Google’s senior VP of Hardware, Rick Osterloh, announced Thursday that Google has closed its acquisition of Fitbit. The $2.1 billion deal was announced back in November 2019 and kicked off a regulatory review process from governments around the world concerned about Google’s influence over the Internet and the data it can collect on users.
Normally, Osterloh announcing that “Google has completed its acquisition of Fitbit, and I want to personally welcome this talented team to Google” would mean Google has cleared its worldwide regulatory gauntlet. Google’s announcement today is highly unusual since the Department of Justice has not yet cleared the deal. As the DOJ told New York Times reporter Cecilia Kang, “The Antitrust Division’s investigation of Google’s acquisition of Fitbit remains ongoing.” Australian regulators also haven’t announced a final decision on the merger. It seems particularly provocative for Google to do something like this while it is also dealing with a DOJ antitrust investigation.
When asked about the status of the DOJ’s merger investigation, a Google spokesperson told Ars, “We complied with the DOJ’s extensive review for the past 14 months, and the agreed-upon waiting period expired without their objection. We continue to be in touch with them and we’re committed to answering any additional questions. We are confident this deal will increase competition in the highly crowded wearables market, and we’ve made commitments that we plan to implement globally.”
However the legal issues work out, the announcement doesn’t give away a lot about Google’s future plans for Fitbit. Osterloh starts by praising Fitbit’s existing lineup, calling out the Fitbit Sense smartwatch, the Inspire 2 tracker, and various Fitbit health metrics. Google doesn’t make cheap fitness trackers, but the company’s Google Fit app has a lot of overlap here in both smartwatches and health metrics. Google says it wants to “make health and wellness more accessible to more people” and “we’re confident the combination of Fitbit’s leading technology, product expertise and health and wellness innovation with the best of Google’s AI, software and hardware will drive more competition in wearables and make the next generation of devices better and more affordable.”
Fitbit’s CEO, president, and co-founder James Park also has a blog post today, saying, “Many of the things you know and love about Fitbit will remain the same. We’ll stay committed to doing what’s right, to putting your health and wellness at the center of everything we do, and to offering a no-one-size-fits-all approach with choices that work across both Android and iOS.”
The Fitbit and Google overlap
Google’s existing wearables platform, Wear OS, seems pretty dead. The operating system’s last major update was in 2018, and even before that, Wear OS never had a solid hardware foundation to build on. Qualcomm—Android’s primary SoC supplier—never gave Wear OS a chance, choosing instead to smother the smartwatch platform with absolutely terrible SoC releases. Since the beginnings of Wear OS in 2014, Qualcomm’s marketing department has created the Snapdragon 400, Wear 2100, and Wear 3100, but at their heart, they are all quad-core Cortex A7 SoC built on a 28nm manufacturing process. It wasn’t until the 2020 announcement of the Wear 4100 that Qualcomm released a wearables SoC that will benchmark higher than those original 2014 chips.
On the other hand, Wear OS’s primary competition, the Apple Watch, has the luxury of Apple’s in-house SoC division, which see regular performance improvements every year. Apple doesn’t officially talk much about chip specs, but it says the latest Apple Watch S6 SoC is based on the A13 Bionic, and since the A13 is 7nm, the S6 most likely is, too. As a 12nm quad-core Cortex A53-based SoC, the Snapdragon Wear 4100 is still in no way competitive with what Apple is putting out, with Qualcomm only promising an 85 percent performance improvement compared to seven years ago. When you’re starving to death, though, everything looks like a delicious meal.
Google Fit has fallen victim to Google’s impulsiveness: the company says it cares about a certain market, but it just can’t seem to keep products focused, running, and well-supported in those markets. Wear OS used to have best-in-class weight-training tracking, which could automatically detect and log workout movements, but Google inexplicably killed the feature about two months ago. There used to be a Google Fit website, which like Fitbit, would present all your stats from a big dashboard, but Google killed the Google Fit website in early 2019 after years of neglect. It ended up never supporting things like Wear OS’s weight tracking, which launched in 2017.
Neither Google Fit nor Wear OS was mentioned a single time in the announcements from Google and Fitbit Thursday.
Fitbit isn’t a slam-dunk acquisition in the health sector, either. While the company was a trailblazer in the original step-counter market and could (maybe) be seen as a valuable brand, Fitbit’s market share has collapsed down to single digits thanks to increased competition. Apple is attacking it from the high end with the Apple Watch, and Chinese firms like Xiaomi are dominating in the cheap step-counter market. How a Fitbit/Google team-up will solve either of those problems is unclear. It also won’t give Google smartwatches a stable, competitive hardware platform, which they desperately need. This deal feels more like two last-place companies teaming up to try to survive.
Privacy and the example Nest has left
A big question about the Fitbit acquisition, like the Nest acquisition before it, is what Google will do with all of Fitbit’s data. This subject was a major battleground during the EU’s investigation into the deal, and Google has made some commitments to the EU in order to get the deal approved.
Google’s side of the story is laid out in the blog post, with Osterloh saying, “This deal has always been about devices, not data, and we’ve been clear since the beginning that we will protect Fitbit users’ privacy… Fitbit users’ health and wellness data won’t be used for Google ads and this data will be separated from other Google ads data.” Google also says it won’t do anything crazy with Android, like lock all Android phones exclusively to Fitbit wearables, which apparently was something the EU was worried about.
The EU’s part of this is here and mostly says the same thing, noting, “Google will maintain a technical separation of the relevant Fitbit’s user data. The data will be stored in a ‘data silo’ which will be separate from any other Google data that is used for advertising.” This sounds a lot like the data-separation pledge Google has for Nest, where Google says it will “keep your video footage, audio recordings, and home environment sensor readings separate from advertising.” The EU also says Google is committed to letting third parties access Fitbit data through the Fitbit Web API. The duration of Google’s commitment is 10 years.
Existing Fitbit data certainly needs to be protected, and you can delete your Fitbit account here if you would like to do that. Going forward, though, Fitbit’s fitness tracking and Google’s Wear OS fitness tracking are so similar that Google is not really getting a new data stream from Fitbit acquisition. The one new product area might be cheap Fitbit-style step counters, but Android smartphones can already do that, and so can the Android smartwatches. Google will gain more users thanks to the existing Fitbit user base, but as we’ve already said, that’s not very big since all the competitors have moved in.
There’s still a big question of what will happen to Fitbit accounts. If we follow the Nest story, which only merged with Google in 2018 after a failed few years as a standalone Alphabet company, big changes are probably coming for Fitbit users. Nest users saw the Nest account system get killed off in favor of a forced migration to a unified Google account. This also led to the loss of the “Works with Nest” API, which broke compatibility with other devices and services. As a brand, Nest was hollowed out and used for Google’s general smart home branding, replacing the Google Home speaker line, smart displays, and Wi-Fi access points, while still being used on original Nest products like thermostats, cameras, and smoke detectors.
It certainly seems like Made by Google Fitbit-branded devices will eventually arrive, and Google will probably enter the cheaper fitness tracker market. That doesn’t solve any of the problems that have stopped Google from competing in wearables before, though. When Google and Fitbit individually couldn’t compete with Apple, Samsung, and Xiaomi, it’s not clear why they think their odds would be better together.
Ars Policy Reporter Kate Cox contributed to this report.
Listing image by Fitbit