Box Of Tricks
For years, the world of GPS bike computers has been ruled by one brand, but now its rivals are finding ways to challenge its dominance
Garmin has dominated the GPS market for so long that, like Hoover and Sellotape, its name has become a generic term. But a host of new challengers could be set to change that
It’s safe to say bike computers have come a long way since Curtis Veeder invented the Cyclometer in 1895. A simple mechanical device, it counted wheel rotations and sent this info to an analogue odometer on the handlebars that then calculated distance using a formula based on the circumference of the front wheel.
Fast forward 122 years and the bike computer has evolved into a truly sophisticated piece of hardware. Just as Veeder realised, few sports are as easily measured or quantified as cycling, and technology companies have sought to exploit this ever since. Today’s products can collect, plot and analyse just about any performance metric you can imagine while tracking you anywhere in the world. It’s hardly a surprise that the bike computer has become as essential to a road rider as their favourite bibshorts.
Lie of the land
‘The development of new technologies and a cyclist’s understanding of how metrics can help them improve their performance means bike computers have increasingly become a basic requirement,’ says Maria Townsley, product manager at Garmin UK. ‘When paired with a power meter, GPS computers allow riders to know their own bodies and quantify the impact that training has on their fitness levels. I’d also argue that it’s just fun to record and share what you’ve been doing with your friends.’
Drawing on considerable financial and technological resources, as well as experience in other areas such as car sat-navs, Garmin was the first company to really establish itself in the bike computer market, to the extent that, like Hoover and Sellotape, the brand’s name has become a generic term for the category itself.
Yet for all the ever-expanding array of features each new generation of device offers, Townsley argues that the key to Garmin’s success has been its focus on getting the basics right.
‘Ensuring quality base features is extremely important. Before adding more complexity, we thought simple usability and data accuracy was essential. Once the basics were down, priority came in the form of safety, performance and navigation, but we let the user decide in what order.’
Recently, however, Garmin has been facing increasingly stiff competition, with competitors releasing products aimed squarely at stealing some of the market leader’s sales. According to Terry Cooke, advanced development manager at Lezyne, there is one main reason why the market is livening up.
‘A few years ago I noticed a big change in the way smartphones were being used,’ he says. ‘There was this new wireless communication protocol called Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and this set the stage for not having to use Garmin sensors, which are based on its proprietary ANT+ standard. BLE offered similar levels of power requirement and robustness to interference, but unlike ANT+ it was ubiquitous across all smartphones. This piqued our interest as we thought
Garmin argues that the key to its success has been its focus on getting the basics right
it could change the dynamic of the market – you could have a bike computer, link it to your phone and using BLE get the best of both worlds.’
In other words, rather than having to cram all the necessary features into a head unit, the computer could be used as a portal to your phone.
‘BLE allows you to use your phone for what it’s good for: texting, calling, looking at pretty maps, and so on. But it also allows your head unit to be used for what it’s good for: long battery life or being easy to read in the sun. You can put it on your handlebars and not worry about breaking a £500 piece of glass. Your phone is powerful enough now – mine is better than my first desktop computer – so why take two bits of hardware out with you that do the same thing?’
This approach isn’t without its downsides, for example the inability to play with a map without having to stop and pull out your phone (since the head unit will only display a pareddown version of the map), but Dillon
says it’s more cost-effective, safer and will always be easier to do this on a phone compared to a bike computer.
‘Bike computer touchscreens have to be resistive [force-based] or they’d go haywire in the rain, so they will always be more clumsy to use than capacitive phone screens. They use an electric current that allows finer control and much more beautiful graphics. You just can’t get them wet.’
.‘ Having just one . brand dominating an . environment doesn’t . foster innovation’
Joining the fray
If Garmin focuses on a complete package and Lezyne targets price and features, Wahoo’s efforts to carve its own niche in the market are centred on simplifying the user experience.
‘I’d say 75% of us ride bikes and use bike computers, which makes it easier for us to identify flaws in our rivals’ products,’ says Jose Mendez, the company’s director of product management.
