up with tech companies to hop on the wearables wagon with more fashionable devices and accessories.

AppleWatchCollectionsThe upcoming Apple Watch, expected in March, will start at $349.

Is the Fitbit CEO worried at all about the big name competition? Not really. And he shouldn’t be, for the time being. Park said most wearables are still trying to find their identity: Does it want to be fitness tracker, a smartwatch that pairs with a smartphone, a legitimate fashion accessory or all three? He emphasized that right now, less might be more for wearables.

“The first instinct might be to [think], ‘What are all the things we can cram into a device?'” Park explained. “But that’s not how you create a great product. … I think we did a very successful job of trying to manage all the different constraints.”

Park told Engadget that general purpose smartwatches haven’t figured out a clear reason why consumers would want one, at least not yet. Fitbit has always been dedicated to fitness tracking first and foremost, and Park said that wouldn’t change anytime soon.

When Fitbit decides to add extra features, they seem to take deliberate steps. For example, Fitbit teamed up with designer Tory Burch last year for a more elegant line of pendants and bracelets that can dress up the Fitbit. The initial line sold out in hours, according to Park.

The Caller ID feature on the Charge HR and Surge, as well as the larger display on the latter, is the closest Fitbit will probably come to addressing the looming number of smartwatches on the market–at least for a while. But for now, Fitbit remains the most recognized and popular brand of dedicated fitness tracker. The price point will definitely will keep Fitbit in the game for a while. The cheapest product, the Zip, runs $60, while the most expensive, the Surge, goes for a modest $250 in comparison to other high-end, dedicated smartwatches.

With huge names like Apple taking the wearables market seriously, it will only raise the profile of activity trackers and smartwatches from the dedicated fitness gurus and the hardcore techies to the average consumer. Keep an eye out for wearables in 2015–this might be the year you buy one, if you don’t have one yet.

You can find more information on the full Fitbit lineup at their website.


Featured image courtesy of Fitbit