EU’s Google-Fitbit antitrust decision deadline pushed into 2021

The deadline for Europe to make a call on the Google -Fitbit merger has been pushed out again — with EU regulators now having until January 8, 2021, to take a decision.

The latest change to the provisional deadline, spotted earlier by Reuters, could be the result of one of the parties asking for more time.

Last month the deadline for a decision was extended until December 23 — potentially pushing the decision out beyond a year after Google announced its intention to buy Fitbit, back in November 2019. So if the tech giant was hoping for a simple and swift regulatory rubberstamping its hopes have been diminishing since August when the Commission announced it was going to dig into the detail. Once bitten and all that.

The proposed Fitbit acquisition also comes as Alphabet, Google’s parent, is under intense antitrust scrutiny on multiple fronts on home turf.

Google featured prominently in a report by the House Judiciary Committee on big tech antitrust concerns earlier this month, with US lawmakers recommending a range of remedies — including breaking up platform giants.

European lawmakers are also in the process of drawing up new rules to regulate so-called ‘gatekeeper’ platforms — which would almost certainly apply to Google. A legislative proposal on that is expected before the end of this year, which means it may appear before EU regulators have taken a decision on the Google-Fitbit deal. (And one imagines Google isn’t exactly stoked about that possibility.)

Both competition and privacy concerns have been raised against allowing Google get its hands on Fitbit users’ data.

The tech giant has responded by offering a number of pledges to try to convince regulators — saying it would not use Fitbit health and wellness data for ads and offering to have data separation requirements monitored. It has also said it would commit to maintain third parties’/rivals’ access to its Android ecosystem and Fitbit’s APIs.

However rival wearable makers have continued to criticize the proposed merger. And, earlier this week, consumer protection and human rights groups issued a joint letter — urging regulators to only approve the takeover if “merger remedies can effectively prevent [competition and privacy] harms in the short and long term”.

One thing is clear: With antitrust concerns now writ large against ‘big tech’ the era of ‘friction-free’ acquisitions looks to be behind Google et al.

Future raises $24M Series B for its $150/mo workout coaching app amid at-home fitness boom

With thousands of gyms across the country forced to close during the pandemic, there’s been an unprecedented opportunity for fitness companies pitching an at-home solution. This moment has propelled public companies like Peloton to stratospheric highs — its market cap is about to eclipse $40 billion — but it has also pushed venture capitalists toward plenty of deals in the fitness space.

Future launched with a bold sell for consumers: a $150 per month subscription app that virtually teamed users with a real-life fitness coach. Leaning on the health-tracking capabilities of the Apple Watch, the startup has been aiming to build a platform that teams motivation, accountability and fitness insights.

Image via Future

Close to 18 months after announcing a Series A led by Kleiner Perkins, the startup tells TechCrunch they’ve closed a $24 million Series B led by Trustbridge Partners, with Caffeinated Capital and Kleiner Perkins participating again.

Amid the at-home fitness boom, Future has seen major growth of its own. CEO Rishi Mandal says that the company’s growth rate has tripled in recent months as thousands of gyms closed their doors. He says shelter-in-place has merely accelerated an ongoing shift toward tech-forward fitness services that can help busy users find time during their day to exercise.

The operating thesis of the company is that modern life is inherently crazy not just during pandemic times but in normal times,” Mandal says. “The idea of having a set routine is a complete fallacy.”

At $149 per month, Future isn’t aiming for mass market appeal the same way other digital fitness programs being produced by Peloton, Fitbit or Apple are. It seems to be more squarely aimed at users who could be a candidate for getting a personal trainer but might not be ready to make the investment or don’t need the guided instruction so much as they need general guidelines and some accountability.

As the startup closes on more funding, the team has big goals to expand its network. Mandal aims to have 1,000 coaches on the Future platform by this time next year. Reaching new scales could give the service a chance to tackle new challenges. Mandal sees opportunities for Future to expand its coaching services beyond fitness as it grows, “There’s a real opportunity to help people with all aspects of their health.”

