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Fitbit Gets Struck by Silicon Valley’s Hardware Hex

November 4, 2019, 2:28 PM UTC

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There’s a cliché in Silicon Valley that hardware is hard. The great companies of the technology industry emphasized software. That was true even for noted gear makers like Cisco, which outlasted (or bought) a bevy of competitors. Apple, of course, was the exception. Its unique computers (with plenty of software) made it a player long after its initial peak. Later, it became the unexpected king of mobile phones, an industry dominated by a small group of decades-old, non-Silicon Valley players.

I first wrote about Fitbit in 2015, before it went public, in an article about another failing Silicon Valley hardware maker, Jawbone. (It actually did fail shortly after I wrote about it.) “We actually knew nothing about hardware,” Fitbit CEO James Park told me then, about his and his co-founder’s starting point. They learned, they operated efficiently, and they succeeded gloriously, reaching 68% share of the North American fitness tracker market in 2014.

Google agreed last week to buy Fitbit for about $2 billion, a rounding-error outlay for the tech behemoth that makes it difficult to predict Fitbit’s future. Regulatory approval isn’t certain. Neither is Google’s commitment to the hardware brands it buys. (Motorola, Nest, and HTC have met varying fates.) Apple’s watch, meanwhile, derided for its lack of innovation when it debuted, has become a leader, neatly fitting into Apple’s network of gadgets and services. It’s worth noting, as I have before, the one direct competitor to Apple and Fitbit that has soared: Garmin, which reported solid earnings last week. The company is worth $17 billion, and is located about as existentially far from Silicon Valley as possible, in suburban Kansas City.

***

The sports agent Barry Frank died last week. I interviewed him once, for an article about DirecTV, when News Corp. controlled it. He was explaining the importance of sports programming to me, and he argued that a key ingredient was servicing the needs of committed gamblers. He introduced me to the concept of a vigorish, or vig for short. Not much of a gambler myself, I’d never heard the word. Any time someone used it after that, I associated the word with him.

***

I’m in a mode of finishing long-delayed projects. This weekend I finally completed listening to Michelle Obama’s outstanding book, Becoming, which I’d been playing off and on since last winter. She reads the book, so listening to it makes you feel like you are hanging out with this exceedingly normal person who has led an extraordinary life. It’s also a reminder of a time when the President of the United States behaved with dignity, decency, and grace. (Any Fortune 500 CEO who made up details of a successful transaction to make it sound better would be roundly condemned.)

I’m on the hunt for my next audio book. Recommendations welcome.

Adam Lashinsky

On Twitter: @adamlashinsky

Email: adam_lashinsky@fortune.com

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.

NEWSWORTHY

The tippy, tippy, tippy top. The debate over most valuable companies in the world as-measured-by-stock-markets is about to get a bit more crowded. Joining Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google shortly is Saudi Arabia's Aramco, the national oil giant which is seeking a $2 trillion valuation in its IPO later this month.

Moving on up. Speaking of Apple, the company announced on Monday a $2.5 billion program to improve the affordable housing scene in its part of Silicon Valley. The company's commitments include $1 billion to subsidize building more affordable housing and $1 billion to subsidize first-time home buyers. Apple will also contribute some valuable land it owns.

Shiny new thing. Smartphone sales sagged again...but wait, no, smartphone sales in the third quarter actually grew from a year earlier, the first gain since 2017. It was a 2% increase, to 366 million devices, led by gains from Samsung and Huawei, according to a report by market research firm Strategy Analytics. Perhaps the multi-year expansion of the length of time people will keep the same phone has ended? (Speaking of phones, a new security vulnerability in Android phones could allow an attacker to plant malware via the NFC wireless feature. An October 2019 security patch closes the loophole.)

Screaming cat. Despite the fact that the deal is two years old, Chinese Internet company ByteDance's $1 billion purchase of TikTok parent Musical.ly has come under review by U.S. national security authorities. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or CFIUS, is looking at ordering conditions on the company's future operations.

Crackdown. After a deadly shooting broke out at a Halloween party at an Airbnb rental in California last week, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky announced a series of steps to ban so-called party houses on the service. “We must do better, and we will,” Chesky said. “This is unacceptable.”

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

With the streaming wars going non-stop, buying DVDs seems about as anachronistic as buying a CD. But as we've gained streaming video and streaming TV and apps in the cloud, something has been lost. Writer and VC-ish person Alex Danco takes the measure of our digital times in an essay titled, "Everything is Amazing, But Nothing is Ours." Now, when online services bite the dust, customers can be left with nothing.

Worlds of scarcity are made out of things. Worlds of abundance are made out of dependencies. That’s the software playbook: find a system made of costly, redundant objects; and rearrange it into a fast, frictionless system made of logical dependencies. The delta in performance is irresistible, and dependencies are a compelling building block: they seem like just a piece of logic, with no cost and no friction. But they absolutely have a cost: the cost is complexity, outsourced agency, and brittleness. The cost of ownership is up front and visible; the cost of access is back-dated and hidden.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Uber’s Business Service Ramps Up In Quest to Attract More ‘Sticky’ Customers By Danielle Abril

Look Out, Rimowa! These 5 Luggage Upstarts Are Making Premium Suitcases for Less By JP Mangalindan

3 Key Takeaways from Google’s Fitbit Acquisition By Sy Mukherjee

New AT&T Features Aim to Do More to Protect You From Robocalls By Chris Morris

A Better Picture of Your Muscles, Thanks to ‘Deep Learning’ A.I. By Andrew Nusca

Sapphire’s Doug Higgins Discusses the Rise of E-Sports and the Future of Digital Fitness By Polina Marinova

BEFORE YOU GO

Silicon Valley has provided more than its share of fodder for comedy over the past few years, starting with the HBO show that borrows the name of the region (and recently started its fifth season). Over the weekend, Saturday Night Live went after popular app Duolingo. Chuckle-worthy.

Aaron Pressman

On Twitter:@ampressman

Email: aaron.pressman@fortune.com

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