Friday, May 11, 2018

The Problem For Fitbit isn't Apple....

Fitbit has yet to make money and maybe never will.  If it goes bankrupt, it will leave users with bricks instead of products.   But the problem is, many of their products don't work well to begin with, so they are little more than bricks.

A recent article in The Motley Fool opines that Apple's smartwatch is killing off Fitbit, as the smart watch can do what the Fitbit does, and so much more.  Fitbit sales are reaching a plateau, and the user retention is declining.   Fitbit makes money selling your data, along with selling products, so user retention is important if they want to succeed.

Many of our friends and neighbors have Fitbits, or Apple Watches, or Garmin fitness trackers.  It seems to be a trendy thing.   And Mark wanted one for his birthday, so why not?   They weren't all that expensive, although the Garmin and other knock-offs are a lot cheaper.   But I thought, why not buy the brand-name one and end up with less hassle than some knock-off brand?

Big mistake.  Over the years, I have been taken in again and again by the technology firms, who come to me offering snake oil, promising me my life would change forever, if only I bought some new piece of technology to make my life complete.  Whether it was the hi-fi set (and later on the CD player), the car stereo, the walkman, the VCR, the boom box, the telephone answering machine, the car phone, the bag phone, the portable cell phone, the iPod, the big TeeVee, the flat screen TeeVee, the surround sound system, or the Bluetooth speaker - along with countless computers and laptops - the story was about the same.

You get this new piece of tech and are all excited.  You rip open the box like a kid at Christmas, remember not to eat the gel pack, plug in the wall-pack transformer (today, a USB block), and read the instruction manual.   It will do all these great things!  Life will be so much easier!  But life isn't easier, it actually gets harder.  It gets frustrating.

To begin with, half this stuff doesn't work.  "Feature creep" is a term referring to the desire of manufacturers to offer "me too!" features to match the competition.   When consumers are buying and look at two machines, if one has more features, they will assume it is a better value - even if they never need half of those features - or indeed any of them.  Or if indeed half of them never work right - which no one notices, as they rarely use them, if at all.

As a result, many companies pack in features that simply don't work or don't work very well.   I recall spending countless frustrating hours trying to debug a computer with a USB 1.0 port on it, before the tech help guy (the fifth I called) told me that those basically don't work, and the only real option was to get a new computer, if I wanted to use their USB-compatible device.  And this is pretty typical of my experience with tech - half the stuff simply doesn't work - and there is a reason for this.

Back when I was in Engineering, we used to joke that management would allow us to develop the product until the Engineering and testing budget was used up.  At that point, Production would come into the lab and whatever was on the test stand they would take and start making.   And often, this meant products going out into the marketplace that were not complete, did not work well, or had very bad flaws.   This is how the world ends up with Vega's.  And no, you can't convince me it wasn't "that bad a car" - I owned one.

It is not just Dilbert cartoons - it is real-life.  It often isn't until a product is in its third or fourth generation that it comes into its prime.   The old saying at GM is that the last year for a particular product run is often the best.   GM got the Vega sorted out toward the end - but by then, it was too late.  The Fiero was a fine car, if you bought the last model year it was made.   But by then, of course, better cars were out there.

My neighbors were excited about their Garmin fitness trackers.  The tracker has an accelerometer than measures your paces and calculates calories consumed.  This is not a new technology, of course.  In the old days, pendulum stride counters would "click" with each pace and advance a mechanical dial.   In later years, these were made electronic with semiconductor acclerometers - and you could buy them at the drug store (and I did).  So the Fitbit and its ilk are really no more than a modern iteration of this.   They've added new features, such as heart rate monitoring, of course.

But the real deal is the website. The Fitbit (or the others) upload data to a website that then sends data to your phone, which you can view in an app (or you can go to the website on a desktop or laptop PC).   It can calculate your sleep time and type, calories consumed, and whatnot.   Using a bar-code scanner, or key entry, you can even enter what you are eating and figure out your calorie count - and figure out whether you are burning more calories than you are eating.   With the companion Aria scale, you can log your weight via Wifi and keep track of your progress.

If this all sounds familiar, it is because it is.  A few years back, Mark and I started writing down everything we ate and calculating how many calories we consumed.  We logged our weight, and logged the number of steps we took, using the pedometer we bought from Walgreens.  I logged it all in a blogsite, and over a few months, we lost quite a bit of weight and felt a lot healthier as well.   So you don't really "need" a Fitbit or Garmin or Smartwatch to do this - it is just easier to have all this stuff tracked automatically with these devices.

That is, if any of this shit actually worked.   Early on, articles appeared questioning whether the Fitbit accurately clocked your motions and steps.  Traditional pedometers attach to your belt, where they measure hip movement.  The Fitbit, being on your wrist, will measure all sorts of movement and count it as "steps".   I can wave my arm around about eight times, and it will show four more steps on my log.  There has been a class-action lawsuit about this already, and I can understand why.  The Fitbit presents alarmingly positive data.  I have burned 4,000 calories today!  Whoo-hee!  Might as well have another slice of cake!