Google offers Europe more checks Fitbit data won’t be used for ads

Google has offered a second round of concessions to try to persuade European regulators to clear its acquisition of wearables maker Fitbit .

The deal has been stalled by concerns over its impact on consumer privacy and competition in the wearables market.

Last week the deadline for EU regulators to take a decision was extended for another couple of weeks — potentially pushing it out to almost the end of the year.

However a report by Reuters today claims the acquisition is set to be greenlit after the latest round of ‘commitments’ from Google — with the news agency citing ‘people familiar with the matter’.

The European Commission declined to comment on the report.

Google confirmed it has sent a new set of commitments to the European Commission — reiterating an earlier pledge not to use Fitbit health and wellness data for advertising, which it said it has now strengthened by providing for additional monitoring of the data separation requirements. 

It also said it’s committing to support third-party wearable manufacturers as part of the Android ecosystem (via Android APIs for wearable devices), and maintain third-parties’ existing access to Fitbit users’ data via APIs with user consent. 

“This deal is about devices, not data. The wearables space is highly crowded, and we believe the combination of Google and Fitbit’s hardware efforts will increase competition in the sector, benefiting consumers and making the next generation of devices better and more affordable,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement.

“We have been working with the European Commission on an updated approach to safeguard consumers’ expectations that Fitbit device data won’t be used for advertising.  We’re also formalizing our longstanding commitment to supporting other wearable manufacturers on Android and to continue to allow Fitbit users to connect to third party services via APIs if they want to.”

Fitbit Sense review

The Versa helped Fitbit reverse its fortunes after a long, gradual slide. The company was slow to embrace the smartwatch, and stumbled somewhat out of the gate with the Ionic. But the Versa found a perfect sweet spot that build atop generations of wearable health knowhow, key acquisitions like Pebble and a pricing sweet spot at $200.

In fact, other big-name smartwatch makers like Apple and Samsung have since followed suit, offering up more budget-friendly approaches to the category. The moves came as Fitbit and a slew of Chinese device makers were nabbing market share through budget plays. But while the competition zigs, Fitbit zags, I suppose. That’s where the Sense comes in. It’s a return to the premium pricing the company put on hold when it let the Ionic fade away.

At $330, the Sense falls under the lower end of premium — at least compared to say, the Apple Watch Series 6 and Galaxy Watch 3, which both start at $399. The premium market isn’t the most logical play for a company that has been successful at a lower price point, but it’s perhaps understandable that the company is interested in expanding on its fortunes, legacy software and health metrics and finally, properly trying to beat Apple at its own game.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

While Fitbit has a bit of a history flooding the market with different devices, I do think the decision to introduce an entirely new product makes sense here. Really, the worst Fitbit could have done was add a bunch of features to the Versa and raise the price by $100, thus removing one of the product’s primary selling points in the process (though the Versa’s price has also increased to $220).

The truth is, the Sense and Versa 3 are actually more alike than they are different. The similarities start with the casing. The two products look virtually identical, aside from some different color options. The Sense comes in, arguably, classier colors with either gray or gold. The display is the company’s familiar squircle, which is only available in the one size.

I suspect Fitbit learned its lesson about unwieldy watch designs with the Ionic. The device sports a 1.58-inch display, which feels about right. And the square design makes it feel more compact than Apple’s comparably sized watch. That said, more watch sizes is always a good thing, particularly for a product like the Sense that’s attempting to appeal to a wide range of wearers.

Unlike Samsung and Apple’s smartwatches, there’s no standalone dial-button for navigating through screens. There is a pressure-sensitive button on the side of the device, though that ultimately was a bit of a nuisance. I found myself repeatedly accidentally triggering it while moving my wrist. And honestly, for most actions, simply swiping across screens is perfectly fine.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As the name implies, the biggest difference between Fitbit’s latest smartwatches comes down to sensors. The Sense has a lot packed in here. Both feature optical heart-rate monitoring, a temperature monitor and an SpO2 sensor — which was possibly the biggest upgrade announced for the Apple Watch Series 6. The Sense, however, is alone as the first Fitbit to adopt an ECG sensor, bringing it up to speed with the new Apple Watch on that front.

