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Fitbit takes wearables to their next step

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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Cisco gives pre-owned tech a Refresh

In a market of constant upgrades, Cisco Refresh aims to keep quality product away from landfills, writes BRYAN TURNER.

When one gets a new smartphone upgrade, the old device may be used as a backup or can be used by someone else. In business environments, equipment upgrades may not be conducive to keeping old equipment around, which may send older, working equipment to landfills.

This is where Cisco’s Refresh initiative comes in. At Cisco Connect in Sun City this week, Ehrika Gladden, VP and general manager of Cisco Refresh, lifted the lid on a little-known aspect of the company’s strategy. 

“Refresh is Cisco’s global pre-owned equipment business unit,” said Gladden. “It is certified to meet the quality and engineering standards of Cisco. It is licensed for software and it’s also inclusive of a services warranty.

“Our responsibility in 80 countries around the world is tied to both the recovery of assets and the ability to leverage those assets at a lower price point. This ensures our sustainability and proper usage of the Earth’s resources while providing access to small and medium businesses. The products are typically in the range of 20-40% cheaper. The products represent the entire portfolio for Cisco in some part, the majority of that product set is 2+ years in terms of generation.”

Cisco’s Circular Economy initiative ensures a sustainable loop through businesses willing to pay a premium for the latest, cutting-edge solutions, while Cisco markets older, working equipment for resale to those who don’t require the latest solutions. This ensures far less new components need to be used in a product range.

“We are leveraging the model of remanufacturing, refurbishing, recycling, and reusing,” said Gladden. “Depending on the product set, there is a certain set of product yield that we expect. They vary from product to product, but we do have a percentage that doesn’t make it through.

“Those are always reused, meaning we will look at those products and decide to use them completely differently, leveraging the components, remanufacturing back into the overall build process. If that can’t be done, we will go into a recycle process where we melt those products down to reuse them.”

Repairing and refurbishing older products isn’t just that. Cisco is creating repair centres that are owned by third-parties to uplift local ownership.

“The repair centres, as a global manufacturer, is Cisco’s entree into local ownership,” said Gladden. “I want to be precise about what I mean by local ownership. It’s critical for us to have a localised presence, but doing that through ownership. When you look at inclusive economies, those that are participative, to be sustainable – not in the product set, but generationally.

“The ability as a global manufacturer through a local ownership model  isto create a repair centre where a product can be returned, screened, tested, and repaired, leveraging the talent that the Networking Academy is creating.”

Cisco is working closely with local governments to understand where it operates and how to leverage the skills in the market.

Gladden said: “We are also super excited about the National Development Plan and African Union statements which with we align: eradication of poverty, job creation, ownership, healthcare, education, it all fits in the model. So we were very excited to have the opportunity to come to Africa first to announce this. Over the next twelve months, we want to establish our first repair centres, and in the next 3 to 5 years, build that vision into a reality.”

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Why Data Privacy has become a Pipe Dream

If you’re active on WhatsApp, Facebook or any other social platform, you’re not as safe as you thought, writes
AARON THORNTON, MD of Dial a Nerd

As you begin to read this, let’s perform a quick experiment! How many active conversations are you engaged in – right now – on WhatsApp? When was the last time you shared a picture or video on Instagram? Is Facebook currently open and active on one of your devices? And how many internet- connected devices are you using at this moment? Chances are, you have multiple devices running multiple applications most of the time. So what’s the problem, you ask? Since when did checking in with a high school buddy in Australia via Facebook become a dangerous act?  

In reply, we say, read on if you can stomach it!  

Nation-State Hacking & You  

It might seem like a laughably long shot to say that you are a key player in the increasingly sinister and sophisticated world of nation-state hacking. Well, you are. Given that individuals, businesses and governments are now constantly connected, round the clock, consumers and businesses have become fair game in cyber espionage. And as we create and share more and more data, both the value and accessibility of that data increases. According to a report by McAfee, IP theft now accounts for more than 25% of the estimated $600 billion cost of cybercrime to the world economy.    

With data having become the ‘new gold’, nation states are naturally pouring investment and key resources into building advanced cyber warfare tools. Indeed, entire divisions of armed forces as well as the upper echelons of corporate leadership are devising ways to harness data to gain economic, political and social power. At the highest level, tools and platforms are being developed with the specific aim of perpetrating cyber espionage and data theft. No surprise then, that the consumer and business environments are rife with increasingly advanced malware, ransomware and many other malicious hacking tools and methods.  

Still not convinced? Yes, we can smell the scepticism from here! So let’s take a moment to see how this has already played out, beneath our noses.  

Remember the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal of early 2018? For many, this was a watershed moment in the emerging war for consumer data – and the ensuing tensions between privacy, power and profit. Need a refresh? Well, in 2018, Facebook exposed data on up to 87 million Facebook users to a researcher who worked at Cambridge Analytica, which worked for the Trump campaign. In essence, the data was harvested without user consent and used for political purposes.  

Another chilling but less direct example can be found in Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. According to Politico, Russia launched a massive social media campaign to ‘sow discord’ leading up to the elections. The website reported that as early as 2014, an infamous Russian “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency – a company linked to Russian president Putin – developed a strategy using fraudulent bank accounts and other fake identity documents to “spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.” 

When referring to the Russian hacks and their impact on election results, one U.S. Representative sagely noted: “They didn’t just steal data; they weaponized it.” 

Ignorance is not bliss 

Okay, so data is being ‘weaponized’, and ordinary people and businesses are being caught in the crosshairs of cyber warfare. A little bit frightening, but the good news is that savvy individuals like you can take steps to protect personal data and actively combat the creeping influence of juggernauts such as Facebook and Google.  

To begin with, awareness is key. As you engage with various platforms and applications at work and at home, take time to understand how your data is being used and what the terms of use are. Is your data being accessed and sold to advertisers? Have you consented to this? In addition to scrutinizing your consent, also pay close attention to how much data you share online – and the nature of the details you are divulging. Always keep in mind that hackers are employing smart social engineering tactics and using the details of your private life (birthdays, holidays, pet’s names, etc) to trick you into opening infected emails and clicking on malware. Whenever you are online, you are a target – and vigilance at all times is critical. Beyond that, it goes without saying that you must commit to following basic security protocols with your devices. So always keep software up to date and keep your data backed up so that you can reboot or wipe a device if needed.   

Now that we’ve left you sufficiently spooked, you can get back to those demanding WhatsApp/Facebook/Instagram notifications (same company, by the way)…albeit, we hope, with a slightly altered [cyber] worldview!  

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