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Google could improve Fitbit or make it much, much worse

February 22, 2021, 3:49 PM UTC

It’s a grey Monday in Boston as the cloudy sky and snow-covered ground make a depressingly bland backdrop to the cold of deep February. We are prepared for it in these parts, of course, in infrastructure if not always in spirit. Temperatures are rising in Texas today, thankfully, but many people are still suffering from the damage of last week’s blackouts and clean water is in short supply in some areas. (CNN assembled a list of national and local charities that are assisting and could use more donations.)

The dreary weather has me wanting to exercise more. A friend this weekend let me try his indoor smart bike made by NordicTrack. Choosing from among hundreds of recorded actual rides, I got to pedal around Glacier National Park (as seen on the attached 22-inch screen) in mid-summer riding conditions. The bike automagically adjusts both the pedal tension and incline to mimic the conditions of the recorded ride. Very cool.

In other fitness tech news, the long-awaited integration of Fitbit and Google has finally commenced—sort of. A year and a few months after Google first announced it was buying the struggling wearables maker, the deal closed on January 14. And in recent days, a couple of items from Fitbit’s existing product line, including the Versa 3 and Sense smartwatches, have appeared for sale in Google’s online Play store.

That’s not quite the innovation fitness freaks and Android users were hoping for. Google’s WearOS has been around for years on other manufacturers’ devices but never produced anything that remotely approached the capabilities of the Apple Watch (which is iPhone-only). And some of the top gadget makers, particularly Samsung, have dropped WearOS altogether for simpler software of their own design. Garmin never went with Google and has been opening its platform to more outside apps.

Fitbit’s own watch software was based on the OG of failed smartwatch makers, Pebble, which it acquired in 2016. Since Fitbit’s first smartwatch, the Ionic in 2017, the software has always looked friendly and colorful, but it never developed much of an app ecosystem at all and didn’t catch on with consumers. In the latest figures I’ve seen, Apple had more than one-third of the smartwatch market, with Huawei and Samsung trailing far behind, followed by Garmin. Fitbit was in fifth place with just 6% of the market. Companies like Fossil that use Google’s WearOS were relegated to the “others” category at the bottom.

So the Google-Fitbit merger has the potential to unleash the first robust competitor to the Apple Watch, one that could combine Fitbit devices’ good looks and long battery life with Google’s ability to attract a wide array of third-party apps. But how many times have we seen Google acquisitions flourish? Waze has remained pretty good if stagnant, Nest never quite took off as hoped, and Motorola was a complete disaster.

What happens next for Fitbit? Ray Maker, who writes the DC Rainmaker blog that is required reading for serious fitness wearable fans, sees Google terminating Fitbit’s OS and using its bones to improve WearOS. “Of course, it’s still a battery dumpster fire, but there’s no better way to make headway on that than Fitbit’s longer battery life requirements,” he wrote the other day.

C. Scott Brown, who writes about wearables at Android Authority, sees it possibly going the other way, with Google dumping WearOS once and for all and just aiming to improve Fitbit. “With WearOS essentially stagnant and owning a dismal market share, it would have been a textbook case of future Google Graveyard material even before the Fitbit acquisition,” he notes.

For everyone who can’t use an Apple Watch, here’s hoping Google doesn’t screw this one up.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Putting your money where your (big) mouth is. In some follow up from Friday's essay about the GameStop hearing, it turns out Keith Gill aka RoaringKitty wasn't just talking about the stock's value, he was buying more shares. But not everyone is so pleased with how things turned out. A survey by Fortune and Civis Analytics found more than half of Robinhood account holders are considering leaving the broker.

Machine unlearning. As we noted in the last Data Sheet, Google's A.I. ethics division seemed to be moving in the right direction with a reorg and apologetic statements. But Friday came news that the company had removed another top female researcher in the field. Margaret Mitchell, who led A.I. ethics at Google Brain, said on Friday that she had been fired. Google said Mitchell was fired after an investigation found she had violated the company's code of conduct and security policies.

Almost all my physical possessions. Whether Tesla CEO Elon Musk likes it or does not, the price of bitcoin keeps rising. The total value of all outstanding bitcoin topped $1 trillion for the first time ever on Friday as the digital currency's price neared $54,000.

Buttered up. On Wall Street, restaurant software developer Toast plans to go public at a value of around $20 billion, four times the value it reached during its last private fundraising a year ago, the Wall Street Journal reports. And new IBM CEO Arvind Krishna, already splitting off the company's IT services business, is considering dumping one of his predecessor's top priorities, the Watson Health unit.

Bird watching. Tens of thousands of Mac computers from Apple have been infected with a new strain of malware dubbed Silver Sparrow. The malware, which includes code to run natively on Apple's new M1 processors, doesn't seem to do anything yet. In a more purposeful but still undesirable software change, Facebook's WhatsApp has set a new deadline of May 15 for users to approve its privacy policy changes or lose access to the messaging service.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Social scientists will be studying the impact of social media on the spread of misinformation for years. BuzzFeed reporters Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman have an important case study for them about that time Facebook was about to ban Infowars founder and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Then Mark Zuckerberg intervened.

"Mark personally didn’t like the punishment, so he changed the rules,” a former policy employee told BuzzFeed News, noting that the original rule had already been in use and represented the product of untold hours of work between multiple teams and experts.

“That was the first time I experienced having to create a new category of policy to fit what Zuckerberg wanted. It's somewhat demoralizing when we have established a policy and it’s gone through rigorous cycles. Like, what the fuck is that for?” said a second former policy employee who, like the first, asked not to be named so they could speak about internal matters.

“Mark called for a more nuanced policy and enforcement strategy,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said of the Alex Jones decision, which also affected the bans of other extremist figures.

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BEFORE YOU GO

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