As is often the case with these sorts of sensors, I’m unable to really highlight it in the review. FDA clearance seems to be a bit more straightforward as the feature has become more and more common on consumer devices, but while Fitbit has cleared it, the functionality won’t be rolled out on the devices until next month. When it does arrive, you’ll get the kind of health readouts we’ve come to expect from these sensors, including heart rhythms and notifications for any usual activity.

Sleep tracking is one place Fitbit has had Apple beat for some time. The latter is attempting to change that with the latest version of watchOS, but still has a lot of work to do in order to catch up. The array of sensors go a long ways toward providing a more complete picture of your sleep over the course of the night. While Apple’s offering largely revolves around things like time in bed and time asleep, Fitbit provides a fuller picture, including, importantly, sleep quality, broken up by REM, light and deep sleep. SpO2 and heart rate are also factored into the picture. SpO2, in particular, will become an increasingly important factor in sleep going forward, as these devices look to track things like sleep apnea.

Another big piece of sleep is battery life. That’s something Fitbit’s been good at for a while. The Sense is rated at six days. Your mileage is going to vary considerably, however, depending on whether you opt for the always on display and other features. As it stands, I was able to get several days on a single charge with the feature switched off. Frankly, that’s a pretty big advantage over Apple’s stated 18 hours. Charging each night before bed or first time in the morning isn’t ideal.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I appreciate Fitbit’s focus on mindfulness. I think it’s something we can all use a bit more of these days. I definitely include myself in that boat. Fitbit is one of a handful of smartwatch makers currently looking to push the concept beyond simple breathing exercises. That’s included in the Mindfulness tile. The company will quantify relaxation using the the on-board sensors. I honestly haven’t used it a ton, but anything that can help jumpstart a mindfulness practice is a net positive.

The Sense’s software continues to still be fairly basic. And while there are plenty of watch faces, the app selection lags behind some of the bigger names. It will be interesting to watch how Fitbit’s approach to software changes if/when the Google acquisition goes through. After all, wearOS has been around for a while and received plenty of updates, but still has its share of shortcomings.

The Sense’s strong suit is also Fitbit’s: a strong underpinning of health and fitness focus. The company certainly has a good, solid history of upgrades. But while it packs more sensors than the Versa 3, for many the difference will be relatively minor — and perhaps difficult to justify that $100 price gap. I’ve yet to spend a lot of time with the latest version of that device, but if past is any prologue, it’s a solid choice for those looking for an Android-compatible Apple alternative at a good price.

EU’s antitrust probe of Google-Fitbit gets more time

European antitrust regulators now have until almost the end of the year to take a decision on whether to green light Google’s planned acquisition of Fitbit.

The tech giant announced its intention to buy the fitness tracking wearable maker in November 2019, saying it would shell out $2.1 billion in cash to make off with Fitbit and the health data it holds on some 28M+ users.

EU regulators were quick to sound the alarm about letting the tech giant go shopping for such a major cache of sensitive personal data, with the European Data Protection Board warned in February that the proposed purchase poses a huge risk to privacy.

There is also a parallel concern that Fitbit’s fitness data could further consolidate Google’s regional dominance in the ad market. And last month EU competition regulators announced a full antitrust probe — saying then they would take a decision within 90 working days. That deadline has now been extended by a further two weeks.

A Commission spokeswoman confirmed the earlier provisional December 9 deadline has been pushed on “in agreement with the parties” — citing Article 10(3) of the EU’s Merger Regulation.

“The provisional legal deadline for a final decision in this case is now December 23, 2020,” she added.

The Commission has not offered any detail on the reason for allocating more time to take a decision.

