The Mobile Web isn’t Dead: It’s Slowing Down

Chris Dixon wrote a popular post about the decline of the mobile web. I don’t think that there’s actually a decline, that it will strengthen mobile gatekeepers or reduce innovation in the mobile ecosystem. Actually, I think this is something we’ve already seen from the past.

The most innovative apps are built on the platform that is itself innovating and delivering new functionality most quickly. At the beginning — when it comes to delivering rich, interactive experiences — the web was pretty crummy, and we spent most of our time in native desktop apps. Then the the desktop OS’s began to slow down their rate of innovation, and browsers got richer: JavaScript, AJAX, V8, WebGL, plugins, video, offline storage, etc. This meant the web was becoming richer and more powerful at a pace faster than desktop OS’s. So, the next wave of great products and services was built on the web.

Fast-forward to today. How much more powerful has your browser gotten recently? Faster? Yes. More capable? Not really. Compare that to the mobile operating systems. With each major release of Android and iOS, we’re seeing tremendous amounts of new functionality, all available to developers. Want to have a geofence so your app knows where it is, even when it’s not running? Boom. Talk to a wearable device nearby via Bluetooth? No problem. Find other devices on the local network and start talking to them? Sure. You just can’t do this in the browser today.

At some point, the pace of innovation in the core OS will likely slow down, and it’ll speed up again in the web, or another as-yet-unimagined platform. Then the cycle will repeat. Again and again.

There’s just one catch: Apple. If mobile web apps provide as-good or better experiences than native apps, across platforms, Apple has the most to lose. The iOS app ecosystem, more than the devices and OS-itself, is what makes iOS great. Where Google is successful when more people search the web, and Microsoft needs more apps on their platform, for iOS it’s the apps. For that reason, I expect we’ll see Google and Microsoft trying to move the web forward faster, but it’s Apple that’ll be driving the most innovation at the OS. It’ll be fun to watch.


Hiring a great product leader

“I’m not a product guy, and I know it. How do I hire for a skill that I don’t understand fully?”

We walked around the Mission as the CEO described where the business was, where they wanted to take it, and why they needed a “product leader” to join. It’s never easy to recruit the most talented people to your team. Product is a particularly difficult function to recruit for: it means different things to different companies and “good product” is highly subjective. Even though it’s hard, you can find great product leaders, and I’ll show you how.

What “product” is

Product solves problems important to the business and customers

At its best, product considers the business’ objectives, the available resources, and customers need. The solution is often unexpected, and creative. Let’s take a look at two similar problems, each solved differently by two companies.

Problem 1: I need a car, but don’t want to own one.
Owning a car in a city is expensive and mostly unnecessary, but occassionally you need one to get around. Also, as a trend millennials are increasingly renting things (often on-demand) instead of buying them: music, movies, cars, homes. So carsharing services like ZipCar and City CarShare popped up as a solution: pay a membership fee, and you can rent cars (conveniently located near you) by the hour.

Avis: Avis owns and manages cars and real estate. So they acquired Zipcar: the urban-Millenial version of Avis. They understand the business, and made a bet on growing demand.

BMW: They make and sell cars, and partnered with global car rental firm Sixt to built DriveNow. It’s effectively Zipcar with BMW cars, including the perfect-for-urban-Millennials MINI brand, and ActiveE electric cars. BMW makes the cars, and Sixt manages the fleet.

Problem 2: Taxis suck.
Taxis are hard to flag down, you never know which taxi company to call, you have no idea where your cab is or when it’ll show up, you hope that they take credit cards or need to remember to have cash… you get it.

Hailo: They use the infrastructure that already exists: trained, licensed taxi drivers are already in every major city. They built an app that helps people use their phones to find taxis, request a ride, see where their taxi is, and avoid any payment friction.

Lyft: A totally new entrant, with no legacy, no fleet, and (comparatively) no capital. Their insight: lots of people have cars but no job: lets turn them into drivers. Add a slick mobile app, a playful brand and you’ve got your own taxi fleet without any taxis.

To solve the problem of making transportation easier for urbanites, we’ve found 4 companies that took very different approaches:

  • M&A [Avis/Zipcar]
  • joint venture [BMW/Sixt]
  • use existing infrastructure [Hailo]
  • use idle cars and people to build something totally new [lyft]

Is it crazy for BMW compete with Zipcar? It depends on if their product theownership of a BMW, or the experience of having one when you need it? Do you think about solving customer needs this creatively?

What product isn’t

Your product isn’t your app

Or website, or gadget, or any of those things. Your product is the way you meet a customer’s need. Your conversations with the product team shouldn’t only be about user stories, tickets and wireframes. They should also include a lot of “What problem are we solving? Is that the right problem to solve? Is this the best way?”

