Years ago Polar would be your go-to brand if you wanted a heart monitor. By virtue of the competition being either non-existent or offering significantly worse products. I remember buying one of their high end models which would log my pulse at 5-second intervals or so. It was incredibly fiddly to use and it didn't offer much in terms of usable software or meaningful interoperability (which in my book means: easy access to the raw data).
Today I think Polar is poised to go the same way Nokia, Blackberry and a lot of other companies run by people who are mere businesspeople -- people who are out of touch with the rest of the industry and who are not properly attuned to how the world is changing. Here are some reasons why:
Products are not improving.
Polar's products have not improved significantly over the past 15 or so years. In fact, the last time I bought one of their pulse monitors it turned out to be a huge step back from my old monitor from the early 2000s. But I digress: their biggest accomplishment over the past 15 years is that last year they managed to put a GPS into a heart monitor.
I am not making this up. This was their accomplishment in 2013.
Their heart monitors haven't grown any significant new features and they still rely on really clunky technology: belts around your chest. We do have the technology to avoid this crude method of measuring pulse, so you would think that Polar would be really interested in developing it before anyone else does and aggressively push it into the marketplace. They aren't. They think their unpleasant and clumsy old solution is just dandy.
They also have not developed new categories of sensors. As we speak there are lots of small startups making wearable technology to analyze any number of things from pulse, O2-saturation, muscle activity to what your brain is doing. And everything inbetween. And we are not talking about high end stuff that only professional athletes can afford; we are talking about consumer priced stuff.
Their product strategy is obsolete.
If you have not visited the Polar website yet, please do.
What did you see? See anything familiar? If you are perceptive you will no doubt have noticed that Polar is clinging to the old ideas of aggressive segmentation. Without going through the tediuos exercise of detailing what segments Polar thinks exists, the main upshot of this is that it is not IMMEDIATELY clear to you what product you want. This lack of clarity translates into hesitation.
Years ago, this is exactly what faithful Nokia customers experienced. They'd need a new phone and it wasn't immediately clear to them which phone they wanted. They'd have to browse and compare. Sometimes for days and weeks. This is not a good way to approach the market. In fact, it is exactly how you do NOT approach the market.
When product lines are properly put together, prospective customers do NOT need to visit a website or look through a catalog which product they want. They know. As an experiment: ask anyone which model iPhone or which Tesla they want.
If you think this comparison is unfair, you are absolutely right: it is unfair because both Tesla and Apple know exactly how much product line complexity consumers can take.
The Polar product range is old fashioned in that they do not have the confidence to offer a single product line where only a single product line should exist. They have multiple product lines and none of the marketing material gives you a very good reason why they would need lots of different devices to do more or less the same thing.
The competition will make far better products.
Right now everyone is waiting for Apple's watch. When Apple enter a new product category they usually redefine what that category is all about. They did so with computers, music players, phones and tablets. Despite Steve Jobs no longer being with us, there is a chance that they will do the same with watches.
Their newly unveiled APIs reveal that Apple are taking aim at two areas: home automation and health & fitness. Combine this information with whom they have been hiring lately and it is quite obvious that we can expect Apple to do some new stuff. Like heart monitoring directly on your arm without the need for any extraneous sensing nonsense. No more awkward belts around your chest. No more pausing whatever activity you are doing to press your finger against a sensor. None of that nonsense.
Expect a bloodbath. Polar isn't going to be the only manufacturer which will find itself with obsolete products. Products like the Pulse 02, Fitbit and a raft of other products will all be obsolete in a few months. Most likely because they can't measure pulse properly -- which is to say: continously on the wrist.
I think that Apple are aiming for the ultimate body monitoring device that will start off by doing fitness stuff and which will then extend into health and possibly even healthcare. This will accomplish two things: it will move the goalposts and it will result in more specialty sensing hardware falling in price to consumer-tolerable price points.
(It is also going to lead to an interesting conversation on automating healthcare and how the world's most technophobic professionals will have to adapt to a new reality, but that's the topic of a future blog post).
Before long you will have cheap-ass heart-monitors that beat the shit out of anything Polar has ever made at a fraction of the cost. Made by Chinese companies you have never heard of. Designed by people in their 20s.
But first, someone has to move the goalposts. And it isn't going to be Polar.
Watch and learn.
I think there is a significant chance Polar may be the next company to do a Nokia or a Blackberry. This makes it worth keeping an eye on Polar over the next years to learn how companies shrivel up and die.
You might wonder why all of a sudden I am picking on Polar. There's a good reason for this: we are on the verge of an explosion in wearable computing. In a few years wearable computers will be everywhere.
Polar has occupied a niche of wearable computing for decades -- a niche that is no longer a niche but is rapidly turning into a huge mainstream market. You would think that years of expertise and experience would give Polar an unique opportunity to capitalize on their potential market growing by orders of magnitude. My guess is that the opposite will happen: the wearable market will develop in ways that will eventually make Polar irrelevant.
Hey, if everything else fails, Finland will be the place to learn about how to doom your company by allowing yourself to be disrupted to death.