It hasn't been a great year for wearables, with sluggish sales and underwhelming products dominating the space. If the category had an Oscars-style 'In Memoriam' reel, it would feature several smartwatches that I loved deeply. For me, at least, devices from Apple, Samsung and Google that try to recreate the smartphone experience on the wrist just aren't compelling. But those companies want to be the only games in town after the demise of low-power companies like Pebble, Vector and Basis. That is why I'm hoping that Fitbit can swoop in and produce a smartwatch that people actually want to use.
Fitbit has been buying up companies like crazy, including at least three startups that may be crucial to its future plans. Back in May, it picked up Coin, and in December it rescued Pebble from its financial woes. Then, earlier this month, it acquired Romanian startup Vector before news leaked out that it had unsuccessfully attempted to buyJawbone. That's not a strategy of swallowing your competitors for the hell of it, but recruiting rock-solid experience for building a potentially great smartwatch.
The clue is in the commonalities, since Pebble and Vector both developed low-power smartwatches with push-button user interfaces. We know for instance, thanks to New Balance, that buttons are a better way to interact with a watch than a touchscreen. You don't have to take your gloves off to use them in winter, and it's easier for runners to mark their lap times with a physical button.
Then there's the fact that both Vector and Pebble produced devices that had always-on displays, which the Fitbit Blazelacked. After all, you can't subtly check the time during a dull conversation if you have to activate your watch's display with your hand. Not to mention that both devices had much longer battery life, with Pebble lasting seven days and the Vector going for up to 30 (or more) at a time. The fact that the Vector was, basically, a classier, better-looking and longer-lasting rip off homage to the Pebble means that integrating the two should be easy.
That, in isolation, looks pretty exciting, if only because Fitbit would undoubtedly weave in its fitness-tracking know-how. And that's to say nothing of the company's purchase of Coin, a payments startup that built a universal digital credit card. The concept was simple: a device the size of a normal card was paired with your smartphone. You would then use the companion app to copy the payment details from each of your credit cards to the device. Then, when at a store, you could select which card you wanted to use from Coin's memory and boom, it worked.
The second generation of the device also incorporated NFC, and Coin was already looking to leverage that technology for a payments watch. It had shaken hands with companies like Atlas Wearables, Omate and Moov to bring its technology to their devices. This, more than anything else, was likely one of the reasons that Fitbit decided to purchase Coin. After all, this universal payments system should be more flexible than either of Apple or Google's implementation; you don't need to wait for your bank to sign up with either tech company to start spending money.
Of course, there's no evidence that such a device is in the works, and a Fitbit spokesperson I spoke with offered little more than a "no comment." But the fact that Fitbit moved to buy these companies and integrate their employees into its own teams is telling. If Fitbit can strike out on its own, rather than building just another Android Wear smartwatch, its next device could be pretty exciting indeed.
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