Product isn’t an order-taker

At one company I met, the product team’s job was to take feature requests from the rest of the organization, and write up user stories and sketch wireframes. The CEO thought about the details (what to build today), and the future (“What will we need in 5 years?”). Nobody owned the vision and roadmap for the next 12 months. When sales called and said, “We really need you to build feature X for a customer, or we’ll lose the deal,” product couldn’t weigh this request against other priorities, because there was neither a roadmap nor objectives. Unless product is empowered and able to contribute, the best talent won’t stay, and the company will always be reacting to the market, instead of leading it.

Product isn’t the boss

While product is often at the center of everything, it isn’t necessarily in chargeof everything. Done well, product supports the business’ needs. Here’s a simplistic flow:

The CEO decides what the high-level objectives are (“We want more people driving our cars.”).
Product studies the business needs, customer needs, and identifies a solution.
Design takes that solution, and creates the best experience possible around it, often helping product re-imagine things.
Engineering takes design and product’s output and ultimately decides what’s posssible, how to build it, etc. In a great organisation, engineering is also deeply involved in the iterative process alongside product and design.

How do you test for product talent?

1. Talk about their favorite products

“Tell me about a few of your favorite products…” is a great open-ended question that gives you a peek into how someone thinks. Do they love their Audi because it’s fast? Great. Tell me more. They love sending an address to the car from Google Maps? Awesome. Why? What problem does that solve? How else could you solve this? What would be even better? Why did they build this feature?

Ask them to show you a few of the most-used apps on their phone. What are great design decisions the developers made, and what could be better? Do they love the Twitter app? Awesome. Why? They love the new conversation threading feature? Cool. Why is that important? What problem did it solve? How did people solve that problem before? What would you change or do differently? Is there another product where something like this might be useful?

You’re not looking for the surface-level thoughts here. You want to see three things:

  • Are they getting into the head of the customer? What are they trying to do, and is this the best way?
  • Do they understand what the developer was thinking? What were their objectives? Why might they have made the choices they did?
  • Do they have a strong, thoughtful opinion on things, and can they communicate?

2. Intellectual honesty: let’s disagree

Great product leaders and consensus-led companies don’t mix, so you need to make sure you can disagree and communicate constructively. Challenge them: “You really think sending an address to your car is slick? I think everyone will just use their phone. That feature is worthless.” What do they say?

You don’t need to believe your own objection, you just want to see how they react. Do they ask questions to clarify what you mean? Do they have a thoughtful reply? Do they just cave and agree with you (lack of spine is a bad sign). Do they build on your thought? Or — if your suggestion really is terrible — do they explain why you’re wrong?

You will always have conflicting opinions, but you need to respect their thought process. You need to feel like you can communicate, disagree, and come up with even better solutions together. If you don’t feel like they’re thinking clearly or your communication styles just don’t mesh, don’t hire.

3. Are they obsessed with solving this pain?

Why do they want to join your company? What is it about the problem and your customers that they’re excited about? What’s the opportunity? If product’s goal is really to solve big customer problems and achieve lofty company goals, a product leader needs to be passionate about both.

By the time a candidate met Steve Jobs, it was obvious that they were competent. He asked himself, “Are they going to fall in love with Apple?” Look at the last Apple keynote, and see how the leadership talks about the company, their products, and the mission. They’re in love, and that’s the goal.

4. Do they ask hard business questions?

When you interview a great product leader, you’re the customer, and they’re trying to understand your needs and goals as deeply as they can. If they join, they’ll be thinking about your customers the same way. So get ready (and excited) for some hard questions:

How much money do you have in the bank? What’s the burn? What about Competitor X? How’re you going to make money? How do you think about lifetime customer value? How are you thinking about an exit? What does the cap table look like? What do you need to do before you raise your next round or get to profitability? How close are you to your goals? How have you led product so-far? Have you considered buying Company Y? What does the rest of the company think of this role, what are they looking for?

A great product leader is someone who will think as deeply about your business as you do, so you should expect a lot of hard questions. They shouldn’t be afraid of challenges (competitors, the market, whatever), but they need to understand the terrain, where you are on the map, and what resources you can rally.

5. Can they identify what’s most important?

When you’re building a new product (and especially a new company), it’s easy to get disoriented by all the things you need to do. We get overwhelmed by all the awesome things the product could do. So we think about the 10 features it needs to have, the amazing companies we could partner with, all the awesome press we’re going to get when we ship it, etc. That’s awesome, it’s passion!

