My Watch Thinks Everyone Should Learn to Code

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(img: The Very Excellent DC Rainmaker)

Outside of my Education vocations and avocations, I am an avid triathlete. Triathetes have a bit of a reputation already as being tech- and data-geeks of the sports world, and being a technologist by day and triathlete by night, I’m probably not helping the curve. My tool of choice up until recently was the Garmin 910xt, a training computer which helped me analyze all of the various metrics of my training and performance. When the Wall Street Journal asked recently why so many “mere mortals” were conquering athletic feats like the Ironman, training computers like the 910xt were a large factor in their narrative.

Sadly, my “training brain” fell off my bike during a race earlier this year and was lost to the tri deities (or a very lucky course official). It got replaced by the Suunto Ambit 2S, a newer multisport (fancy word for triathlon) watch. Disclaimer: My wife works for a sister company of Suunto. We purchased the Ambit as a replacement in order to “keep it in the family.”

Two Paths Diverged

The Garmin has a feature built into its website that allows you to enter a workout plan ahead of time (e.g. certain distances, speeds or times). The watch will then cue you when it’s time, for example, to run, stop or change speeds. The ability to create and enter these kinds of workouts is a huge part of what makes training technology so appealing– based on modern training science, building more complex but specific and targeted workouts is more effective than “go run for an hour.” Side note: If you want to know more about this, you should contact my wife. She has her MS in this and trained people at the Olympics. I read some magazines and am not going to be in the Olympics. Garmin made this very easy.

 

 

 

 All of the hallmarks of a modern web-based application: Drag-and-drop editing, drop-down menus, bright friendly color-coded interface. This is designed to let you do what you want to do as quickly and easily as possible and get you on your way without ever having to see (as a dear former colleague liked to say) “into the belly of the beast.” So when I was setting up my new Suunto, one of the first questions I asked my wife was how to enter interval workouts like this.

 

“You write an app for that,” she replied.

 

Suunto’s entire backend service for their watch is not the slick “nothing-to-see-here” recipe of the Garmin interface. It’s an Integrated Develop Environment. Users develop “apps” for particular workouts, publish them to an App Store (“App Zone”), download and modify other apps– It’s some part App Store, GitHub and gym locker room swirled together.
This is how Suunto envisions creating workouts. ("Sleep Monitor," by PPIIOOTTRR)

This is how Suunto envisions creating workouts. (“Sleep Monitor,” by PPIIOOTTRR)

To really drive this home: that screengrab above is not from any hidden backend– that’s from the main App Zone page for this App. Suunto is upfront and loud-and-proud about showing you that this is a pile of code, and here’s how this App runs.

Once an App is developed, you have the ability to play with the variables in the App Zone before you download it to your device and execute the workout. If someone has the backbone of a workout that you’d like to do, for example, but you want to change the number of repeats or the amount of time, you are presented with a series of slider bars to customize it for your purposes.

(Customizing "High Intensity Intervals," by Movescount)

(“High Intensity Intervals,” by Movescount)

Again, note the Slider bar labels– those aren’t “plain English”– those are the variable names from the code. Does your average user know what “INTDIST” is?

I’ll admit that I got a little “new device whiplash” when I saw this. As with many rough device transitions, this was an issue of planning and time– I wanted to be out the door in 10 minutes on my run. I did not have time to deal with this new paradigm. So I went through the standard stages of Inconvenience (“I don’t have time to deal with something new!”), Anger/Annoyance (“Why can’t this work like my old tech?”), Dismissal (“This new stuff is ridiculous. Who needs these features?”),  and finally arrived at Open-mindedness (“Okay– What can this do and how does it work, and does it match a need or interest for me?”). Thinking a little more clearly, I can see what Suunto’s going for here– their App Zone is filled with thousands of apps that are far beyond the stock “off the shelf” capacity of the Garmin (or even of what the Ambit ships with). Even just the basic interval workouts have more flexibility than the Garmin template builder, and there are definitely times when I was using my Garmin and got frustrated at wanting to be able to get it to do something that it wasn’t an option in their interface. Suunto’s market differentiation here is giving users the keys to the entire hardware package– all the sensors, monitors, transmission protocols and output, and saying “Go nuts, people.”

With technology in general, there is a continuum which pits convenience/usability versus customization/flexibility. The operating system battles, Internet platforms, EdTech platform/program decisions and user tool choice often boil down to the essential question of “Do I trust somebody else to decide how this technology should work for me, or do I want to invest the time and energy in making it my system?” Neal Stephenson argued passionately in “In the Beginning… was the Command Line” (great short summer afternoon read!) that as a society of computer users we are abdicating the power and willingness to bend the tool to our will and instead making ourselves adapt to dumbed-down versions of consumer tech in the name of convenience. Here’s the alternative, if users are willing to accept the learning curve.

This is Not a Drill

This is not a Kickstart project or a fringe startup trying to muscle into an existing marketspace. Suunto is a well-established fitness technology company. They’ve looked at the market, though, and clearly decided that their direction is going to be in favor of customization and flexibility over ease-of-use and user learning curve. While we debate the role that a universal skill of coding has in our students learning, Suunto seems to have already decided that it’s coming and there’s a widespread enough talent and interest base to support a major product line. Honestly, I wish them luck, but… while I’m ideologically on-board with their plan, and I’m probably pretty far to the tech-savvy side of their user base, I gagged a bit at the idea that I had to either a) write an App myself or b) find and modify an existing one, just to go out and do the workout that I had planned for the afternoon.

This is the first major case that I’ve seen of a piece of consumer tech from an established major company banking on the “codeability” of their user base. As such, I think it’s a fascinating test case for the Internet of things and how hackable manufacturers will make their devices, as well as whether a consumer base will adapt to seeing scripting languages appear in everyday life. If this is indicative of a growing trend, or if this training device has legs (ha!), it may signal that the “should every person learn to code” argument has already left the academic sphere and that the consumer technology market will answer the question for us.

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