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Fitbit takes wearables to their next step

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The Fitbit story is a fascinating one, and is about to enter its next phase as wearables graduate from mere utility to decoration, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It was a fashion show with a difference. Against the backdrop of the annual IFA consumer technology expo in Berlin, Fitbit chose a counterculture venue called Haubentaucher to show how its latest devices could be worn as both accessories and fitness devices.

Male and female models dressed in modest white outfits paraded along a temporary ramp built over a swimming pool, almost implying that the devices would keep working if they fell into the water.

The gadgets themselves marked the next step in the evolution of the activity wrist band: the new Fitbit Flex 2 featured a removable tracker that could be slotted into a bracelet for the wrist or a pendant for the neck. The potential was clear: the tracking component could be fitted into any clothing accessory or other wearable device. The bracelet and pendant were just the beginning.

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Fitbit also launched the Charge 2, the latest version of its market-leading activity band, with a substantially larger screen that allows display of text messages. It also features automatic sports tracking and “guided breathing”, to help users regulate breathing and enhance relaxation.

James Park, CEO and co-founder of Fitbit, added a buzz to the event by introducing the new devices. He practically invented an industry by spotting what was missing in other inventions. When the Nintendo Wii was launched almost exactly a decade ago, he said, he had been caught up in the hype.

“I was very excited about the Nintendo Wii. I was really amazed at the way it made gaming something fun, active and positive. Families were getting off the couch. We thought, how do we capture that magic and put it in portable form?”

He and co-founder Eric Friedman had less difficulty coming up with a solution than they had naming it, he admits.

“My co-founder and I were going through hundreds of names and variations. One day I was just napping and I woke up and thought, ‘Hey, Fitbit!’ It just came out of the blue. Unfortunately, domain names were hard to come by. We reached out to the owner, who happened to live in Russia. We had an email dialogue, asked how much do you want, and he said $10 000. I said, how about $2000? He immediately replied and said okay, and we paid him via PayPal.”

Those were the easy bits. The next step, getting the product to market, tends to be the one where even the coolest products fail. They chose the TechCrunch50 start-up conference to showcase their device. The online publication that hosted the event, TechCrunch, described what was then a clip-on device in quaint terms: “a wireless 3D pedometer and diet monitoring system that will cost $99 and connect online to upload activity levels and food intake.”

“I don’t think success was a given in the early days,” Park acknowledges. “When we announced our first product at TechCrunch 50, Eric asked how many pre-orders I expected. He said five. I said, that’s pessimistic, I expect 50. By the end of the day we had a couple of thousand pre-orders.”

It was exhilarating, but it was the kind of success that can land a start-up in deep trouble.

“We’d only raised $2-million in capital, which was pretty small for a hardware start-up. It forced us to be pretty efficient and mean. We were always cognisant of the fact that we couldn’t depend on capital markets for money, and one of our primary goals was to get profits going.”

Eight years later, Fitbit presides over the two best-selling products in history in the category, the Flex and the Charge. Its attempt at a smartwatch, the Blaze, has been less successful, as it is perceived to compete directly with the far more popular Apple Watch. As far as Park is concerned, however, it is about offering more options.

“We wanted to make the successors to our original products more motivating, so we added health metrics, and made the devices more stylish. People are looking for more style from this category. The devices are also getting smarter, as we gradually introduce more connectivity functionality.

“For example, your cardio fitness level tells you how well your body is using oxygen. To get access to this technology before, you had to be a performance athlete and go to a lab and spend a lot of money. We’ve encapsulated this in a small digital format on your wrist.”

Park says Fitbit spends the largest proportion of its research and development budget on sensors and algorithms, and it will continue to develop new sensors that will give people better metrics about their health.

Park’s long-term ambition for Fitbit is not as immodest as it may seem, considering what it has already achieved: “It will be incredible if Fitbit is considered an integral part of people’s health journey, in the same way as people wouldn’t think of buying a car without a seatbelt today.”

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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VoD cuts the cord in SA

Some 20% of South Africans who sign up for a subscription video on demand (SVOD) service such as Netflix or Showmax do so with the intention of cancelling their pay television subscription.

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That’s according to GfK’s international ViewScape survey*, which this year covers Africa (South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria) for the first time.

The study—which surveyed 1,250 people representative of urban South African adults with Internet access—shows that 90% of the country’s online adults today use at least one online video service and that just over half are paying to view digital online content. The average user spends around 7 hours and two minutes a day consuming video content, with broadcast television accounting for just 42% of the time South Africans spend in front of a screen.

Consumers in South Africa spend nearly as much of their daily viewing time – 39% of the total – watching free digital video sources such as YouTube and Facebook as they do on linear television. People aged 18 to 24 years spend more than eight hours a day watching video content as they tend to spend more time with free digital video than people above their age.

Says Benjamin Ballensiefen, managing director for Sub Sahara Africa at GfK: “The media industry is experiencing a revolution as digital platforms transform viewers’ video consumption behaviour. The GfK ViewScape study is one of the first to not only examine broadcast television consumption in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, but also to quantify how linear and online forms of content distribution fit together in the dynamic world of video consumption.”

