Thanks to the Apple Watch, 2014 is the year that Fitbit moved quickly back into the pack

By James Robinson , written on October 28, 2014

From The News Desk

Fitbit was a rare beast in 2007 when it was founded: an actual hardware startup in a time when such a thing was laughed at, taking the humble pedometer and giving it a huge software upgrade. The company took a big retailer first approach, slowly building out a network of 30,000 stores in 28 countries, staying relatively under the radar. It's held big time competition from Nike's FuelBand at bay and laps Jawbone's UP band in sales. Last Christmas it had 77 percent of the retail market. And this is all despite spending no money on marketing and having a CEO in James Park positively allergic to theatrics and hype.

But it hasn't been the best year for Fitbit. There was the product recall for the Fitbit Force, where some users started breaking out in rashes and getting dermatitis. With little media profile to begin with, the company was left sounding strangely flat footed and robotic in communicating with users. There's also been increasing, nagging concerns about activity tracker's high abandonment rates. As Rock Health estimated in June, 80 percent of wearers set them aside within six months.

It all ties up though into the greatest concern of all about the activity tracker: that its simple mixture of an accelerometer and good algorithms could simply all be folded up into a better, bigger piece of technology. These concerns were amplified many times over by the announcement of the Apple Watch, which did just this, promising to measure steps, elevation, and heart rate, alongside being a pretty decent smart watch and having the shiny halo over it of being an Apple product that people are generally just going to buy the hell out of. My iPhone as is has much of the function of a standard Fitbit.

Which again leaves Fitbit in a weird spot. Jawbone spent much of the year integrating its UP band with a wide array of smart devices, announcing integrations with everything from Whistle and Automatic -- which track dogs and cars respectively -- to SmartThings and Nest, to ensure the UP Band can remain relevant by being part of a wider smart home ecosystem.

Fitbit has been completely hands off, which leaves it isolated. And a year is an extraordinarily long time in tech today. So when Fitbit announced its three new products yesterday morning, the company had a new pall over it, that of follower, not innovator.

The products look decent, just no longer market-leading. Fitbit's Charge (a so-called Fitness Super Watch!) is a really good Fitbit with some smart watch functionality, able to recognize a smartphone nearby and show you who is calling or texting, alongside some remote phone controls. The bigger display allows it to show real time exercise data. It includes GPS, can divine more accurately by type of exercise, and has eight sensors in it, including heart rate. It can go a week without a charge, reportedly. Alongside Charge, Fitbit announced the Surge and the Surge HR (the latter also has 24/7 heart rate monitoring) that are sophisticated upgrades to the old Fitbits. They'll also interact with a smartphone, track data more smoothly and you no longer need to double tap it like a dork to let you know when you've gone to sleep. The Charge is available now, but the Surge HR and the Surge will be out in early 2015.

Apple's watch isn't out yet, but its shadow is long. Fitbit's new products are big improvements from its baseline, but the idea of the Apple Watch got so far past it that it's still coming out as an imitator. Fitbit has its vast retail network to get these products out and its staid yet very sensible focus on physical point of sale education will count for something.

But you don't need Fitbit to track your fitness anymore. The company is stuck between appealing to fitness nerds and mass market buyers, many of whom have swoony Apple goggles on. The Surge super watch is out on the same day as the Apple Watch (it's also $100 cheaper). This is Fitbit taking aim at Apple. But the company always prided itself on developing a customer base over building up an image. Its product relevance is slipping and its competition just got a lot steeper.

People have used Fitbit for years now, but it is hard to argue they ever loved it as a company, and that's an X-factor that might end up hurting it. Come January 2015, Fitbit is going to put being boring and reliable up against a new toy from a hardware monolith with a bigger cash reserve than the US Government. That's going to be a scary fight.

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]