2014-07-09

Teachable moment: Watch Polar die.

If you want an opportunity to watch an established market leader falter and eventually die, you should have a look at Polar Electro.  I think it is very likely that they are going to be the next Nokia.  Grab some popcorn and watch as they are going to get their lunch taken away by newcomers.

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Their product strategy is obsolete.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.

Okay?

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.

2014-07-08

Ignorance and uncertainty.

Years ago I was involved in building a web scale search engine.  At the time this was the sort of undertaking that wasn't really well understood by a lot of people.  Information retrieval had existed for many years and was well enough understood, but almost nobody had any practical experience applying it at a massive scale.

And back in those days: 100 million documents was massive.  Computers were dog slow, we didn't have a lot of them and there wasn't a lot of open source software to help you do things at scale.  Not like today, where searching 100 million documents on a device that fits in your pocket is easily within practical reach.

What was hard back then is easy now.  Well, easier, at least.

But when I think back at those times it isn't really the technology that interests me.  By today's standards what we did was pretty crude,  but it did represent some of the best work that was done up until that point. Ever.  Anywhere in the world.  This is increasingly rare today:  the opportunity to work on something very few people have figured out how to do really well.

What interests me are two things.

The first is: what it takes to do something much better than anyone else.  I think the biggest advantage we had was that we had no idea what we were doing.  Which meant that we were not anchored by whatever other people did.  We truly had to explore and invent ourselves.

If you spend too much time trying to solve a given problem using whatever approach other people are following, you will be held back by the same limitations that they are going up against.  Worse yet, you will be tempted to not spend a sufficient amount of time trying to understand the problem you are solving.  Understanding the problem or problems you need to solve is always where you should start. This is why you should always try to spend a few weeks thinking about a given problem yourself.

This is why I avoid paying too much attention to what people who came before me did to approach a problem.  I might inform myself of their general approach, but I try to develop my own before devoting time to understanding theirs.  This doesn't always yield results, but if inspiration or deep understanding does strike, I will have an advantage.  Once I feel that I am starting to understand the problem and I know how I want to attack it I start to peek at what other people have done.

This is applicable to a surprising breadth of fields.

The other thing that interests me is the continuum from ignorance and uncertainty to cocksure certainty. While we were building a web scale search engine there was the engineering effort on one side and the sales people on the other side.

On the engineering side the basic question "can we do it?" wasn't a given.  Whether it was solving some problem of a deeply theoretical nature, turning ideas into working implementation or just delivering a product within an acceptable set of parameters (time, cost, quality etc.).   The sales side, as seen from the engineering side, seemed to take for granted that we had an infinite supply of magic hats from which we could pull rabbits at the last moment.  Theirs was a world that was about promises and at least the pretense of certainty.  Ours was one of sleep deprivation and raw panic.

I used to say that the salespeople sold our customers technology that we hadn't yet imagined we didn't know how to realize.

I liked to compare much of what we were doing to when Grumman built the Apollo Lunar Module. Nobody had built a lunar lander before.  Which meant that there was no known right way to do it.  Nor was there any meaningful way to estimate how long it would take or how much it would cost -- or indeed if it was at all possible.

In particular I got a facefull of this when we indexed one of our very first indices and performed searches against it.  The results were atrocious.  The results were so full of duplicates that for some searches you would get just pages and pages of identical results.  This was a wednesday.  I was asked to look into the problem.  The initial guess was that we should have a workable solution within a week. On sunday I had to call my boss and say "listen, the duplication problem is much harder than we had feared -- it'll take a bit longer".  Turns out there are several classes of duplication on the web.  And sorting them out is properly hard.

Note that it wasn't just about being able to do it -- it was about being able to do it in a practical manner. And most published efforts up to that point assumed small document sets and lots of time within which to do the deduplication.   Which meant that a "solution" that has quadratic (or worse) complexity just doesn't work.

We eventually came up with a battery of solutions.  All of them much faster than the feared quadratic solutions.  Many of them completely novel.

However, in retrospect, the interesting bit is the dynamic where people who like to deal with certainty and hard promises need to deal with uncertainty and ignorance.  For most complex technology projects, delays, disappointments and setbacks are inevitable because there are huge unknowns.  And more so for the projects that are really worth doing.

On one hand, hiding uncertainty behind a wall is dangerous because it makes our approach to hard problems fragile.  On the other hand, the pressure it creates can be valuable in spurring on discovery and progress -- by assuming "you will be able to figure this out".