It’s critical, though, to look at that list of 10 features, priorities and objectives and select the absolutely critical ones. Sometimes what’s critical are the features that will make 10 million customers show up at your website, eager to buy. Other times you need to prove a hypothesis to investors, so you can raise more money to go from prototype to market. What is the next big step for your company? What risks do you need to mitigate: market size, technical, competitive, legal? You need to identify the most important objectives to hit the next big milestone, and focus on them.

It was more important for Tesla to prove to investors that they could build a reliable drive-train than that they could design beautiful showrooms. It was more important that the first iPod could sync all of your music wicked-fast (iTunes + small hard drive + Firewire), than it was to have a music store or Windows support. The Tesla showrooms, iTunes Store and Windows support came later: they were important but not critical.

Ask them what is critical for your business. Do they quickly find the key items? Do they ask the right questions? If they come to a different conclusion than you, what do you think about their thought process?

Great product leaders are thoughtful, ask questions, have an opinion, and communicate well.

Now you know how to find and get the most from them, so build something awesome and tell me about it!

I’m Sutha Kamal, a techy, design-y, product nerd, and the founder and former CEO at Massive Health (a consumer mobile health company, acquired by Jawbone).

If this was useful, you should follow me on Twitter (@suthakamal).

Climbing Pinnacles.

Climbing Pinnacles.


Wearables on the Wrist: Today and Tomorrow

My usual bedtime routine: open the Jawbone UP app, see how active I was, and set my alarm for the morning. I asked to be woken up no later than 6 AM, and at 5:53 my UP (realizing I was in the lightest phase of sleep) began to gently vibrate to wake me up. This is a device that’s unobtrusively woven itself into my life. (Disclosure: I was the founder and CEO of Massive Health, a company acquired by Jawbone to further their digital health initiatives like the UP band.)

Everyone’s doing it, and it’s more of the same

It seems like the excitement around wearables couldn’t possibly get any higher. From startups like Misfit Wearables, Basis and Pebble, to consumer electronics giants Samsung, Sony and LG, to old-school GPS navigation companies like Magellan, everyone wants a piece. Indeed veteran Apple watchers have been discussing the “iWatch” for nearly 3 years, looking at every curved glass or small-screen patent as evidence of a device in the works.

Common wisdom #1

Glancing at your wrist is less awkward than looking at a phone

Here’s a scenario I’ve heard often: Someone calls or texts you in the middle of a meeting. It would be rude to look at your phone, but it’s fine to look at your wrist instead.

I’m not sure that’s right, since social norms change. Today, it’s totally acceptable to glance at your phone — briefly — in a meeting. Everyone knows you’re either checking the time, or have a call/text coming in and are deciding if it’s important. It’s a common behavior for all of us, and more importantly it’s obvious what you’re doing: there’s no mistaking that the thing you’re looking at is a phone. On the other hand, I have no idea whether you’ve got a Timex or a Pebble on your wrist, which makes it awkward when you’re “glancing” at it a bit too slowly. Are you eager for this meeting to end or simply reading a text?

Social norms will include glancing at your wrist to see a text message, but they’ve already changed when it comes to glancing at your phone. This isn’t a problem the smartwatch is solving.

Common wisdom #2

Devices need to have a display

So many of the devices out there have a display. Pebble touts the battery life from their e-paper display, while Samsung promotes the vivid, high-resolution display on their Galaxy Gear watch.

The holy grail of displays is one that’s:

  • in color
  • always on
  • high resolution
  • got a responsive touchscreen
  • clear in bright daylight
  • ultra-low/no power
  • flexible (resilient) and curved

Companies like eInk and Qualcomm are working on making this wishlist a reality. Right now, however, when “Retina” resolution and vivid colour is thebaseline in mobile phones, putting a crummy (by comparison), low-res display on your wrist just feels cheap. More importantly, while there are some wonderful examples of what displays on next-gen wearables might look like (some of my favorites have been designed by my friend Christian Lindholm’s company Korulab), great wearables don’t need a display.

A display-free vision

An example (I’d love for Jawbone to build this into my UP): my display-less Jawbone UP might vibrate with different patterns with notifications from my phone. One quick buzz for a text, a long buzz for a call, two quick buzzes for VIPs, etc. I get the information I need (there’s a notification), unobtrusively (I don’t even need to break eye contact), and can turn my attention to my phone to get the rest. As a guy who puts his phone in his jeans, this would be a nice-to-have. But for my wife, who’s in many meetings, and often has her phone on silent and in her purse, this would be fantastic.

