Google, the company that helped make it fun to just sit around surfing the web, is jumping into the fitness-tracker business with both feet, buying Fitbit for about $2.1 billion.
The deal could put Google in direct competition with Apple and Samsung in the highly competitive market for smartwatches and other wearable electronics. But it also raises questions about privacy and Google’s dominance in the tech industry.
The company’s announcement Friday came with a promise that it won’t sell ads using the intimate health data that Fitbit devices collect.
Fitbit is a pioneer in wearable fitness technology, making a range of devices that have become pop-culture accessories, from basic trackers that count how many steps you take each day to smartwatches that display messages and notifications from phones.
They can track activities such as running, cycling and swimming and record heart rates and sleep patterns.
Fitbit typically asks for date of birth, gender, height and weight to help with such things as estimating calories burned. Some people use Fitbit’s app to record what they eat and how much water they drink. Women can track their periods.
Fitbit has 28 million active users worldwide and has sold more than 100 million devices.
Google, meanwhile, makes software for use in other manufacturers’ wearable devices, but those products haven’t gained much traction in the face of competition from Fitbit, Apple, Samsung and others. And Google doesn’t sell a device of its own.
The deal to buy Fitbit could give Google a needed boost.
“Google doesn’t want to be left out of the party,” said analyst Daniel Ives of Wedbush Securities. “If you look at what Apple has done with wearables, it’s a missing piece of the puzzle for Google.”
Google’s pledge that it won’t sell ads using Fitbit health data is a continuation of promises previously made by Fitbit.
Privacy experts, though, were skeptical.
Consumer Reports health privacy expert Dena Mendelsohn said she is concerned that people enrolled in wellness programs through their employers that use Fitbit devices could lose control over their data.
“While a person may not have had concerns about Fitbit holding their data, they may have concerns over Google holding their data,” Mendelsohn said.