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Fitbit Blaze watches are displayed during the 2016 CES trade show in Las Vegas, Nevada January 6, 2016. The $199.95 smart fitness watches are expected to be available in March, a representative said. REUTERS/Steve Marcus – GF20000086104

What Google eyeing Fitbit says about where wearables are heading

Amrita Khalid
By Amrita Khalid

Tech reporter

From our Obsession

Big Tech

Looking at Big Tech as the next Big Oil.

The makers of one of the original fitness trackers could become Google’s first entry into the crowded wearables market.

Reuters reported Oct. 28 that Alphabet is in talks to buy Fitbit. Google still doesn’t have its own hardware for Wear OS, the version of its Android operating system it developed for wearables, and given Google just had its big hardware unveiling event, it seems unlikely we’ll see the rumored Pixel Watch anytime soon. Instead, the 12-year old fitness tracker company may become a part of Google’s strategy to take on the Apple Watch.

Many read Google’s purchase of Fossil’s smartwatch technology earlier this year as a sign that the company is taking Wear OS more seriously. It partnered with Xiaomi, the major Chinese electronics manufacturer, to release a new Wear OS smartwatch due in November. But Wear OS is still a relatively small player in the smartwatch game, with Apple, Samsung, and Fitbit accounting for 88% of US smartwatch sales, according to a February report from NPD Group, with Fitbit itself capturing about 11% of the market.

Google has largely partnered with watch brands like Fossil, Skagen, and Emporio Armani to provide the tech behind their smartwatches, and others, such as LG, have built their own watches with Google’s OS. As a consequence, Wear OS devices have largely had a hodgepodge of features compared to its competitors and widely vary in price. By acquiring a company that makes a comprehensive set of wearables like Fitbit, Google may find a popular home to develop Wear OS even further. Although Google recently unveiled a slew of new smart devices, including the fourth generation of its Pixel smartphone, it still has yet to produce its own smartwatch. A new device, combining Google’s AI technology and Fitbit’s wearable hardware prowess, could help round out the company’s line of house-made products.

Outside of the US, Apple remains the top-seller of smartwatches. Industry analysts vary slightly on which companies are Apple’s biggest threats abroad. Samsung, along with Chinese companies like Huawei and imoo are Apple’s biggest competitors abroad, according to an analysis by Counterpoint. Fossil, which relies on Wear OS, only accounted for 2.5% of the global smartwatch market in the first quarter of 2019.

Negotiations appear to be in the early stages, so there’s still a chance a deal won’t happen. Quartz reached out to both Google and Fitbit for confirmation of the Reuters report. “Fitbit does not comment on rumors or speculation,” a Fitbit spokesperson wrote in an email to Quartz. A representative from Google sent a similar statement. Fitbit’s stock price shot up about 30%, closing the day yesterday at $5.64 after the Reuters report.

If an acquisition happens, it’s unclear what will happen to current Fitbit users. Throughout its history, Fitbit has made an effort to create and maintain its own interface and refused to partner with Wear OS or any other smartwatch platform. While other early pioneers like Jawbone and Pebble (which Fitbit acquired) are long gone, Fitbit is one of the only early fitness trackers that has survived despite more technologically advanced entries from Apple, Samsung, and Huawei entering the market. Its most recent offerings can easily hold their own against most smartwatches. Fitbit’s Versa 2 can make payments, sync with Amazon’s Alexa, hail an Uber, and play your Spotify playlists. If Google sees Fitbit as a new home for Wear OS, it could mean major changes are in store for Fitbit OS—if it survives at all.