Let’s take it a step further… I’m driving in my car, and my wrist vibrates to tell me there’s a text message. I press the single button that’s on the wristband (or perhaps my steering wheel), and Siri wakes up. “Read me that last text message,” I ask. My eyes never leave the road, and the devices did what they were best at: the band notified me, and the phone did the heavy lifting (processing voice, internet connectivity, in-car integration, etc.). Personally, this feels like a better experience than what today’s smartwatches provide. As a bonus, I can still wear a watch, and choose it for fashion or function, but while my watch might change every day, my Jawbone doesn’t.

Common Wisdom #3

We design to rule them all

Rarely does someone walk into a jewelry store, ask for a watch or bracelet that has a few specific features, make a shortlist of “products”, and then make a purchase from this shortlist. No, we walk in, browse for something that appeals to us, that feels right for us, that jumps out and fits our own style, and we walk out in love with this new artifact.

Three of the leading devices in the consumer wearables space have taken different paths when it comes to fashion:

  • Jawbone, Nike, and Misfit Wearables have gone the path of unobtrusive, elegant design, with a little flair (the ridges on the band and the metal cap on the Jawbone, the bright and colorful LEDs in the Nike Fuelband, the brushed surface and subtle lights on the Misfit Shine). Their closest relatives are the rubber bracelets popularized by LiveStrong: they go with anything, add a little highlight but without becoming a centerpiece.
  • Fitbit has gone the Timex route: perhaps a bit bland and more masculine, but unobtrusive and doesn’t attract a lot of attention.

As devices get larger, more visible, and more a part of your outfit, the focus will shift away from tech-style feature lists to jewelry design. That’s an opportunity for whoever figures out how to design, manufacture and merchandise beautiful devices. There may never be a Vertu line of smartwatches (if you can afford a Vertu phone, you’ll get a Patek Phillipe, etc. watch), but a Vertu-esque line of wearables? That will happen.

Common wisdom #4

The phone just isn’t the “right” place for this information

This is the MetaWatch, and while its display conjures memories of Tamagotchis, the information architecture is beautiful. I can see the time, date, weather, and next meeting at a single glance. The argument, then, goes like this: “it’s really on the wrist where we can best deliver timely information in a glancable way.”

Actually, this is a smartphone lock screen problem: While Apple and Google are making great strides in bringing timely information right to the lock screen, we’re not there yet. With biometric sensors that seamlessly authenticate us when we hold our phones (think TouchID), I expect the next generation of smartphones OS’s to have much more informative lock-screens, further raising the bar for what smart watches must provide.

So, where’s the opportunity?

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but here’re some places I think are ripe for innovation and exploration.

If you build hardware: Headless devices that are like jewelry.

If you build software: Building smarter lock screens (i.e. Cover, Yahoo’s Aviate acquisition, Facebook Home, Google Now, iOS Today screen).

If you own (or lease) a fab: Next-gen display technology that enables the form-factors, power consumption and interactivity needed to realize the wearable interface visions designers are dreaming up today.

If you enjoyed this post, you should follow me on twitter.


Looking Inward: How Silicon Valley can Reflect and Decompress

Ask an entrepreneur who she is, and often you’ll hear “I’m the founder of a startup that makes X.” Ask this enormously passionate leader a deeper question, like “Where do you get your purpose and drive?” and you’ll often hear how excited she is to solve problems for her customers. All that passion and energy is great, but we’re unwittingly defining ourselves not by who we are, but by what we do.

An entrepreneur may have just fired an employee, suffered a painful breakup, and had a fight with a co-founder all in the same day. Ask how he’s doing and he’ll probably reply, “Awesome. We’re crushing it.” Chances are he’s not lying… but it doesn’t mean he sees (or feels) the full picture. We get so good at focusing on what’s going well, and what we’re trying to achieve, that we ignore the sometimes unpleasant (and important) aspects of reality.

We’re so constitutionally twitchy and driven to action, that we can’t stand being idle. Before we’ve left one job, we’re well on to building the next startup. We don’t have time for long books, reading TechCrunch and The Verge instead. We go to the occasional yoga class or spa, but never give ourselves time to truly clear our minds, to think and feel deeply and introspectively.

In my favorite VC blog post, Ben Horowitz talks about a CEO’s hardest job: Managing their own psychology. The answer isn’t a stiff upper lip, or distracting ourselves with a drink or a yoga class. Managing our own psychology, requires thoughtful effort. It requires deliberate practice.

Meditation as deliberate practice

In the last few years, books like The Talent CodeTalent is Overrated andOutliers have taught us about “deliberate practice”, and shown that it’s what often separates good from great performers. It’s not always the most fun, though: It’s practicing your jump shot a thousand times in a row, instead of playing a pick up game. It’s having a deep, difficult conversation with a coach or therapist, instead of venting with friends. It’s spending hours practicing alone with your guitar, instead of having a fun jam session with friends. Like the great masters of art, it’s spending years apprenticing, learning just how to mix pigments perfectly instead of freely painting what you’d like.

