Uncertain Future of Polar

My running computer of choice is the Polar RS200 SD, which includes a wrist watch, a heart rate monitor (HRM) and a foot-pod which accurately measures my speed and distance traveled. I’ve been using it for almost a year now and can’t imagine running without it. I’ve ran more or less 1500 km with it so far.

With the way things are going, it looks like it’ll be my last Polar. They have stopped innovating outside their watches. My 7-year-old model of a watch already does 100% of what I want from it during a run but even the newer models do little for me after a run.

This post is a about things I think are necessary for them to do so they can survive.

1. Embrace the Mac

Polar customer support when I asked them about their plans for developing an app for the Mac:

“We’re following the Mac market share closely but so far don’t think it’s big enough for us to concentrate on.”

Concentrate or take notice of?

Market share illusion

I know many of the few PC-using readers of mine will think “here we go again, another Mac fanboy upset his Mac wont run something”. And it’s true, I am upset. It’s a real shame Polar doesn’t make a Mac application. It’s a shame for me as a runner and it’s a shame for Polar. They will end up loosing me as a customer because of it.

The Mac has about 9% market share of personal computers and it’s growing. But market share is a cold statistic that doesn’t take into count either the actual human or the computer behind the number. In June this year in the US, Apple’s share of over $1000 computers was a massive 91%. Those are sold to people who care about the quality of the product they’re buying and are willing to pay more for it. They have more disposable income.

My last argument to shatter the market share illusion comes from a games developer:

Consider this:

  • Out of the several hundred thousand downloads of Tribal Trouble. the Mac is responsible for 23%!
  • Out of all sales of Tribal Trouble, the Mac is responsible for 47%!

[Oddlabs Blog]

This is after they decided to port their popular PC game to the Mac. There is less choice in games and software on the Mac but this should not be seen as an obstacle but rather as an opportunity.

Competition

The four leaders in the market of running computers are Polar, Suunto, Garmin and Nike with their Nike+ product.

Neither Polar or Suunto make a Mac app. Garmin does and it looks pretty decent. Nike+ syncs with nikeplus.com using iTunes on a Mac or a PC. On top these there’s a slew of apps for the iPhone (just search for ‘running’ in iTunes store and find out for yourself).

(Out of the iPhone apps I’ve only used RunKeeper. For free you’ll get duration, distance, pace, speed, total rise, elevation versus speed and path on map and if you pay a little – £5.99 – you’ll get some extra social features. RunKeeper still, in my experience, has it’s downfalls but I’m sure those will be fixed one day.)

Talking about the iPhone, it has been seen as, like iPods, a ‘gateway drug’ that often leads into buying a Mac. People get used to the easy user interface and the fact that ‘it just works’ and end up buying a Mac as a result. Apple has sold 40 million iPhones and most of them are not Mac users. Yet.

I recently went to few specialised running shops here in London and asked what customers are buying and why. Result; Polar is popular but more and more people are buying Garmin ‘because it supports the Mac’.

I also did a quick survey amongst 13 friends of mine who are active runners. 9 out 13 are Mac users! That’s 70%.

So what should Polar do about this?

I’m not suggesting that they should necessarily go ahead and build a Mac app. It would be nice but at the same time they’d be splitting their resources (all though, in reality it would mean hiring Mac developers or another company to build it). And it could end up being like killing half a bird with one stone.

I believe they should build a very good web app along with little helper apps on both Windows and Mac that transfer data between the Internet and the exercise computer. This takes the pressure off of keeping two different complex apps current on two different platforms. It saves money and it saves time. And it makes a lot of sense.

2. Socialize

Not just because it’s hip. Running is a solitary sport. Roll it in flour, have a running club or run with a friend; in the end of the day, you stamp those kilometres all by yourself.

How much effort is Polar putting into it’s polarpersonaltrainer.com website? Although they change the copyright notice in beginning of the year to 2010 from 2008, not much has changed in a while.

Queue PolarSocial.com

Polar should extend their existing online service so that you can share your results and experiences with other runners you know and find new friends who are local to you. I would love to be able find other Finnish runners in South East London to run with. People are already doing this on other social networks and Polar themselves are in the prime position to, not create, but facilitate the community that already exists around their products.

“I’m not a runner. I’m a Polar runner.”

It’s not about reinventing the wheel. It’s really about taking their existing online services few – or few dozen – levels up. On top of it being the destination to store you past exercises and plan for future ones, you can share this data with other likeminded runners.

There are lots of running groups on Facebook, Yahoo Groups and other forums as well as there are dedicated social networks for runners; like Strands.com. From these, it’s easy to see that there is demand for this.

3. Open Up.

Polar is a hardware company. They make physical objects athletes can wear while exercising. Then, why do they tie you up to their platform when your exercise is over? Why can’t you click a button at polarpersonaltrainer.com that says ‘export my data’?

Is it because they they think closedness is good? It scares me to load my data into a place that I can’t bring it with me if I wish to leave. That’s why my exercise calendar is on Google Docs. No, it’s not a completely open platform but at least I can export my data in various different formats as a backup. Or edit it on my desktop.

There’s two things Polar needs to do when it comes to openness.

First, they have to build an SDK and example apps around their platform(s) to enable third-party developers to build on top it. Perhaps not as far as running software on the watches themselves but desktop applications that will lead the way in innovation. Think of how well the iPhone has done after allowing third party apps. Apple sells a lot more of their devices as a result of supporting a large amount of applications.

Second. The data held at PolarSocial network they should build ought to be open. API and widgets, fire hoses of data that developers can use to build other services around. For example, look at Twitter. 80% tweets come from other platforms that their own website.


What’s my point? This is the same struggle many other companies are going through. The paradigm has changed and you either change with it or you die.

Polar, if you’re listening, get in touch. I have tons more ideas on how all this should be done and I’d really love to help. I’m in the market for a new running watch and I’d like it to be a Polar.

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