IoT & the Drawer of Fitbits Problem

At Christmas a few years ago, everyone in my household received a Fitbit tracker along with a stylishly colorful wristband. A few months later, I had to designate a drawer to store all of the dead Fitbits (feel free to forward an offer to take them off my hands). Chances are that you also have a drawer dedicated as the resting place for dead, briefly used tech toys. By the way, we still track our steps using the built-in function in the iPhone, even though we know that it is not perfect. It is good enough.


Not to pick on the poor Fitbit, but this exemplifies the challenge of consumer IoT when you depend upon the consumer to take action to establish and maintain an experience. Even with a battery life that lasted ~10 days, the Fitbit required regular feeding (charging) to maintain the experience. The hassle of this maintenance soon outweighs any potential benefits for many people.


The hazard of requiring the customer to constantly work for the experience really came to mind with the announcement of the new Tumi Global Locator, a luggage tracker. This tracker is a Swiss Army knife of connectivity technologies with GSM, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS. It is a great idea in concept, and I have been a happy Tumi luggage customer for years.


But let’s look at an important disclosure: “Fully charged the battery life lasts up to 72 hours.” Just three whole days (maximum) in travel mode! It starts to feel like an episode of the TV show 24 where you have a countdown clock spurring you to action before it hits zero. Does everyone also remember that we are not supposed to be checking baggage with lithium batteries due to the chance of fire?


Wouldn’t it be cheaper and easier to simply buy a cheap Android phone on eBay for half the price, turn on location sharing and drop it in your bag? As an added bonus, you now have a backup phone that weighs around one-third of a pound, much less than the Tumi locator’s 1.3 pounds. It is hard for me to see how this kind of high maintenance solution can achieve scale. The customer service calls driven by dead batteries alone could get expensive.


Ring has a fantastic video doorbell product that my household cannot live without. However, the “stick-up” version that runs only on battery now requires charging about every 10 days after just 18 months of ownership. I expect more after spending ~$150 on a connected product.


For a more positive example, let’s look at Automatic and their connected car OBD-II port accessory for tracking all kinds of useful information about your vehicle, location and performance. I purchased these for two vehicles over a year ago and continue to value the service. There is an initial setup, but then they just work – no further user intervention, charging or configuration required. SiriusXM announced in April that they are purchasing Automatic for more than $100M.


The point here is that there is that the more that you depend upon a user to take some sort of action with a product, the less scale you will achieve and the higher the support costs will be. Remember that we are expecting hundreds of IoT devices for every person on the planet. If you want to make money and more importantly, make a difference, find a way to remove the user from your product maintenance cycle to the greatest extent possible. After all, don’t they have enough to do already?

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