What’s deliberate practice for our mind and spirit? How do we become “great” at understanding ourselves, our emotions, and taking control of our minds? Close your eyes and concentrate on your breath. Notice every breath in and out. Don’t add any words or labels, just experience each breath. Now, count 50 inhales and exhales, starting again at 1 each time you notice yourself distracted and having a thought other than the awareness of your breath. Sounds simple, but it’s a lot harder than you’d expect, right?

What is Vipassana?

There are lots of different styles and schools of meditation, from Zen buddhism, to Transcendental Meditation, to “insight” meditation, and on to “lovingkindness.” They’re all wonderful and bring great benefits to their practitioners, but the style of mediation that I’ve learned, and would like to share with you is Vipassana. It’s completely secular, and is as simple as sitting quietly and bringing your awareness to the sensations in your body, just like the 50-breath exercise above. You learn it by taking a 10-day retreat, where you spend between 8-12 hours a day meditating silently. Ten days is certainly a lot of time to learn what seems like a simple skill, but our minds have become so harried and scattered that we need need such a long and intense retreat to change the habit patterns of our minds.

While meditation has brought me much more profound benefits than productivity, here’s how I justified the 10 days the first time: “If my brain is really so scattered, and beyond my own control, I’m sure I’m not as productive as I could be. If I could make my mind just 10% more effective, I’d get more than 30 days of productivity back in the first year alone. Spend 10 days to get 30? I can do that.”

Think it sounds a little too new-age, or think you can’t make it through 10 days? Watch The Dhamma Brothers, on Netflix. You’ll see murderers and other lifetime / death row inmates in a maximum-security prison in rural Alabama go through the same course, and see the profound changes these men go through in that time.

Oh, and it’s free. The original teaching of the Buddha was that this simple, secular technique of meditation is every person’s birthright. Each one of us deserves to have happiness, peace, and the control of our own minds. Every person who goes through a course attends on the charity of others who have gone before. If one takes a course, feels it was beneficial, and wants to donate time or money so that others may attend, that’s great. If not, that’s fine too. It may be a small thing, but there is something about the non-commercial purity of this that I find deeply appealing.

My own journey

Like most people, I thought I knew myself fairly well. I’m an extrovert, not afraid of anything, and tenacious as hell. I don’t hold grudges (often), and tend to think the best of people. At least, that’s what I _thought_ I thought. After ten days of meditation I discovered that much of what I thought was passion and energy was really fear. Fear of not being good enough, smart enough, or liked enough. It’s a great driver, and indeed some companies look specifically to hire the “insecure overachiever” types that have this personality, but it’s not a healthy way to live, and it’s not the only way to have this passion and drive.

I thought I didn’t hold grudges but instead saw that I let negative experiences linger, and change how I saw all people, not just the ones who wronged me. At last I understand that when someone does you wrong, they harm you once; when you relive, dwell and agonize over it, you bring that harm on yourself time and time again. I found myself not only forgiving, but feeling compassion for someone who did something fairly awful to me recently. What they did hurt (to call it reprehensible would be kind), but I feel a newfound compassion for what it must be like to be them, to have done what they did and have to look in the mirror every day. I never thought I’d feel anything like that. If I can feel a deep human connection, with empathy and compassion for someone I’d have called an “enemy” days before, it bodes very well for being able to connect and feel deeply with everyone else in my professional and personal life.

I discovered a lot about what matters to me: relationships, my roles as friend, husband, mentor, student. I’m more excited about work than I’ve ever been: I’m excited to work on big projects, solving big problems. Importantly, though, it’s now a part of who I am, not the whole of who I am. In a way, I feel like a more complete person than before the retreat, and I think that makes me a better, more human, present, and connected peer and leader than before.

Learning how to feel & get out of my head

Like many in Silicon Valley, I tend to live in my head, and I’ve often been guilty of thinking more than feeling. I still remember when someone asked me “Where do you _feel_ happiness in your body?” I was puzzled. Feel an emotion in my body? I thought that was just literary license. Really.

Yesterday I was driving home, and a driver in front of me kept drifting in and our of their lane. Ordinarily I would have felt a mix of anger, annoyance, and apprehension. This time I felt a sensation in my chest and stomach. It wasn’t painful, but it wasn’t pleasant. As I brought my awareness to this new sensation I realized that this was that anger, annoyance and apprehension in the making, and I chose to feel it and let it pass.