The study finds that just over a third of South African adults are using streaming video on demand (SVOD) services, with only 16% of SVOD users subscribing to multiple services. Around 23% use per-pay-view platforms such as DSTV Box Office, while about 10% download pirated content from the Internet. Around 82% still sometimes watch content on disc-based media.

“Linear and non-linear television both play significant roles in South Africa’s video landscape, though disruption from digital players poses a growing threat to the incumbents,” says Molemo Moahloli, general manager for media research & regional business development at GfK Sub Sahara Africa. “Among most demographics, usage of paid online content is incremental to consumption of linear television, but there are signs that younger consumers are beginning to substitute SVOD for pay-television subscriptions.”

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New data rules raise business trust challenges

When the General Data Protection Regulation comes into effect on May 25th, financial services firms will face a new potential threat to their on-going challenges with building strong customer relationships, writes DARREL ORSMOND, Financial Services Industry Head at SAP Africa.

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The regulation – dubbed GDPR for short – is aimed at giving European citizens control back over their personal data. Any firm that creates, stores, manages or transfers personal information of an EU citizen can be held liable under the new regulation. Non-compliance is not an option: the fines are steep, with a maximum penalty of €20-million – or nearly R300-million – for transgressors.

GDPR marks a step toward improved individual rights over large corporates and states that prevents the latter from using and abusing personal information at their discretion. Considering the prevailing trust deficit – one global EY survey found that 60% of global consumers worry about hacking of bank accounts or bank cards, and 58% worry about the amount of personal and private data organisations have about them – the new regulation comes at an opportune time. But it is almost certain to cause disruption to normal business practices when implemented, and therein lies both a threat and an opportunity.

The fundamentals of trust

GDPR is set to tamper with two fundamental factors that can have a detrimental effect on the implicit trust between financial services providers and their customers: firstly, customers will suddenly be challenged to validate that what they thought companies were already doing – storing and managing their personal data in a manner that is respectful of their privacy – is actually happening. Secondly, the outbreak of stories relating to companies mistreating customer data or exposing customers due to security breaches will increase the chances that customers now seek tangible reassurance from their providers that their data is stored correctly.

The recent news of Facebook’s indiscriminate sharing of 50 million of its members’ personal data to an outside firm has not only led to public outcry but could cost the company $2-trillion in fines should the Federal Trade Commission choose to pursue the matter to its fullest extent. The matter of trust also extends beyond personal data: in EY’s 2016 Global Consumer Banking Survey, less than a third of respondents had complete trust that their banks were being transparent about fees and charges.

This is forcing companies to reconsider their role in building and maintaining trust with its customers. In any customer relationship, much is done based on implicit trust. A personal banking customer will enjoy a measure of familiarity that often provides them with some latitude – for example when applying for access to a new service or an overdraft facility – that can save them a lot of time and energy. Under GDPR and South Africa’s POPI act, this process is drastically complicated: banks may now be obliged to obtain permission to share customer data between different business units (for example because they are part of different legal entities and have not expressly received permission). A customer may now allow banks to use their personal data in risk scoring models, but prevent them from determining whether they qualify for private banking services.

What used to happen naturally within standard banking processes may be suddenly constrained by regulation, directly affecting the bank’s relationship with its customers, as well as its ability to upsell to existing customers.

The risk of compliance

Are we moving to an overly bureaucratic world where even the simplest action is subject to a string of onerous processes? Compliance officers are already embedded within every function in a typical financial services institution, as well as at management level. Often the reporting of risk processes sits outside formal line functions and end up going straight to the board. This can have a stifling effect on innovation, with potentially negative consequences for customer service.

A typical banking environment is already creaking under the weight of close to 100 acts, which makes it difficult to take the calculated risks needed to develop and launch innovative new banking products. Entire new industries could now emerge, focusing purely on the matter of compliance and associated litigation. GDPR already requires the services of Data Protection Officers, but the growing complexity of regulatory compliance could add a swathe of new job functions and disciplines. None of this points to the type of innovation that the modern titans of business are renowned for.

A three-step plan of action

So how must banks and other financial services firms respond? I would argue there are three main elements to successfully navigating the immediate impact of the new regulations:

Firstly, ensuring that the technologies you use to secure, manage and store personal data is sufficiently robust. Modern financial services providers have a wealth of customer data at their disposal, including unstructured data from non-traditional sources such as social media. The tools they use to process and safeguard this data needs to be able to withstand the threats posed by potential data breaches and malicious attacks.

Secondly, rethinking the core organisational processes governing their interactions with customers. This includes the internal measures for setting terms and conditions, how customers are informed of their intention to use their data, and how risk is assessed. A customer applying for medical insurance will disclose deeply personal information about themselves to the insurance provider: it is imperative the insurer provides reassurance that the customer’s data will be treated respectfully and with discretion and with their express permission.

Thirdly, financial services firms need to define a core set of principles for how they treat customers and what constitutes fair treatment. This should be an extension of a broader organisational focus on treating customers fairly, and can go some way to repairing the trust deficit between the financial services industry and the customers they serve.

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