When EU regulators announced the in-depth probe, the Commission said it was concerned data gathered by Fitbit could lead to a distortion of competition if Google was allowed to assimilate the wearable maker and “further entrench” its dominance in online ad markets.

Other concerns include the impact on the nascent digital healthcare sector, and whether Google might be incentivised to degrade the interoperability of rival wearables with its Android OS once it has its own hardware skin in the game.

The tech giant, meanwhile, has offered assurances around the deal in an attempt to get it cleared — claiming ahead of the Commission’s probe announcement it would not use Fitbit health data for ad targeting, and suggesting that it would create a ‘data silo’ for Fitbit data to keep it separate from other data holdings.

However regulators have expressed scepticism — with the Commission writing last month that the “data silo commitment proposed by Google is insufficient to clearly dismiss the serious doubts identified at this stage as to the effects of the transaction”.

It remains to be seen what the bloc’s competition regulators conclude after taking a longer and harder look at the deal — and it’s worth noting they are simultaneously consulting on whether to give themselves new powers to be able to intervene faster to regulate digital markets — but Google’s hopes of friction-free regulatory clearance and being able to hit the ground running in 2020 with Fitbit’s data in its pocket have certainly not come to pass. 

Low-cost fitness bands see a resurgence in interest amid the pandemic

While wearable fitness devices saw an uptick in shipments in North America for Q2, the overall dollar amount of the market remained steady, according to new numbers out of Canalys. The discrepancy can be chalked up to a decline in the average selling price of the products.

Continuing an overall trend for 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased interest in wearable devices, as consumer look to both monitor their health and track step counts, as mass closing have made many more sedentary. Perhaps owing to large unemployment figures and a massive economic downturn, the decisions customers have been making are trending forward the more frugal end of the spectrum.

Image Credits: Canalys

“Americans invested heavily in sub-US$50 trackers during the pandemic to stay accountable for the greater amount of time spent at home,” analyst Vincent Thielke said in a comment tied to the figures’ release.

The numbers buck larger on-going wearable trends, which have found smartwatches starting to utterly dominate the conversation. Of course, results that can tied directly to the pandemic ought not be viewed as indicators of broader, on-going trends. They do, however, seem to open up a perhaps temporary opportunity to low cost device makers. Amazon is tricking while the iron is hot with the Halo band, and a number of companies that have had continued success in Asia could potentially find an opening in the market. Subscription services appear to be the key way forward for monetizing relatively low-cost devices.

Apple continues to dominate the category overall. That’s helped along by a bump in shipments for the Apple Watch Series 3. The three-year-old smartwatch saw a 30% year-over-year growth, as a $200 alternative to Apple’s higher end devices.

Elon Musk demonstrates Neuralink’s tech live using pigs with surgically implanted brain-monitoring devices

Elon Musk -founded Neuralink has made headlines over the past many years around it efforts to develop a new kind of interface between the human brain and computing devices. On Friday, the company provided a demo of the technology, and Musk kicked off the demo by saying that the purpose of the entire presentation was recruiting — not fundraising or any other kind of promotion.

“We’re not trying to raise money or do anything else, but the the main purpose is to convince great people to come work at Neuralink, and help us bring the product to fruition — make it affordable and reliable and and such that anyone who wants one can have one,” he said.

Musk then went on to say that the reason he wants to make it generally available is that just about everyone will have some kind of neurological problem over time, including memory loss, anxiety, brain damage, depression and a long list of other ailments. Of course, there’s no clear evidence that any of this long list of problems can be quickly and easily “solved” with any one solution, so it’s a bit challenging to see this as a reasonable end goal for the company.

The goal may be ambitious — and definitely subject to a lot of ethical and medical debate — but the technology that Musk actually demonstrated was much less so. Musk first noted that Neuralink had changed design since the reveal last year, with a smaller physical device profile that he said can be fully hidden under hair once installed in the skull. He had a physical device in-hand to show its size.

