Commentary

Fitbit Joins The Smartwatch Race With Well-Reviewed Ionic

With time running out, Fitbit has unveiled its long-in-development smartwatch, the Ionic. Available for wrists everywhere in October, it may be to its chief competitors what a fitness blog is to an online newspaper’s health section — a highly targeted device for the wellness zealot.

“At $299.95, [the Ionic] will compete with incumbents such as Apple Inc.’s Apple Watch, which starts at $269. And while Fitbit is touting the health and fitness features on its device, building on its expertise in fitness trackers, the Ionic lacks some of the technological capabilities of an expected revamp of Apple Watch,” observes Yoree Koh for the Wall Street Journal.

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“The Ionic needs to be a big product for Fitbit. Sure, the company’s CEO assured me that it’s not make or break, but after years of research and development and tens of millions in acquisitions, Fitbit needs a hit,” writes Brian Heater for TechCrunch. “The company’s hedging its bets a bit by bringing on third-party launch partners like Starbucks and Pandora for its new app store.” And next year it will offer an Adidas-branded special edition of the Ionic, although “the details are pretty scant on precisely what the partnership means,” Heater reports.

But right off the bat, “the Ionic will come with something special: an enhanced heart rate reader that includes a relative SpO2 sensor capable of tracking the amount of oxygen in the blood over time,” reports Lisa Eadicicco for Time. “Fitbit hopes this technology will eventually allow it to detect conditions such as sleep apnea, a serious disorder in which someone's breathing is interrupted while they slumber.”

The Ionic does have other capabilities — some of them even better than Apple’s in that they are universal. (Not to mention “on-board music” and four-day battery life, as a promotional video touts.)

“The Ionic remains largely fitness-focused, but runs new software called Fitbit OS with notifications, an app store, multiple customizable watchfaces, and Fitbit Pay —allowing NFC-based retail payments anywhere contactless Visa, Mastercard and American Express transactions are accepted. That may give the platform a slight edge over Apple Pay, which requires that retailers be specifically compatible,” points out Roger Fingas for Apple Insider. “The watch syncs with iPhone, Android, and Windows devices,” he adds.

For the developers out there, “Fitbit OS will offer full support for third-party applications, with Fitbit drawing on the legacy of defunct smartwatch manufacturer Pebble, which it acquired last December,” writes Chaim Gartenberg for The Verge.

“Much like with Pebble OS, Fitbit applications will be relatively easy for developers to put together, with an SDK built on Javascript and SVG web standards. Developers will have full access to all sensors on the device, including heart rate, GPS, accelerometer and more. In addition to apps, users will also be able to install new third-party watchfaces through the Fitbit app, another aspect borrowed from Pebble,” Gartenberg continues.

“But despite all the new features, the emphasis is still decidedly on health and fitness,” writes Aaron Pressman for Fortune

“We believe success in this category requires a killer app and we feel health and fitness is that killer app,” CEO James Park tells Pressman. Fortunately, that coincides with the core strength of the company. The purpose of this watch is that it’s going to be the best health and fitness smartwatch on the market.”

And Park “seems unfazed” by competitors such as Apple and China-based Xiaomi, whose Mi Band fitness tracker costs $15, writesTimes Eadicicco. Park highlights his company's history as a health researcher, and the fact that Fitbit products work on both iOS and Android, she reports.

“[Apple] started off the life of the Apple Watch thinking of it as kind of a computer on the wrist,” Park says. “And they've shifted their position over time. It’s clear both of us feel that health and fitness is the killer app for this category.”

It probably is — at least for this season. 

Most of the early reviews for Ionic have been positive, and Wall Street has followed.

“The last time Fitbit had a watch to announce, things didn’t go so well. Shares plunged 18% when it introduced the Fitbit Blaze in January 2016,” reports Emily Bary for Barron’s. “So far, the encore has gone better. Fitbit shares rose 3.7% on Monday … after the company released information about … the Ionic.” 

But the question remains whether Fitbit has enough kick to overcome Apple Watch’s considerable lead, and rumors are that its Series 3 will be announced on Sept. 12 along with its 10th anniversary iPhones.

 
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