Is Fitbit's opt-out drawing the battle lines against HealthKit?

By Jonah Comstock
07:15 am

Fitbit Flex__ColorsEver since Apple announced its HealthKit developer toolkit, which aggregates data from a number of different self-tracking apps and devices, it's been a foregone conclusion that Fitbit would be connected. Apple showed a screencap of Fitbit at its developer conference announcing the product. In a recent interview, a Jawbone spokesperson used Fitbit as an example of a device that could potentially connect to Jawbone's app via HealthKit. Beth Israel CIO John Halamka name-dropped Fitbit in talking about how his hospital might use HealthKit.

But apparently, no one bothered to tell Fitbit about its upcoming integration with HealthKit. At some point in the recent past, 9to5 Mac first reported, Fitbit posted on its customer feedback forum that it had no current plans to integrate with the platform. The company's statement is below:

"We do not currently have plans to integrate with HealthKit.

It is an interesting new platform and we will watch as it matures, looking for opportunities to improve the Fitbit experience. At the moment, we’re working on other exciting projects that we think will be valuable to users. The question we want you to keep in mind when providing feedback is: What do you imagine a HealthKit integration would entail and what do you expect to get out of it?

Your voices are being heard. We're actively reviewing your responses and providing feedback to our product development team."

The statement was in response to numerous requests from users, but the requests are from as far back as June. It's clear that Fitbit only recently chose to respond to them, but it also didn't make a post on its public blog or issue a release to journalists. 

It makes sense that everyone would assume Fitbit would be interested in HealthKit, because Fitbit has become the "Kleenex" of wristworn activity trackers. People inside and outside of the industry use it as a shorthand, likely because terms like "activity tracker" are relatively clunky. Halamka, for instance, may not have been thinking specifically about whether Fitbit itself would integrate, but rather using Fitbit as a catchall term for its category.

But for that very reason, it's significant that Fitbit is not buying in. HealthKit is a platform play for Apple, and like all platform plays, buy-in is essential if Apple wants HealthKit to really take off. Which brings us to the million dollar question: Why doesn't Fitbit want to integrate with HealthKit?

What HealthKit promises is a hub that allows consumers to connect third party data sources with third party applications that use the data. And as Jawbone has suggested, this could mean decoupling the virtues of Fitbit's hardware from Fitbit's app. Jawbone seems to have embraced this new ecosystem in the hopes that consumers who first try out their app with someone else's hardware will be so impressed that they'll buy a Jawbone UP later. But it's just as possible for a company to lose customers this way as to gain them.

After all, much of what Fitbit has going for it is name recognition, and that name isn't printed on the side of the company's sleek devices. It's branded on the company's app and website, which HealthKit could make irrelevant even to Fitbit users.

Fitbit has had a somewhat rocky time of it lately -- the company had to recall its newest wearable in February and has not replaced it with a new product, leaving them essentially a generation of devices behind competitors. But if last year's NPD group numbers are to be believed, a huge share of the market (67 percent of all devices shipped in 2013). And just this week App Annie reported that Fitbit's app is the second most downloaded companion app for a connected device -- health-related or otherwise.

Fitbit might be forcing the question: Do they need Apple, or does Apple need them?

Although Jawbone, Withings, and iHealth are on board with HealthKit, Misfit Shine and Basis are not yet integrated. Basis posted a noncommittal response on its own forumand Misfit connects to Health, but sends only step data as of now. Were other big wearables to follow Fitbit's lead, Apple could find itself with a pretty unattractive product on its phones, and the Health app could become as irrelevant as Apple Maps, at least to fitness-oriented users.

Or not. The fact is that, other than sleep, most things the Fitbit tracks can be tracked passively on an iPhone 5, and even better on an iPhone 6, something even Fitbit must realize since it released a device-free version of its app last year that uses the M7 co-processor. It may turn out that Apple doesn't need the fitness wearables to buy in at all.

Then again, maybe Apple has already won over the people it needs to win over: the end users. The Fitbit forum is full of vocal customers threatening to jump ship, and the Basis thread isn't faring much better. Fitbit has certainly left the door open for it to come around to HealthKit if its customers demand it, but for now it may not be crazy for the company to dig in its heels. It may find itself in good company.

Update: Fitbit sent along an additional statement from CEO and cofounder James Park.

"At Fitbit, our mission is to help people lead healthier, more active lives, so we’re always looking for ways that our users can use their data to support their fitness goals," Park wrote. "For the past few years, we’ve been the leader in developing direct partnerships through our open API with hundreds of the most popular health apps, wellness programs, incentive systems, and other services that have enabled our users to make the most of their Fitbit products and data. Because of this commitment to connect with other applications, HealthKit is really interesting to us. Since its announcement, we’ve been evaluating integration with HealthKit as more of its features and benefits are revealed.

"Fitbit remains committed to supporting all of our users, whether they sync their Fitbit products with iOS, Android or Windows Phone devices, Macs or PCs. While HealthKit works only on the iOS platform, we also plan to maintain direct integrations with our partners so that Android, Windows Phone and PC and Mac users in addition to our iOS users can benefit from our partnerships."


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