Today marks a momentous convergence of wearable powers. The indie smartwatch developer Pebble, notably popular among the Transitions lens crowd, will cease all production of its wristwear. It’s not technically the end, however, because Pebble’s software will live on under the hood of its main competitor. Per its Wednesday morning blog post: “I am happy to announce that many members of Team Pebble will be joining the Fitbit family to continue their work on wearable software platforms.” Let’s translate that statement in terms not obsessively massaged by a robust PR staff: Fitbit won.
Yes, Fitbit still has competitors. The Apple Watch and Android Wear will always be the tempting luxury upgrade to their entry-level product (even though Fitbit has President Obama as an unofficial rep). But in the long, competitive race between fitness-band-makers to claim wrist real estate, the company that once solicited VCs with nothing more than a circuit board in a wooden box has emerged as a victor.
It wasn’t an easy or inevitable journey. Fitbit may have been early to the step-tracking game with its initial late-aughts products, those little stopwatch-like gadgets you could clip to your pocket or waistband. But Jawbone was one of the first startups, if not the first startup, that the world noticed for stuffing tracking technology into a relatively stylish wristband, designed by none other than art-world darling Yves Béhar. The Nike+ FuelBand (RIP) and Fitbit Flex followed soon after, and, for the first time in consumer tech, the concept of the “Quantified Self” seemed less an outlandish Silicon Valley aspiration than an accessible way for the average white collar worker to track their activity.
But along with this new method of self-surveillance came a fresh batch of issues. Studies questioned their effectiveness, early iterations of bands broke easily, skin irritation ran rampant, and gobs of competitors emerged without warning, like White Walkers on a winter battlefield. What normal people cared about most, however, was that fitness wearables — especially those that ventured into more advanced heartbeat-monitoring capabilities — were just plain clunky. It’s for this reason that, despite early hiccups in functionality, the Yves-designed Jawbone eventually became a favorite among tech reviewers. In 2014, The Verge declared the UP24 — a slim wrap-around bracelet that came in a slew of bright colors — “The Best Fitness Tracker You Can Buy.” That was the same year, by the way, that Fitbit voluntarily recalled its Force wristband, after nearly 2 percent of its users reported skin irritation.
The Jawbone UP was pretty, but that didn’t equate success. Whispers of its wearable crisis began in early 2015, after Jawbone perpetually delayed the delivery of its latest product, the UP3, and announced it would not be waterproof as previously promised. Suddenly, scattered reports that Fitbit’s latest wristband was still sort of rashy didn’t seem so bad. (As a firsthand victim of the phenomenon, though, I will never forget.) Plus, the company was broadening its aesthetic appeal, forming partnerships with fashion designers like Tory Burch. Jawbone denies that it’s entirely exiting the wearables business, but consumer confidence in the brand has been shaken.
It’s starting to feel like the wearable craze is cooling. Yes, smart consumer tech sites still favor more capable fitness trackers from companies like Garmin. And recent studies show that wearables are technically useless when it comes to losing weight. But Fitbit seems to have nevertheless won the name-recognition trophy in the short-lived wearables war. Congrats, dudes, you’re officially the face of Big Wearables™. Now just promise us a rash-free future.