It’s an approach that seems to be bearing fruit. Last year Wahoo released the well-received Elemnt and recently brought out an updated design, the Elemnt Bolt (see issue 61).
‘Having just one brand dominating
an environment doesn’t foster innovation. When you own the space it’s natural to get a bit complacent, and people put up with it because it’s the only option. That’s why the market leader is being challenged and why I think up until this point development in the market had plateaued.’
Like Lezyne, Wahoo felt that one do-it-all device wasn’t the way to go in terms of ergonomics. ‘We emphasise the use of a phone app to control our computers. Everyone knows how to use an app, so why clumsily alter settings on a bike computer when it can be done more easily and efficiently from your phone?’ Mendez asks.
So a cooperative set-up between phone and computer has been a viable route to market – and it’s a trend that’s likely to continue – but don’t expect Garmin to follow suit any time soon. While Townsley acknowledges that smartphones and bike computers are complementary technologies, she says Garmin’s research suggests athletes are moving away from using phones.
‘Using cycling-specific GPS kit means a cyclist’s needs are at the forefront of design, rather than being just an added feature. Aspects such as battery life, water resistance and connectivity have been specifically designed and tested to fit into the lifestyle of cyclists,’ she says.
Just as brands differ in their approach to the internals of the bike computer, a battle is brewing over the externals too. Aerodynamics has become a hot topic for head units, with Wahoo claiming the Bolt can save 12.6 seconds over 40km compared to rival devices. According to Mendez, the size and shape of the bike computer are where we’ll see developments.
‘We capture pretty much all the metrics you could ever need, and I hate to say it but cycling is so much about how things look,’ Mendez says. ‘Everyone sees how much attention people pay to the way they look on the bike, even down to their socks. Yet for a long time the computer was seen as just this little box that we stick on the front of our bikes. My point when we started this project was that we should be designing products that suit the bike. They should look part of it – the bike is aerodynamically shaped, so why shouldn’t the computer be too?’
It is a surprise that the interface between bike and computer has remained so basic. Jim Stemper, mechanical engineer at powerspecialist firm Stages, knows why.
‘We encountered this problem in the early stages of developing the Dash,’ he says, speaking of Stages’ metrics-focused new computer. ‘As long as component brands are
‘Everyone knows how to use . an app, so why clumsily alter . settings on a bike computer?’
innovating on bar shape, shifting controls and other accessories, it will always be a game of catch-up for us to work with all the new stuff. Until companies start to work together, we will be chasing integration instead of innovating on a common system.’
Establishing some common standards, he argues, would make it easier to design computers that run
‘GPS is hard to get clean data out of. There’s plenty . of scope for development’
off a bigger, outboard power source – a Di2 battery, for example.
‘The computer could then get both really tiny and really smart, as the battery is such a limiting factor. The computer would essentially become a display that has all the connectivity you’ll need, cedes no aerodynamic disadvantage, has little weight penalty and would never have to leave the bike.’
Without a trace
An invigorated market and more advanced technology is all well and good, but what about the bike computer’s often infuriatingly flaky core function: satellite navigation?
Cooke says, ‘Lezyne founder Micki Kozuschek has always said, “James Bond ruined GPS.” When 007 uses his GPS, it instantly knows exactly where he is and where he needs to go, but GPS technology is extremely difficult to get clean data out of and it takes a lot of software to smooth it out. There’s plenty of scope for development in signal accuracy.’
A big problem is that changing weather patterns often skew data, but terrestrial solutions are in development, strategically placed to cover the globe. ‘This would sidestep the weather issue to a degree and greatly improve accuracy,’ says Cooke. ‘Plus, where most computers use GPS [the USA’S constellation of satellites] and GLONASS [Russia’s], by 2020 they’ll also be able to use Beidou, China’s system, and the UN’S Galileo.’
The upshot is that in a few years your device should spend far less time on that infernal ‘acquiring satellites’ start-up page. And that’s good news for everyone. Sam Challis works well in all weather conditions
Wahoo believes the fact that most of its employees ride regularly helped it identify flaws in rival products when developing the Elemnt
Stages is keen for bike computer makers to work with component manufacturers to improve integration between bike and head unit