Meditation has given me a newfound ability to experience emotion, and decidehow to react to it, instead of letting it overpower me. For me, at least, that’s an enormous change. Imagine how much better at work and life we’d all be if we were aware of our thoughts and emotions, if we had the power to decide what to do with them, instead of our usual reactive patterns.

First steps

I hope this has given you a taste of what meditation might do for you. We have coaches, trainers, therapists, and physicians to help us excel in so many parts of our lives. Isn’t it time to bring that sort of coaching, that sort of deliberate practice, to our own hearts and minds?

If you’re interested in taking the next step, here are a few ideas.

  1. Watch The Dhamma Brothers. It’s available for streaming on Netflix, and is a powerful story of change in a most-unlikely place.
  2. Sit for 15 minutes. Close your eyes, focus on your breathing. You’ll get distracted. It’s normal, so be easy on yourself. When you notice yourself getting distracted, just bring your attention back to your breath. This will happen hundreds of times at first, but you’ll get better. It’s just like lifting a heavy weight: you’ll get there in time if you’re kind to yourself and consistent in your effort.
  3. Go to dhamma.org and find a 10 day Vipassana retreat near you. They’re all over the worldwide, and you can absolutely find one with availability. Give yourself the 10 days to invest in yourself. It’s not even all about you, since this investment in yourself will benefit your employees, portfolio companies, children, spouse, etc.
  4. Share this post with anyone you think might benefit from it.
  5. Ask me anything. I’m @suthakamal on Twitter.

If you enjoyed this post, you should follow me on Twitter.


The Future of Digital Fitness: Putting a trainer in your phone

Who are the best “personal change” agents out there? Personal trainers. They know you, build a relationship with you, continually adjust your training, and ultimately get results or lose clients. What’s the “next big thing” in digital fitness? Getting a personal trainer inside your phone.

I’m going to paint a few pictures of the kinds of products we’ll have in the next 1-3 years, and where there are some opportunities for new entrants.

Run coaching: just-in-time, big-data training

Athletes and mere mortals alike love running: Half-marathons and 10k’s are now the fastest growing recreational sports events, and all those runners are spoiled for choice when it comes to run tracking apps. Indeed RunKeeper, MapMyFitness, Nike+ and Strava are some of the most popular fitness apps. While they are awesome trackers (besting $500 GPS watches in many ways), they’re still missing customized personal training. Unless you’re a serious runner, the closest to personal training you might get is picking up an issue of Runners World and trying out one of the workout plans inside. It’ll work, but it’s not customised to you, doesn’t adapt, and it’s about as motivating as… well, as a few pieces of paper stapled together.

Instead, here’s what the future will look like:

For $50 you’ll pick up a Bluetooth heart rate monitor. You’ll launch the training app, where you’ll set a goal: “I want to run my first 10k in 12 weeks.” You’ll lace up, strap on the heart rate monitor, pop in some earbuds and go and do a “fitness test”: You’ll start running, and the app will start to track your pace, heart rate, elevation, maybe even how loudly you’re huffing and puffing. After a few minutes, a voice will say “Great, now sprint all-out for 30 seconds,” and later perhaps “Stop running and stand still to catch your breath for 1 minute.”

Within 15 minutes the app — your digital coach — will know how fast you can run, how your heart reacts to speed/elevation changes, how quickly your heart rate recovers, etc. Now this coach can create a completely personalized training program, suited to your goals and abilities. It will even adjust things mid-workout: “It looks like you’re more tired than usual. Let’s tone it down today and give you a couple more days off before our next run.” Adding sleep data from sensors like the Beddit or Basis will let the the coach know how rested you are, and automatically adjust your training.

I might actually learn to love (or tolerate) running in this future.

Pumping iron: Sensors, Speech and Motivation

Weight training hasn’t been well addressed by existing apps: most weight workout trackers are about as easy to use as diet logbooks, and occasionally throw a haphazard gameification later on top for good measure. That’s nothing like a great trainer, so let’s picture what a great digital coaching experience will be in the near future:

It’s 6 AM and you’re slowly dragging yourself from bed. By the time you’ve poured your cup of coffee, your digital coach (an app) already has your workout for the day planned. Your coach knows you’re still at home, have just woken up (it chats with your sleep sensor), and have a workout scheduled to begin in 30 minutes. Knowing all of this, it reminds you to:

  • Grab your Basis watch (since it’s a heart rate monitor)
  • Wear your Athos shirt (embedded with lots of sensors)
  • Grab you bluetooth headphones (with a microphone)
  • Drink a glass of water before you leave for the gym

As you walk into the gym, a geofence fires and the coach pops a notification onto the phone’s lock screen. You pop in your earbuds, swipe to begin the workout, and jump on a rowing machine to warm up. Your coach is monitoring your heart rate (through the watch) and muscle activity (through the shirt), prompting you to start slow, and then eventually leading you through some “warmup intervals” that feel like a workout by themselves.