And therein lies the problem.  Another study shows that having a fitness tracker doesn't really help you lose weight.   People who used the "old school" methods, such as pencil and paper, did better. And I think the answer is that the Fitbit does make wildly optimistic measurements about your calorie consumption.   According to the Fitbit, I am burning 1,000 calories a day more than I am consuming - the pounds should be falling off me.   But they aren't.  I have lost some weight with it, but not enough to even talk about.   And I think part of the problem is that the device is saying I am exercising more than I actually am.

Then there is the functionality.  Fitbit has yet to make a profit, and in fact is struggling with competition.   So they have released some products that are definitely "beta" test types.  The Aria and Aria 2 scales are highly flawed, in my opinion.  They are little more than digital drugstore scales for ten times the price.

What's the problem with them?  Well, I posted this on the Fitbit "community" site, which is little more than a cheerleading site for the company.  The "moderators" (who, from their responses, I suspect are outsourced overseas, as they seem not to actually understand what people are saying) offer little help, other than to link to existing "help" pages which just barf up instructions for the device and offer no troubleshooting help.  It is akin to the "help" desk in Bangalor where "Mike" asks you if your computer is plugged in.

Here is what I posted:

It seems the Aria 2 has a number of failure modes, or modes of operation: 
1.  Working Properly:  If the Aria 2 works properly, when you step on the scale, it reads your weight while the "rainbow" arc slowly scans.   It usually stops after a while, displaying one segment.  Sometimes, it displays little feet prompting you to get off the scale.  Other times, not. 
It then displays the weight and a % of body fat.  About half the time, this is blank, displaying "--%" instead of any real value.  How a scale can measure body fat is beyond me, by the way - it defies the laws of physics, IMHO. 
Then, if all the stars are aligned, it will show your icon and then show the Wifi upload screen.   Then the unit goes to sleep.   The unit seems to work in this mode about half the time. 
2. Unsure:   About 1/4 of the time, it will do the same as above, although sometimes the body fat % thing doesn't appear.  This is what is troubling to me - it seems not to be very consistent.   The Aria then gets confused or lost.  Who should I assign this weight to?  It can be within 1/10th of a pound of a previous reading, and still it asks me which icon I should assign this to.   And since our two users are nearly 100 pounds apart in body weight, this is very odd.   But when you select the correct icon, it does log it to the correct person. 
3.  Broken Mode:  About 1/4 of the time, it simply goes directly from weight reading (bypasssing the fat percentage thing) and simply says GUEST and logs that as GUEST.   It does not ask you if you want to assign this to an icon or not.   It will do this 10, 20, 30 times in a row (I've tried it!) and sometimes it gets "stuck" in this mode and you have to reboot and reconfigure the device and start over. 
Those are the problems with the scale itself. 
The overall system - including the fitbit servers - have other problems.  You send an "invite" to a friend and for some reason the fitbit servers decline to send it.  You sent it again.  No go.  You send it to their e-mail address.  No go.   It simply refuses to sent.  And no, it is not SPAM filters on our end, either.  Again, blaming the customer, simply because you cannot figure out the problem. 
The only workaround I found on this was again, to reconfigure the system, but use a different phone and user account to set it up, and then send the invite from that phone.   But this does get tiresome. 
Then there are problems with the App itself.  As suggested by others, I tried to re-assign the GUEST listings to my icon, and about 1/4 of the time, it works.  Other times, it works and then reverts back to GUEST - once actually doing this in real time as I was watching the screen which listed recent weigh-ins.  It went from my name to GUEST right before my eyes.
There is something wrong with these Aria 2 scales and the fitbit server software and the app itself.
Note that a number of other people on the site reported the same problems.  The "moderators" would then post a link to a banal instruction post, and say "user error" and mark the issue "solved" when in fact it was not.  Telling you to go to the app to log "GUEST" weights isn't solving the problem (it shouldn't keep saying you are a GUEST time and time again) and when in fact, the app doesn't let you reassign the GUEST entries, then the problem isn't solved at all.

In response to my posting, I received the following notice:

You are not allowed to access this site
So there you have it.  Fitbit trackers and accessories are not accurate, they won't help you lose weight, and many of the features they tout simply don't work.   If you point out the emperor has no clothes, well, you get banned.  Like any good tech company, they are less interested in making this stuff work than in ginning up the stock price, so the founders can cash out before it all goes horribly wrong.  And given how the market is now flooded with fitness trackers, I suspect this is a fad that will fade before too long.

And if Fitbit goes bust, well, without the servers to process the data and send it to your smartphone, your tracker is little more than a pedometer watch, and the "internet enabled" bathroom scale little more than a cheap digital scale - both of which you can buy at Walgreens or CVS for $25 apiece.

Like I said, you'd think I would have learned about the siren song of tech by now - having been lied to for so many years - that only if I would just believe in the future of technology, somehow it will all work out wonderfully!

Sort of sounds like the snakeoil that Elon Musk is selling.   Well, at least his rockets and cars actually work, even if he has trouble producing the latter.