Whatever way you look at it, it’s been an interesting last 12 months for Fitbit. It was the best selling wearable brand in 2015 and it kicked off 2016 by announcing the Fitbit Blaze in January before showing off the Fitbit Alta a month later.
It’s not all been good news though. The company’s been targeted with a lawsuit over the accuracy of its heart rate data and its stock price has taken a hammering recently.
Essential reading: Fitbit Blaze review
Fitbit is not worrying though. At least that’s the feeling I get from Gareth Jones, vice president and general manager for the EMEA division. The company now apparently has 10.9 million active users, worldwide growth is up by 100% and by 200% in Europe. This is a $2 billion dollar company.
We spoke to Jones at the unveiling of the Alta, the company’s stylish fitness tracker and latest addition to its everyday lifestyle range. It’s a tracker aimed at the everyday user, the kind of person that would be looking at the Fitbit Flex or the One trackers.
The Alta, which is already up for grabs in the US and landing elsewhere in April, signals a shift in philosophy for Fitbit. One it hopes will help keep them ahead of the competition.
Style and substance
It doesn’t take very long to realise that design is the big deal here. Like the Blaze, Fitbit is hoping the Alta will appeal to a more fashionable clientele and it was a strategic ploy to get the right people talking about the fitness tracker.
“It was our plan to get these devices out early in the year,” Jones said. “With the Blaze, it was about that time of the year when people are thinking, ‘new year, new you’. We used the communication of the Alta four weeks after the announcement of Blaze by using the fashion shows.”
The appearance of the Alta during NYFW was signalled by a high profile hook-up with edgy New York fashion label Public School to give the tracker a suitably unique makeover.
Jones is confident this is not the end of the designer collaborations. “There’s going to be complimentary partnerships to bring that style to something people want to wear everyday and vice versa,” he said. “Personally, I would love to have a Paul Smith one, a Gucci one, a whole variety of trendy brands.”
So when did Fitbit decide it was time to think beyond that elastomer rubber band?
“If you look back at the Flex, that’s when we realised people wanted something different,” Jones tells me. “We had the little sensor and the wristband you could take it out of. That was the first time really we felt it was time. It’s been a continuous learning process.
“We’ve engaged with people to come and work with Fitbit whose line of expertise is in accessories. It’s not in fitness tracking or software but how to improve the look and feel and the levels of variety.”
Shouting about software
Design is just one piece of the puzzle of course and while Fitbit hasn’t offered anything groundbreaking in the software department, Gareth believes as a company, it’s not been making a big enough deal about the software improvements that are continually being made.
“We spend a lot of time on the app,” Jones told me. “Our app changes month to month. We did something the other day, which in retrospect was not so clever marketing.
“In December we launched SmartTrack and we rolled that out free for everyone. We just kind of sat there. That’s such a big feature. That is something we are doing wrong. We are not making a big enough fuss about of the improvements we constantly make. We did a software upgrade for the Surge where we improved the GPS battery time from 5 hours to 10 hours and we never said anything about it.”
The advanced sensors
Thoughts of Fitbit’s future plans takes us back Fitbit to an interview that CEO James Park gave late last year promising advanced sensors and more meaningful data. It’s fair to say that the Blaze and the Alta hasn’t really delivered on that front, but Jones claims Fitbit is still on track to deliver more innovation.
“When you think about the roadmap for these products were probably first in development anything to 12-14 months ago,” he explained. “The cycles on these products are not three month cycles. We have a roadmap that goes well beyond the next two, three and four years.
“Some of them are still concept, others are at a stage where the sensors are available but either too big, too power hungry, not accurate enough for everyday use. What you see is probably see is 12-18 months of prior work. There’ll be more new products, more advancements. There’ll be refinement to existing products.”
The talk of sensors brings us to an interesting conversation we had recently with GPS module maker OriginGPS who was pretty critical of Fitbit’s decision not to include GPS built into the Alta or the Blaze. You can track GPS with the Blaze but you have to do it piggybacking off your smartphone’s GPS. Jones believes there is a very straightforward reason for the decision not to include GPS.
“It’s related to the size of the products,” he said. “We wanted to design a product that had a certain slimness, a certain size profile. We associate GPS with a performance product. So that’s why it’s in the Surge.
“You can do GPS by your phone and that’s good. It’s more automatic than before. Now you just choose it and it saves the profile. That has been highly acceptable for most people. We have the functionality but we have the tradeoff of the slimness.”
The WhatsApp debate
While Fitbit doesn’t call the Blaze a smartwatch, it does have smartwatch-features. You can still see texts and calendar appointments and reject phone call from the tracker. It doesn’t however play nice with third party app notifications and that’s something that we’ve been critical of. Giving apps like WhatsApp some notification love is something Fitbit is aware of.
“We get that feedback,” said Jones. “People will always say I wish it had that. We’ve got a product that delivers texts, calls and calendar notifications. That’s what people want when they’re on the treadmill. Now they’ve got that, people are saying that they want things like WhatsApp support.
“Now remember this (Blaze) kicked off in the development cycle of 14-18 months and WhatsApp wasn’t prevalent as it is today. Right now the product doesn’t have it, but that doesn’t mean were not listening to what people want. It’s on that list of ‘we know people want this’ and we will look at the viability to it.”
Taking on Apple
And so to Apple. It seems virtually impossible to talk about Fitbit and not talk about the company that entered the wearable space last year with the Apple Watch. Apple never reveals its sales figures, but we’ve written enough stories from analysts that all point to Apple’s growing presence, which could put Fitbit’s position at the top of the wearable pile under threat.
Jones doesn’t believe it’s fair to compare the two wearables but does believe Apple is riding on the wave of Fitbit creating awareness about health and wellness. He does remain unconvinced that the fitness credentials of the Apple Watch is up to scratch.
“When you dig into it, it’s a bit of jack of trades,” Jones said. “How do you get on with that with the 16 hours battery life? Or the continuous heart rate tracking that’s not continuous and is actually every 15 minutes and is only continuous if you press a button? But then it’s only for a short time and the battery runs down after.”
He does believe Apple will get it right eventually. “The iPad of the day doesn’t bear much resemblance to the iPad of five of six years”, Jones explained. “Apple is a company with continuous improvement. I am sure its next iterations will improve the feature sets they already have. What’s good for us is though is the more they shout about, the more it’s going to grow people’s awareness of the market place.”