Once you’re warm, your coach asks, “Great warmup! How are you feeling?” The gym is a great place for hands-free operation, so for the rest of your workout, your phone will stay in your pocket and you’ll interact with your coach by voice.

“I’m feeling good.”

“Great! Today is an upper body day, so we’ll start with some pull-ups, and then move to bench presses. Let me know when you’re ready to begin.”

You walk under some pull-up bars and say “Ready.”

“Great, you did 3 sets of 12 last week, let’s try 15 today. Go!”

You jump up and start your set. Your smart shirt is tracking all of your motion, so with each rep your coach is counting for you, “… ten, eleven, twelve…nice job! Just 3 more for a new record. Two more. One more. Great job! You smashed your record! How do you feel?”

“Good. Damn that was hard!”

“Not too hard for you, it seems! Alright, next up: bench press. Last week you did 3 sets of 10 reps at 100 pounds. I think you can do 125 this week. Sound good?”

It seems like a big step, but the last time your coach noticed that your heart rate never got too high, and your smart shirt showed that your muscles never got particularly fatigued. You’re doing great this workout, so it recommends pushing a bit harder.

“Sounds good, let’s do it.”

“Great! Set up your bar with 40 pounds on each side, and tell me when you’re ready to begin.”


“Great, remember to exhale as you press the bar away from you, and start whenever you’re ready.”

This time, as you get into position and start your reps, not only is your coach counting reps, but is indeed watching your form. “Let the bar come down 2 inches more, pause, and then explode upwards. Yes, that’s perfect! Just 5 more reps like that one,” it says, paying attention to all sorts subtle muscle activity that even the best human coach would struggle to see.

As you leave the gym, your coach gives you a summary of your workout, and pays special attention to today’s personal records. When you get home later in the evening, your coach reminds you that an intense workout deserves a good night’s sleep, so you might consider getting to bed by 11.

For people who can afford a human trainer, a digital coach just helps gather more data about their workouts and performance, which can be shared with the trainer. For everyone else, imagine how powerful it’ll be to have an adaptive, intelligent, personal coach for no more money than a set of P90X DVDs.

The Living Room: Move over Kinect

What if your ambitions are a bit more modest? Sure we’re got great coaches for runners and gym rats. What about people who are anxious to visit a gym, and would rather just watch a Zumba DVD in their living room? No problem, your iPhone 7s has you covered:

You turn on your TV and launch the Dancing with the Stars Workout app on your phone. You place the phone at the base of the TV, where the stereoscopic (3D) camera on the front has a good view of you. Indeed, your phone + TV is basically like a combo XBox / Kinect that fits in a pocket. No walking up to the TV to hit a button, or getting sweat all over your phone: the interface is all just using your voice and body. After about 10 minutes, the app gives you a one minute break.

“Stand still and look straight at the TV. Please keep your head inside this box.”

The TV screen shows a mirror image of you, with a box to keep your face inside. Why? Unlike our previous athletes, you’re just getting started with fitness, so using this app was all the commitment we expect. No sensors or heart rate straps for you. No problem, though, because we can actually calculate your heart and respiration rates just by lookingat you.

Basically we can bring the group-exercise experience right into your living room with no special hardware, for the cost of an app. Oh, but unlike a standard group class, this coach knows exactly who you are, how you’ve been progressing, and when it’s the right time for you to add some variety to your routine. Also, since your phone will be able to have a 3D view of you, it will also be able to monitor things like range of motion, undiagnosed injuries, etc. and track both your progress, as well as further customise workouts for your body. Living room and hotel room workouts will never be the same.

The opportunity: Data and Emotion

There will be many companies that build apps in this space, but I think there are going to be a few specific pieces that the winning firms will need.


There will be much more sensor data coming from smart shirts, armbands, muscle “quality” sensors, and other devices we haven’t invented yet. The winners will take the lead on a combination of fundamental sensor innovation as well as the health/coaching-specific analysis of this data. Indeed, while other companies release one activity tracking wristband after another, Apple has been quietly hiring execs, scientists and engineers from companies like Sano Intelligence, Proteus and Massimo (all serious, medical-grade health sensor companies), and I’d bet they’re making big investments in fundamental sensor technology. Gathering the most data, unobtrusively, and making sense of that data, are long term investments that will pay off with huge barriers to entry.


