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Google buys Fitbit: what now?



Google buys Fitbit and the reasons why they are both simple and complicated. It's the kind of big acquisition Google has made before (more money than YouTube, less than Nest or DoubleClick), but this one seems to have hit a certain nerve. My Twitter responses are currently filled with Fitbit customers who promise to buy Apple Watches right now. No matter what happens in the immediate aftermath, Google will have a big new team, a big new set of skeptical users and a lot of big organizational issues to figure out.

In the short term, Google is clearly aware that Fitbit customers are going to be a little daunting. The company was sure to note that it would give these users "the choice to crawl, move or delete their data" in the announcement post. Whether it will calm everyone down is another matter.

But let's start by answering the big, seemingly simple question: why did Google want to buy Fitbit?

This is easy to think about. I actually got involved in that kind of contemplation on Tuesday when the acquisition was just a rumor. The general reasoning is this: Google has a serious gap in portability, and it has failed to develop its own way out of it, so it needs to buy its way out. Fitbit is the best (some might say the only) company available to fit the bill.

In short, Google wants to build smartwatch and fitness band hardware, and Fitbit helps them make it faster. Bathing bing, bathing tree.

Simple, but not so simple. Does Google Buy Fitbit to Try to Increase Wear OS's Many Problems? What can Fitbit offer that the Wear OS really needs? You can spin & # 39; turn around and worry about it – and in the end Google has to do just that. But in the short term, I think Google's reasoning is really what it says: Hardware boss Rick Osterloh will be able to create wearables in Google's hardware division, so he bought himself a $ 2.1 billion portable hardware company.

(As an aside: Google's recent $ 40 million acquisition of fossils did not end with Google's hardware vision; it was put under Hiroshi Lockheimer – who runs Android, but also Chrome OS and a dozen other software products.)

Google, like all tech giants, has bought many companies. But unlike other tech giants, Google has had some high-profile fiascos. In fact, Rick Osterloh himself was a security breach in one of the early clutter: Google bought Motorola, wasted all the opportunities it had with it, and eventually spent the whole thing on Lenovo. Osterloh was the president of Motorola and lived through that mess – only to return several years later to lead Google's recently unified hardware division.

So Osterloh knows a thing or two about Google mucking up a major consumer electronics purchase. That may be why things seem to be going well with the HTC team, which Google bought in 2017. From the outside, the team runs on all cylinders and kicks out phones – that team was entirely responsible for the reputable Pixel 3A and now Pixel 4.

It's also worth noting that the deal has not been done yet, and US regulators may well decide it's time to keep it to Google. The company is likely to claim that the laptop market is still very competitive: Samsung, Garmin, Xiaomi and even Huawei make all competing devices, not to mention Apple. It's not an argument likely to convince the new wave of antitrust advocates, but actual regulators tend to be much easier to sell, so it seems like they'll return to their recent norm and let it go.

But if Osterloh can navigate integrating Fitbit into their team, then HTC integration has gone (and let Pichai control what comes out of the Department of Justice), we could start to see the fruits of this acquisition surprisingly soon.

But integrating Fitbit is going to be a lot more complicated than integrating HTC. Fitbit offers services to customers, and these services must be maintained throughout the process. Fitbit also has several overlapping software platforms and a wide variety of different products to support. It has a huge user base and new watches it literally released, which customers will expect to be able to continue using for many years to come.

None of these challenges played with HTC. That is why the Fitbit acquisition to my eye is much more similar to another Google hardware purchase: Nest. Unfortunately, it was one of those failure integrations.

A short story: Nest came in 2014 as a Google department. Integrating two corporate cultures is always difficult, but executives didn't make it easier by buying Dropcam and folding it into Nest right away. Next year, Google decided to split into a bunch of small companies under the alphabet umbrella – but it was and always will be the one big company called Google. Nest jumped around like an alphabet division for a while, pushing directly that CEO Tony Fadell capped off in a high-profile exit in 2016. Then Nest hit back at Google under Osterloh in 2018. Now it's Google's mark for all the smart home products and finally have come back to release new devices at a somewhat regular pace.

Also somewhere inside, Nest released a home security system and forgot to tell everyone it had microphones in it. Sorry.

All of this sounds awful, and there are many, many circumstances that apply to Nest that don't apply to Fitbit. But the core issue for both companies is that they were vertically integrated hardware and software companies before they were purchased, and Google needs to figure out how (or even about) teasing these things apart.

Merging corporate cultures is one thing. Merging company cultures while trying to decide how to divide and merge different technologies into your own systems is another thing altogether. Doing it all while not forgetting to do the right thing by Fitbit customers is going to be a very big challenge.

And all of this looks at this acquisition only in terms of what it means for Fitbit and Google's hardware division. There's also the question of Google Fit, the company's health software offering. So is Wear OS.

Oh, Wear OS. I've spent many months kicking Google's smartwatch platform when it's down – and it's down a lot. One of the things that initially confused me about this Fitbit purchase is that I didn't see how it could help the Wear OS with the biggest problem: Google couldn't recreate the Android model of many adoption-driven manufacturers, which then drove processor innovation.

The answer is that Google didn't buy Fitbit to fix this problem. Google is still working to solve it directly – and at the same time assure hardware partners that they will still support them even if it starts to compete with them directly. In a separate post, Google VP of Product Management for Android, Google Play and Wear OS, Sameer Samat, wrote this:

We look forward to working with Fitbit to bring the best of our smartwatch platforms and health programs together, and do it allows our partners to build the next generation of wearables.

I have no idea what that "collaboration" will look like, and I suspect that Google is not entirely sure either. In fact, I wouldn't expect to see anything substantial for at least a couple of years.

In the meantime, Google needs to terminate this agreement and – more importantly – it needs to do everything possible to do everything to help and support Fitbit users. People love Fitbits and the data Fitbit has about them is incredibly intimate. Google whiffed when communicating changes to the Works with Nest program – it certainly can't afford to whiff when talking to people about their health data.

There is another version of this story where I would spend many paragraphs talking about how it is impossible to make great smartphone accessories when the platform access you really need is so limited – especially on the iPhone. I wanted to look at Fitbit's efforts to succeed in the smarture class despite these limitations and how they were a continuation of Pebble's own struggle to do the same. I'd say it would be a real shame if Google's acquisition eventually led to less smartwatch competition for Android users. I think Google really doesn't want to do that, but that doesn't mean it won't.

Finally, I was bummed about this acquisition the same way I was humbled when Amazon bought Eero. With Eero, it was the daunting realization that it is very difficult to scale up an independent hardware business without a massive company to subsidize your efforts. With Fitbit, it's the same feeling – but with the added pleasure of remembering that inside Fitbit, the remains of are another innovative but failed startup: Pebble. Now Pebble is inside Fitbit, which is inside Google's hardware, which is inside Google, which is inside Alphabet. It's a nesting doll of how tech works in 2019.


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