Tracker Wars: Apple, Fitbit, Jawbone in ‘Hand-to-Hand’ Combat

Fitness Tracker Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

Last week, my wife and I went to visit my daughter and her family out in San Francisco. When I got off the plane out there, my digital watch automatically adjusted itself to San Francisco time. Great. When I came back, it remained on San Francisco time, and it refused to go back.

What I wear on my wrist as a watch is only secondarily a watch. It is primarily an exercise tracker, a Fitbit, which can monitor the steps you take, your heart rate, the workouts you do and the sleep you get. If you tap it on one particular spot twice quickly, it activates and it shows the time as the first thing.

Now it showed the wrong time. And I could not get it to change back.

I need to talk a little bit further about this. I am not an exercise fanatic, but I like that it counts my steps to get a daily total and that it lights up to give me the time when I tap it.

However, its software is not particularly good at measuring sleep. And that was something I particularly wanted to do. So I got another tracker, one that does that much better, the Jawbone UP2. If the Jawbone did the other things as well as Fitbit, I’d use only the Jawbone. But it doesn’t. So I wear the Fitbit on one wrist and the Jawbone on the other.

Trackers are big business today. For both of these companies, the only product they produce are the trackers. Recently, Apple has joined the fray with its Apple Watch. But, for the moment anyway, Fitbit is the best-selling of them. It sells their tracker around the world, and this year crossed the threshold of becoming a billion dollar company. As for service, there’s a phone number to call. I called it.

It rang five times, then simply dropped the call. Bang. Silence. I tried again, same thing. I tried still a third time and it was the same thing. The Fitbit service line, open 20 hours a day, seven days a week, was down. I tried the next day. Still down. I checked that I had the right number. I did. Amazing.

I then went online to see if I could fix the tracker myself. From other users I learned I had to sync my Fitbit manually. I did that, but it didn’t work. It just hung up there trying until it gave up. I then thought I saw that a man named James McAndrew had found a fix for the problem. He had an app you could get for $2.99 that was called “Sync Solver for Fitbit.” But that was not a fix for my problem, it was a fix for another problem.

The Apple Watch was nipping at the heels of Fitbit and there were people who wanted to jump off the Fitbit ship and go over to Apple and take their data with them. But Fitbit was refusing to cooperate. You could go if you wanted to, but you would have to start over. There’d be no bringing over your Fitbit data. Old Mr. McAndrew’s app solved THAT problem, apparently. It was your data. Why shouldn’t it follow you? Nasty stuff there with Fitbit.

So then I went to the Fitbit website, where I read a message about service. This message was directed to me. It said if my tracker was not making adjustments for time zone changes or if it was having trouble syncing with their software, then be aware that they had discovered a software breakdown. They were working on it. Hoped to have it up soon.

This was Monday, December 27. A breakdown? Maybe they got hacked.

Frankly, I had never heard of a company this successful and this large having a breakdown in this way. It had to be a first. It was undoubtedly in the news.

I Googled “Fitbit news” to read about this breakdown. There was no such article. But there was an article that said Jawbone had filed a lawsuit for the third time in six months against Fitbit. The Jawbone lawsuits claim, among other things, that Fitbit is poaching their employees—nothing illegal about that—and that as these employees resign to move on with their lives, it just so happens some of them make off with Jawbone data on thumb drives or email it to themselves. Jawbone named two employees who they allege had done that—Ana Rosario and Patrick Narron. Fitbit has denied any wrongdoing, but if true, there could be serious legal consequences.

Was this breakdown at Fitbit related to some issue with Jawbone?

For the next five days, until Tuesday, December 29, my Fitbit continued to give me the wrong time. And on several occasions I tried to sync the tracker, and each try failed. When I’d check the time on my watch, I just had to remember to add three hours. No big deal. But it did remind me of an interesting phenomenon.

Whenever my daughter or anybody else calls me from San Francisco in the evening, say about 9 p.m. their time, I am always amazed at how they can so rapidly chatter away and be so alive and funny. I, on the other hand, drone out with long slow sentences and suffer through occasional inabilities to remember names, which, I tell her, are on the tip of my tongue. It’s 9 p.m. there. It’s goddamn midnight here. And they don’t give a damn.

Finally, this morning, Tuesday, December 29, after four glorious days in the Hamptons looking at San Francisco time, I called Fitbit and got through. It sent me to a service line where a mechanical voice said hang on, we’ll get a customer advocate. I wasn’t going anywhere. I wanted to talk. I waited for 13 minutes and 22 seconds and finally, indeed, a person who spoke English fairly well came on the line and fixed both my ability to sync my phone and the time shown on my wrist.

I will not go into the boring details of how this was done, but this service advocate did tell me things had gone flooey with the software about a week ago and lots of people were having this trouble. I asked when they had finally gotten it fixed and she said that it was “mostly” fixed by Friday, three days ago. When I asked what she meant by “mostly” she said the people with my model Fitbit were now okay but there were still other models they were working on but everything would be up and running again soon for everybody.

To judge by Fitbit’s annual revenue for 2015, it appears their revenue might reach $2 billion for 2016—that is if they survive these battles with their competitors. And they’ve gone public. They went public at $20 in June. Now that stock is at $42. Hooray.

All I have to do is hold up my cellphone in one hand and look at the black bands on my wrists and observe that there’s sure a terrific fight going on between these three.

God knows how it will all end. I suppose I should ask Mr. Trump.

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