I like to cycle in the Bay Area. Originally I had a simple “cat eye” cycling computer that tracked my speed and mileage by wiring a sensor to the wheel. Sometimes it would get wonky and think I was going half speed or not moving at all. Today I have a Garmin cycling computer with GPS and a configurable display of real-time data. It keeps track of, well, pretty much everything: route map, heart rate, moving time averages, total time averages, temperature, top speed… the list goes on. It can get wonky too, it sometimes loses the satellite connection, but it can usually recreate the route based on map data. When I get home I plug it in and I can see all of my ride information on a dedicated Garmin website. One entry for each ride. I can even see the same details of the workouts that other folks are doing. Good stuff.
So what does this have to do with mobile devices, cloud based services, and where the real value lies? A good friend of mine just introduced me to Strava. While Garmin is providing a device (the cycling computer) and a service (the web site), Strava only provides the service. They let me upload data from my Garmin device as well as iPhones and Androids.
Garmin’s site is pretty nice. It works well, the data is presented intelligently, and I can store as many rides as I want. Strava has only the service to hang their hat on, and you can tell. They offer everything Garmin offers and much more. When I upload my information the ride is broken into segments, such as a really hard hill climb. It then shows me my time on that segment and compares me to other riders. If I’ve done well enough it awards me a badge showing off my time and prompting others to beat it. Strava has taken a good service and made it outstanding while Garmin is balancing their outstanding device with a pretty good service.
So wait a minute, why is Garmin spending time manufacturing devices when they are being outdone on the service side and the iPhone or Android can do it all as a device? Well, the iPhone doesn’t have a heart rate monitor, it doesn’t support the ANT standard that the specialized devices support for additional input (i.e. power output), and the battery life is inferior. It looks like the Garmin devices have enough differentiation, or do they? A quick survey finds DigiFit has a pluggable heart rate monitor based on the ANT+ standard for the iPhone. Another company, Wahoo, has a similar offering. Cool, now my music comes with my cycling computer too! I imagine the Garmin folks are not very happy watching this unfold.
Anyone spending resources on developing hardware devices should be asking themselves hard questions right now. The proliferation of mobile devices is a proliferation of small general purpose computers that can take on almost any task. Witness the fall of the Flip, a dedicated mobile video device, when suitable video recorders were included in the latest generation of smart phones. Look at Square, which Visa recently invested in. They added a small credit card reader to enable iPhone based credit card purchases. The hardware that was once specialized is now offered built-in or via modules that can be added later. The general purpose mobile device is like a Swiss Army knife that can be expanded to add the latest blade. This approach is nothing new in the world of desktops and laptops, but it is disrupting the mobile device market in a much grander fashion because we already have so many dedicated devices that are being replaced: cell phone, point and shoot camera, video recorder, music player, portable game player, watch. It doesn’t make sense to attach a laptop with a GPS card to my bike, but I’m more than happy to bring along an iPhone, in my back pocket or directly attached to my bike.
So what questions should the niche mobile device vendors be asking? Questions focused on the service. The physical device is becoming a platform in most cases, a commodity part of the solution. It is not THE solution in much the same way a browser is part of but not THE solution when visiting a web site. If Flip had a more compelling service behind it I might be using Flip for the iPhone, instead I’m using iTunes. As a consumer I don’t want another device to worry about, I want an outstanding service that will stick with me across devices.