Image Credits: Neuralink

Musk then turned the audience’s attention to three pigs that were in attendance in nearby pens, with handlers nearby. The three pigs were one that was untreated, the second (“Gertrude”) was installed with a Neuralink device, called the “Link,” and the third had previously had one installed but then subsequently had it removed. Musk at first had trouble coaxing Gertrude to come out and perform for the small, socially distanced crowd in attendance (who were seated at bar-height tables as if they were at a comedy club). Eventually, however, he skipped Getrude to show that the pig who had her Link removed was very healthy and normal-looking.

Image Credits: Neuralink

Back to Gertrude, Musk showed a display that played a sound and showed a visual spike whenever the Link detected that Gertrude made contact to something with her snout while rooting around for food.

“For the initial device, it’s read/write in every channel with about 1024 channels, all-day battery life that recharges overnight and has quite a long range, so you can have the range being to your phone,” Musk said. “I should say that’s kind of an important thing, because this would connect to your phone, and so the application would be on your phone, and the Link communicating, by essentially Bluetooth low energy to the device in your head.”

Image Credits: Neuralink

Musk closed the prepared portion of the presentation by noting that the company had received a Breakthrough Device designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in July, and that the company is “preparing for first human implantation soon, pending required approvals and further safety testing.”

While the device demonstrated was only a read-device, receiving data from the signals in the pig’s brain, the plan is to provide both read and write capabilities with the goal of being able to address neurological issues as mentioned above. Musk also stressed that why he showed the pig which had had its implant removed safely was because the plan is to provide updates to the hardware over time as better versions become available. Ultimately, Musk said during a later Q&A that Neuralink hopes to get the cost down to somewhere in the thousand-dollar range, with a minimal cost for the hardware itself along the line of modern wearable devices.

Musk actually referred to the Neuralink devices as a “Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires” at multiple points during the presentation, which actually seems like a pretty dystopian proposition, depending on your perspective. Capabilities he teased eventually include the ability to summon your Tesla with a thought, and video game control interfaces — including complete control of Starcraft. Musk also said in the future he expected people with Link to be able to “save and replay memories,” adding the caveat that “this is obviously sounding increasingly like a Black Mirror episode, but well, I guess they’re pretty good at predicting.” He even went so far as to say that “you could potentially download [memories] into a robot body.”

The first clinical trial will focus on individuals with paraplegia or tetraplegia, resulting from cervical spinal cord injury. The plan for a first trial is to enroll a “small number” of these individuals in order to test the efficacy and safety of the technology.

[gallery ids="2037762,2037763,2037764,2037765,2037766,2037767,2037768,2037769,2037770,2037771,2037772,2037773,2037777,2037778,2037785,2037784,2037783,2037774,2037786"]

Google’s Fitbit deal could avoid EU antitrust probe by agreeing not to use health data for ads

Google announced its plans to acquire Fitbit for $2.1 billion back in November. As of this writing, the deal has yet to go through, courtesy of all the usual regulatory scrutiny that occurs any time one large company buys another. EU regulators are often a key hurdle for these sorts of deals, and this time it may be no different.

Citing “people familiar with the matter,” Reuters notes that Google may be facing down some scrutiny in the form of an EU antitrust investigation if it doesn’t make some concessions. The heart of the concern here is a matter of health privacy. Fitbit — like many other wearable companies — collects a tremendous amount of health information from wearers.

Google, of course, is a company tremendously invested in data and advertising. Critics of the deal have suggested that purchasing Fitbit would provide yet another rich vein of data for Google to mine. As such, the deal could hinge on the promise that Google will never use health data to sell ads.

The stipulation is in keeping with a promise the company made when the acquisition was first announced, with the company’s head of hardware Rick Osterloh promising, “[P]rivacy and security are paramount. When you use our products, you’re trusting Google with your information. We understand this is a big responsibility and we work hard to protect your information, put you in control and give you transparency about your data.”

