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What started as a voluntary recall on February 20, became a more official one yesterday, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission posted an official notice that the Fitbit Force is off the market. Technically, you can no longer list your Force on eBay or Craiglist, which puts you in the same boat as the company. Fitbit stopped selling the device with its announcement several weeks ago. The San Francisco-based startup was a clear leader in wearables, with Canalys estimating it had more than half the market, well ahead of competitors Jawbone and Nike. The recall clearly has left a huge opening for those competitors to close the gap, but how much advantage can be gained in a situation like this?
Fit to be tied?
The recall provided a rare insight into the success of the Force. The CPSC report tells us that Fitbit sold 1 million units in the U.S. and 28,000 in Canada. The device went on sale last October and I reviewed it favorably, as did many others. Unfortunately, some have had a negative experience wearing it. Fitbit told the CPSC that there were 9,900 reports of “skin irritation” and 250 more of “blistering.” Those figures don’t quite add up with the company’s original statement that 1.7% of users reported a problem, but perhaps the numbers the government used were slightly out of date.
Either way, a wrist-worn device that’s making 1 in 100 customers unable to keep it on is not going to cut it. But as to what’s causing the problem, well that’s another matter. Fitbit says testing indicates the problem is contact dermatitis. That’s a catch-all term for red or inflamed skin brought on by irritants or allergies. The company says the device is made of standard materials, none of which should be especially allergy-causing. There is a bit of surgical grade stainless steel on the back of the device and that does contain nickel, a fairly common allergen. But nickel in that type of steel shouldn’t be allergenic, per the Mayo Clinic. The Fitbit’s band contains nothing unusual either, though the company speculates something in the material or the adhesive could be causing people trouble.
Covering its bases
Realistically, a likely cause is customer behavior. The Fitbit is somewhat water resistant and the company encourages wearing it all day to track your activity and sleep. Because of this, it’s pretty easy to trap soap and whatever else one might encounter under or around the band. (Soaps and moisturizers are among the common irritants that cause contact dermatitis.) Keep that pressed against the skin long enough and some people will develop nasty skin conditions. What Fitbit can’t do, however, is blame customers. Despite raising about $50 million in venture capital, it’s a young company in a young industry. An arrogant or defensive posture is exactly the kind of thing that might bring on aggressive lawsuits. And enough time — and money — lost in the courtroom could kill the company.
It’s even possible that some people have developed a skin irritation that’s psychogenic in nature. Once they first got wind of the fact that the Fitbit was making people ill, they too could have become ill. This kind of thing really happens.
Now, it’s important to clarify: I don’t really know what’s happening with the Fitbit other than the fact that some number of people have become really uncomfortable after wearing it for a period of time. And the government has concurred with the company’s decision to remove it from the market. A look at the pictures of people suffering from “Fitbit rash” is disturbing enough to suggest that at a minimum some guidelines about keeping the device and wrist clean are in order. Further, if there is any chance that an allergen has inadvertently found its way into the manufacturing process, presumably Fitbit is using this recall time to determine that and redesign the Force to avoid repeating that mistake.
That said, this ends up being a black mark on wearable tech that’s almost certainly going to hurt the nascent industry. Even though wearing these is not much different from putting a watch on, they’re going to be seen from here as riskier. People will think twice about any of them, but especially products from Fitbit. The company had no choice but to pull the Force off the market, but it’s not clear how much of a chance it has to make a full recovery. That’s irritating in a different way.
(Note: If you are having any issues with the Force at all, the link to get a refund is here.)