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Fitbit’s smartwatch struggles are real and not just in hardware

Fitbit’s smartwatch woes go beyond GPS and waterproofing: the company is also facing challenges building out the third-party app experience on its upcoming smartwatch, two people familiar with the company’s plans have said.

Yesterday Yahoo Finance reported that Fitbit’s not-yet-announced smartwatch wouldn’t ship until this fall, and that it will look similar to Blaze, the company’s current fitness watch. The report also said that Fitbit plans to ship Bluetooth headphones this year.

The Verge has independently confirmed the smartwatch is slated to ship in the fall. The smartwatch is also the first to be designed completely by Fitbit’s own internal design team. But additional details reveal some early challenges around the smartwatch’s development.

While the company’s co-founder and chief executive James Park said recently that Fitbit was planning to launch its own app store, that app store is unlikely to be ready in time for the smartwatch’s launch, these people said. Instead, the company will take an “iPhone-like approach,” launching the hardware with some custom-made apps but no app store to start. Right now Fitbit is trying to entice key app partners to build these apps, but may resort to building them internally, since a software development kit may not be ready.

The upcoming watch’s user interface has been described as very similar to the UI on the Blaze watch. Users will swipe through apps the way they currently swipe through Fitbit’s homegrown applications on the Blaze, but the idea is to have maps, music, and third-party fitness apps on the new smartwatch, too — provided Fitbit can get the apps made.

Of course, it’s possible that Fitbit customers might not even care that much about the third-party app experience, given that Fitbits haven’t supported apps like that to date. And the most beneficial features of smartwatches often come from core apps — like built-in messaging, payments, and fitness tracking. But Fitbit did cite Pebble’s homegrown software and enthusiastic community of app developers as one of its motives for buying the smaller smartwatch company.

In general there are feelings of frustration within Fitbit around what some call “do-overs”: the Flex 2, for example, suffered from production issues, and the GPS module within the not-yet-announced smartwatch had to be rebuilt. One source says that Fitbit’s Bluetooth headphones have been simpler to make: they’ve been described as standard Bluetooth workout headphones, designed to be worn around the back of the neck, and aren’t expected to have activity-tracking or heart rate sensors included in the first version.

It hasn’t been an easy few months for Fitbit, after a disappointing holiday season and a subsequent round of layoffs. Fitbit has since released one updated activity tracker, the Alta HR wristband, but the company is overdue for a truly new device.

Fitbit has also considered making a new product aimed at elderly people, people familiar with the company’s plans said. The plans for this product were presented late last year at a company all-hands meeting. However, the executive who presented the product has since left the company, and another former employee who recently left says the project’s fate is now unknown.

Fitbit declined to comment on these details, and issued the same statement that it did to yesterday’s report: “We know there is a lot of interest in our entry into the smartwatch category,” a spokesperson said. “We don’t have news to share at this time and do not comment on rumors or speculation.”


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