In a follow-up to this week’s reporting, the company noted that it believes the acquisition would increase competition. While Fitbit has a sizable footprint, Apple, Xiaomi and Huawei currently dominate the category, due in part to Fitbit’s late start in the smartwatch category. Google’s efforts to make inroads through Wear OS have largely come up short, though the company did also purchase a chunk of smartwatch tech from Fossil last January.

A spokesperson also attempted to put to rest potential regulatory fears, stating, “Throughout this process we have been clear about our commitment not to use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads and our responsibility to provide people with choice and control with their data.”

Regulators are set to decide on the deal by July 20. Google reportedly has until July 13 to present its concessions.

Fitbit gains FDA authorization for its low-cost emergency ventilator

Fitbit has secured an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its Fitbit Flow emergency ventilator. The ventilator hardware is low-cost, and doesn’t require very much training or expertise to use, making it a good solution for deployment in scenarios where healthcare systems are overwhelmed by resource strain stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Fitbit ventilator is based on the MIT E-Vent system, as well as specs provided by the UK government for ventilators to be used by hospitals in that country during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. I’s an automated resuscitator-style ventilator, which essentially replicates the function of the types of manual resuscitation bags used by paramedics and EMTs in the field.

This is a style of emergency ventilator that has become popular in light of the pandemic, in part because they can be built using relatively affordable and readily available components vs. the standard style of medical ventilators healthcare facilities typically use. Fitbit says it believes that its design is particularly effective, with the right combination of sensors, automated alarms and other patient monitoring features that supplement the automation of resuscitation bag pump.

While a lot of the attention around the need for emergency use ventilators has subsided in recent weeks, the need still exists, and will likely resurge along with new waves of COVID-19 transmission in the coming months. Projects like the Fitbit Flow aim to provide options should they be required, and the FDA EUA means that the company can now work with its existing manufacturing partners to build these in large volumes to address need.

Ventilators like the Flow aren’t designed to replace existing, traditional medical ventilators – instead, they’re intended as stopgaps, to be used only when that hardware isn’t available in quantities needed to treat patients.

Fitbit launches a COVID-19 early detection study, and you can join from the Fitbit app

Fitbit’s activity-tracking wearable devices are already being used by a number of academic institutions to determine if they might be able to contribute to the early detection of COVID-19 and the flu, and now Fitbit itself is launching its own dedicated Fitbit COVID-19 Study, which users can sign up for from within their Fitbit mobile app.

The study will help the company figure out if it can successfully develop an algorithm to accurately detect a COVID-19 infection before the onset of systems. In order to gather the data needed to see if they can do this, Fitbit is asking users in either the U.S. or Canada who have either had or currently have a confirmed case of COVID-19, or flu-like symptoms that might be an indicator of an undiagnosed case, to answer some questions in order to contribute to its research.

The answer to these questions from participants will be paired with data gathered via their Fitbit to help identify any patterns that could potentially provide an early warning about someone falling ill. Pre-symptomatic detection could have a number of benefits, mostly obviously in ensuring that an individual is then able to self-isolate more quickly and prevent them from infecting others.

Early detection could also have advantages in terms of treatment, allowing health practitioners to intervene earlier and potentially prevent the worst of the symptoms of the infection. Depending on what treatments ultimately emerge, early detection could have a big impact on their efficacy.

Fitbit is asking those who would take part in the study to answer questions about whether or not they have or have expressed COVID-19 or flu, its symptoms, as well as other demographic and medical history info. Participation in the study is voluntary, in case you’re not comfortable sharing that info, and once in, participants can decided to withdraw whenever they want.

COVID-19 early detection could be a big help in any safe, actually practical return-to-work strategy for reopening the economy. It could also serve as a means of expanding diagnosis in combination with testing, depending on how accurate it’s found to be across these studies, and with what devices. A confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis doesn’t actually have to mean a test result; it could be a physician’s assessment based on a number of factors, including biometric data nd symptom expression. Depending on what a comprehensive mitigation strategy ends up looking like, that could play a much bigger role in assessing the scale and spread of COVID-19 in future, especially as we learn more about it.