It’s anyone’s bet whether the Pebble smart watch, one of Kickstarter’s first device crowd-funding success stories ($10 million raised in 2012), will survive long after the launch of the Apple Watch. But the e-paper-based watch has done well to date thanks to a thriving community of developers who create apps that link the wrist watch to an accompanying smart phone — just like Android and iOS watches link to their respective mobile motherships.
Why did Pebble’s community arise? A partnership with the popular RunKeeper app helped, amid early criticism of the lack of app-based functionality. Other simple use cases followed: Creative watch faces, a haptic metronome, apps that surface notifications (weather, text, sports scores) from Android phones, bus schedules, remotes, two-factor security, Foursquare, Yelp, GPS and more. So you wouldn’t want to use the monochromatic, non-retina display to shop on Amazon — do you really want to shop on your watch anyway?
The bigger question, then, isn’t which smart watch will succeed — since there are now number of consumer choices for these still-evolving smart watches — but which will inspire community. An early failure to collaborate doomed Nike FuelBand to struggle amid a lack of offerings for its closed platform. Apple Watch will have a serious advantage with its massive, high-quality app store, though it remains to be seen, again, how many iOS developers will port ever smaller, “glanceable” app offerings to the smart watch.
HAX (formerly HXLR8R, a hardware incubator and accelerator which connects entrepreneurs to Chinese supply chains), alludes to one way to build community: Crowd-funding, and the media hype that precedes and follows a successful campaign. But there are others. Product Ninja, for example, calls itself “a hub for physical product-loving enthusiasts to discover, share, and discuss the latest hardware tech projects.” The idea is to pre-test product ideas and grow early communities around them. There’s plenty of overlap with Kickstarter projects such as Prynt (a phone-sized photograph printer) and Flixi for framing and hanging photos without nails, using 3M command tape and built-in level bubbles. Interestingly, Flixi has not neglected the cloud/app angle: the product comes with a web app for helping design a photo wall.
These are purely consumer products, and the wall-designing app won’t win a Nobel prize for its brilliance, but what about geekier, software-based ecosystems? While the open-source world offers plenty of lessons, too often, tech startups get this horribly wrong. As Joel Spolsky blogs in his post entitled Modern Community Building, “There are an awful lot of technology companies, founded by programmers, who think they are building communities on the Internet, but they’re really just building software and wondering why the community doesn’t magically show up.”
Richard Millington, author of Buzzing Communities: How to Build Bigger, Better and More Active Online Communities and founder of online community guide FeverBees, explains on his blog how failed community efforts often start backwards: “The opportunity is to build a community around a strong common interest/purpose (e.g. seamless photo sharing) and then develop the dream product for that community. When you launch the product, you will already have a dedicated community of people eager to use it. These people are more likely to promote it to others. Seth Godin defined this best; find products for your audience, not audiences for your products.”
Success in creating a fertile ecosystem is one reason Under Armour athletic wear bought app and hardware maker MapMyFitness in 2013. MapMyFitness connects hundreds of hardware devices and collects vast amounts of exercise data that its parent company can now use. And ecosystems aren’t limited to software: Freescale Semiconductor offers not only a chip, but also product design expertise. The company’s Android WaRP (www.warpboard.org) is an open source platform for developers interested in rapid prototyping. It contains a main processor and add-on daughtercard for sensor aggregation and wireless chargin, as well as an LCD or low-power e-ink display with touchscreen. Sensors include accelerometer, magnetometer and pedometer. Power management is critical for wearables, so this platform can go into deep sleep mode while still monitoring sensor data. The company also suggests you don’t have to go it alone: It offers an ecosystem with assistance from Revolution Robotics and Kynetics for experienced product design.
Hardware + Software + Community = Success
You’ll need an app for that.
Your smart device won’t be long for this world without an accompanying app strategy, according to the annual report on hardware trends by HAX. Because pure hardware can be reverse-engineered, it usually will be. Plenty of Kickstarter gadget successes — Pressy, Olloclip, Tile — have soon found their margins eliminated by fast-moving copycats.
Thus, a successful hardware launch must not only do something difficult, it’s part of a larger ecosystem: software and community. According to the report, “Almost all HAX startups use an app/cloud.” Algorithms are “hard to replicate” and a community of developers, makers and enthusiasts, such as those around GoPro, Makerbot, Pebble and Google Glass, injects life and passion into the project.
Further, the HAX report warns hardware entrepreneurs of 12 types of “wares” that portend failure:
- Nicheware (includes artware and funware) has too small a market.
- Easyware is too easy to copy (see Tile, Pressy, Olyclip).
- Sameware is too similar to something else.
- Solutionware (which doesn’t solve any known problem) is common among academic teams.
- Vaporware cannot be made, and is possibly even a scam (such as the HUVr Board prank).
- Lameware doesn’t work.
- Failware is totally wrong.
- Lateware is so delayed that by the time it’s ready, competitors have already conquered the market.
- Lossware has no profit margin.
- Boreware is — like most wearables today — a device that consumers tire of and eventually abandon.
- Futureware is ahead of its time — too innovative for today’s market.
- Localware suffers from the “Galapagos Effect,” such as Japan’s flip feature phones and China’s smartphone/shaver.