An Israeli friend of mine remarked that his Anglo-Saxon coach had figured out how to invoke “Jewish grandmother guilt” in him when he slacked off. This is the nuance that separates mediocre coaches from great ones. The best know you, build a relationship with you, and learn how to motivate you. On a day when I’m recovering from the flu and didn’t sleep well, I’d like a lot more gentle coaching and “attaboy” remarks than usual. When I’m on my game, it is actually fairly motivating to tell me half-way through a set, “My grandmother could do better. Come on, step it up!” It’s not just about personalizing for the individual, but for that individual at that time. The company that gets the most people using their platform, and mines the data to test various different kinds of messages and interventions, will have acquired a tremendous data asset. Once you’ve got the best “coach” in the cloud, that’s a barrier to entry.

The future’s almost here

Much of the building blocks of this future vision are already here, and others are around the corner.

Already on the market

Bluetooth headphones: I use the sweat-proof (they claim) Bluebuds.

Bluetooth heart rate monitor: Basis B1Polar, and many others already exist.

Sleep monitors: BedditJawboneFitbitWithings.

Voice interfaces: Siri’s actually getting to be pretty good.

Around the corner

Stereoscopic cameras: Creative Labs has them for computers, Intel has them for tablet and laptop makers.

Ultimately great developers are going to pull the pieces together, and it won’t be very long until these ideas are real products you’ll have in your hands.

If you enjoyed this post, you should follow me on Twitter.

Thanks to @seemakumar, @chudson, @jensmccabe, @bsrubin, @jamescham, and @youngjhmb for providing feedback on earlier drafts.

Cover photo by Runar Eilertsen.


Value proposition


April Dunford presents a nice recipe for forming a clear product statement:

  • For: (bulls-eye customer)
  • Who: (key purchase motivation insight)
  • Our product is a: (customer language)
  • That: (key benefit)
  • Unlike: (key competitors)
  • Ours: (key differentiators)
  • At a price: (less than, equal to, or higher than competitors).

(ht @DavidCrow)

Taken from Geoff Moore in Crossing the Chasm, I think.

(Source: rocketwatcher.com)


Aza and I have spent the last few weeks trekking up and down Sand Hill road, speaking with investors and looking for firms and individuals who share our mission to help people get healthy, and can…

There’s been some talk recently about mobile security, with companies like McAfee and others making acquisitions in the space, and companies like Lookout raising impressive VC-funded warchests. The…

Android and iOS will kill the mobile security market

There’s been some talk recently about mobile security, with companies like McAfee and others making acquisitions in the space, and companies like Lookout raising impressive VC-funded warchests. The problem is that there’s just no way the mobile “security” companies will ever really make it, because the two most important mobile platforms (Android and iOS) stop them from doing anything useful. Oh sure, there’re companies that provide provisioning and management dashboards to IT departments: that’s a real problem that developers can solve… but they can’t solve the problems that’ll really matter soon.

Here’s the big pitch for mobile security:As more and more smartphones get on the market, there’ll be more malware, spyware, phishing, viruses, network attacks, etc. on mobile devices, just like there is on the desktop. That sounds like a problem worth solving.

Well, yes, but… See, every app on Android and iOS needs to run within a pretty tight little sandbox. App_A can’t read or write files that are in App_B’s sandbox.

So, let’s see, can a “security” app on iOS or Android:

- Detect or stop malwareNope. One app can’t “scan” another app or prevent it’s usage.

- Detect or stop spywareNope. One app can’t spy on another app… so it can’t know if there’s spyware.

Stop phishing? Nope. Well, not unless you get the user to use *your* browser instead of the default browser… which will have phishing protection anyway.

- Detect or stop viruses? Nope.

- Prevent network attacks? Nope. An app on Android or iOS can’t create/enforce firewall rules on the device, much less put packet filtering in place.

So, what CAN a mobile “security” app do on Android or iOS? Well, backup/sync/destroy contacts/calendar/eMail and locate your phone if you lose it. That’s pretty useful, admittedly, but there’s a lot of other people providing that capability, like Apple and Google themselves.

Is this all for naught then? No. There might be an opportunity to build a secure version of the Android OS, and sell it to OEM’s / operators who want to put a “secure” or “trusted” build of the OS on certain devices. But that’s a nightmare of a sales process to begin with, and would you really bet against Google and Apple just making their security policies tighter in the OS itself to prevent malware from running amok on their platforms?

Sad to say, but I think the stratospheric growth rate of iOS and Android, and the security policies they some with (unlike, say, the older Windows Mobile or Symbian platforms) means that anyone with a mobile security play is locked out of the two most important mobile platforms in any meaningful way… Who knows, maybe making Windows Phone 7 secure could be a business?