2012-02-25

The curse of success.

Expectations.

A few weeks ago I bought a Polar FT60 heart rate monitor along with a FlowLink USB interface that is supposed to make it possible to transfer data from the device to my computer.

Let's say a bit about my expectations when buying the product.  I already own a Polar heart rate monitor, but after I moved to a new house I have mislaid it.  After looking for it for a couple of weeks I decided to just get a new one.  In any case, the heart rate monitor from Polar I had earlier allowed me to transfer the measurements as files and then plot my heart rate as a function of time.  So this is what I minimally expected to be able to do when I got the new monitor.

What I got.

It turns out I can't.  I can not get the files from my watch onto my computer.  What I can do is to download a really flimsy piece of software from Polar which will take the data from my watch and ... upload it to Polar's website.

So then I can get the data from there?  Of course not.

How about getting those plots of heart rate as a function of time?  Nope, you can't have that.

You can have a summary of your workout;  how much time you have spent in different "heart rate zones", but actually getting a plot of your heart rate over time: no.

If you want those plots you will have to get a different watch and pay extra for a different piece of software that, "oh by the way" only runs on Windows.

Okay, so this is a huge step back from the previous products from Polar that I've owned.  And to be honest, I feel cheated.  This is not what I thought I was buying.  Why would I think that Polar made a product that was greatly inferior to something they made 5-6 years ago?

In fact, I don't think the product is worth its price if I can't get the data off it.  A more reasonable price for the product would be somewhere in the $40-50 range.  And it should come with a very clear warning that it doesn't do what previous products did.  I think Polar should take more care in labeling their products "WARNING: WILL NOT PROVIDE ACCESS TO ACTUAL HEART RATE DATA".

What is wrong?

So exactly what went wrong here?  Well, the main problem is a quite widespread one in the consumer electronics industry:  the manufacturer makes some assumptions as to what the customer wants or needs and then makes the mistake of thinking that they are the ones best positioned to add that value to their product.

The software products that Polar provide appear, at best, barely adequate.   In particular their online offering is clumsy, confusing and largely useless.  It is the sort of software that creates more work artificially rather than make things easier.  And it doesn't even fullfil its primary objective:  properly displaying captured data.

But if it is so easy to spot, why do they do this?  In short: because they are successful.  As long as Polar are making heaps of money they are not likely to examine what they could be doing better with any eagerness.  It is very likely that if you ask any manager at Polar about their software products and their online services, they will be proud of these.  Because they don't know any better and because they have no reason to think they are lacking.

There are three problems with this.  The first is obvious:  they make products that are annoying.  The second is that if they have a vulnerable flank when it comes to competition (and before you say that there is no real competition:  that's what Kodak and Nokia thought too).  The third is that they have settled for their current plateau -- I think they could have been more as a company.

Partnerships?

So what if Polar partnered with third party software vendors?  It would appear that they, to some degree, have done so.  But it isn't very well done.  It is really unclear what products work with what software and the website does a poor job of directing the user.  There are a lot of pages on the Polar web sites, but very little useful information when you actually look for something.

I'm not sure who is to blame here.  Polar appears to be a heavily marketing-driven company and not a technology company, which might make it hard for them to partner with more technology savvy companies.

Reading between the lines.

I've been in the software industry for a lifetime and Polar has a very familiar smell.  If you look at their product range and in particular the different technologies for communicating with their watches and handling the sensor data, they are all over the place.  There is no obvious and consistent direction.  Rather than having a clear focus and direction they are a bit like Nokia used to be before they got credible competition:  trying to fill every imaginable niche and completely neglecting the developer.

They probably do the electronics and sensor bits well, but all the infrastructural parts and the software seems to be the result of a very poorly lead engineering department.  It is also unlikely that this will improve -- because they make tons of money.  You can't convince people who make tons of money that they are doing something wrong.

What they ought to do.

I think there are a few things Polar should do.  The first is to really let go of the software parts and try to focus on doing the hardware.  Their insistence on doing software and "services" only damages their product because they do it so badly. In the short term their software engineers should be working on making it easier to integrate with Polar and forget about doing consumer-facing stuff.  In order to do consumer-facing software they need to clean up their act considerably.

If you open up and allow third parties to build on your solutions you get others to invest in your product and to depend on its success.   Forget about clammy handshakes and signed contracts:  open up to all developers.  Everything needed to develop software for Polar products should be easily available on the website.  Without even requiring registration.

The prime example of getting others to invest heavily in your platform is the iPhone.  Apple could have chosen never to open it up to third party developers -- to only allow their software to run on it.  They didn't.  And because of this the iPhone is now perhaps the single most important device in the history of computers.

Polar is probably never going to have this kind of mass appeal, but if they opened up their products to third party developers, Polar would become a much, much more valuable brand than they are today.

(Actually, Polar could have mass appeal.  Sooner or later the field of biometric telemetry for health monitoring is going to explode and someone has to make the hardware.  The problem is that I don't think it is in Polar's DNA to capitalize on this opportunity).

I think Polar should:
  • Publish the specs for protocols and data formats for all their watches.  It doesn't really matter if the specs are badly written or messy;  having some specs is better than having none.
  • Publish source code for drivers, parsers and such on, for instance, Github
  • School their executives in open source and the Maker Movement.  Here's an exercise I think would be useful:  buy some Arduinos, hire a hardware hacker and send the entire management team on an off-site to learn how to program hardware.  Make them understand that this is somethign a lot of people know how to do.
  • Build a proper software engineering department that spends more time writing software that makes it easy to innovate on top of Polar products than crank out third rate software products.
With regard to their product lines I think they need to tighten things up quite a lot.  Polar is living in the early 2000s with regard to over-segmenting their products.  You cannot create buzz for any one product if you have a gazillion semi-equivalent products you are trying to push.  Each product will end up getting a weak identity -- which in practical terms means consumers have no idea what to buy.  But I shouldn't have to tell you marketing-savvy people this?  Surely your expensive mercantile educations covers such trivial insights? :-)

As for me:  if I could just get the measurements off my watch and into a CSV file or something I can work with, I'd be really happy.  If you know of some way to do this, please let me know.  Even just importing the values into a spreadsheet is much more useful than Polar's useless personal trainer website.

Oh, and if you happen to be an executive at Polar:  I would love to learn more about your company.  If you cover my travelling expenses and donate a decent amount of money to Doctors Without Borders or Digitalt Personvern I'd be more than happy to spend a weekend discussing the above.