For those not familiar with the language, Suunto comes from the Finnish word for direction. An apt word for a company that first started out making compasses in the 1940s, before moving on to instruments for divers. Now it's navigating runners, cyclists, swimmers and adventure sports lovers across the globe.
Alongside Garmin and Polar, Suunto completes the triumvirate of companies that were making wearables for sports lovers long before the word wearables even became part of the tech furniture.
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Markus Kemetter has witnessed first hand much of Suunto's evolution into a smarter sports watch business. Over his 17 years at the company, the product manager has spent time in R&D, developing software, and has worked on both the Ambit and Spartan watch families.
Kemetter has a 2hr 53mins marathon PB and has completed 21 Ironman distances. So it sounds like he fits the bill as far as shaping the company's sports watch business is concerned. "It has been a dream journey for a guy like me," Kemetter tells us. "Being a triathlete and an end consumer myself that loves serious sports' tools and great usability. Being able to leverage both professional and private skills to help create great products for runners and avid multisport athletes."
Designing the best watch for runners
With his experience working on Suunto's two most recent sports watch ranges, Kemetter is well placed to know what happens when the team sit down and have that first discussion about how its wearables can best cater for runners. "You start by defining what kind of runner you want to target or if you want to target all of them," Kemetter explains. "The Olympic gold medalist runner most likely has different needs to the recreational, health conscious, urban runner. So we start by defining this target group, how well we are able to reach them and of course analysing the commercial relevance of targeting them.
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"Once that is nailed down, we start really drilling into the head of this selected runner type," he continues. "What are the main motivations for running? What are the goals or are there any? How often do they run and what are the longest runs? What areas of details do they want to follow in their training? How about social behaviour and the need to share what they do? By asking ourselves (or rather the runners) we start nailing down the most essential needs and problems that are worth solving."
The question is whether those needs and problems remain the same as the ones that were addressed when the first Ambit launched in 2012, or watches like the Core and Elementum were on the scene. Do runners still want the same things? If not, where do their priorities lie? Kemetter believes his own demands don't differ too much from other runners. He wants running pace and heart rate as the main indicators of performance and to follow the distance and duration of his runs. He frequently uses navigation features and creates new running routes based on Suunto's heat maps to find running hotspots in new locations. And he believes the core features and metric demands from runners are much the same as they were 5-10 years ago.
Runners haven't changed much even though technology has
"I would say for runners, it starts from distance, running pace and heart rate in that order, unless you are a mountain runner in which case distance is replaced by ascent and running pace with vertical speed," he tells us. "That's sort of the beginning of Maslow's hierarchy of needs when it comes to running. Going down the list we have additional metrics like running cadence, altitude and ascent for trail runners; interval training features, heart rate and pace zones; navigation and routes; running technique metrics and running power nowadays. Then runners that train a lot are also interested in following recovery between the exercises.
"Runners haven't changed much even though technology has. The fundamentals of running remain important but then there are of course a list of new things that have come to inspire runners and to make them want more."
Those new things include 3D mapping, Strava segments, running technique and efficiency parameters. Kemetter also believes artificial intelligence has a big role to play in the future of running watches, specifically using that data-based analysis to tell us what to do next. But it's balancing those demands for new features with the staple ones that is a challenge not only for Suunto but also its rivals.
"Runners need certain features that we call hygiene features that just need to be there, otherwise you can't sell the watch," he explains. "Then when it comes to features on top of those, different manufacturers have a slightly different approach to what to add on and want to make themselves visible and unique in the play field.
"Suunto has had the navigation, routes and heat maps as one of our specialities spicing up the running experience. But of course we continuously follow what are the main trends in the sport and what is happening on the market in order to understand where to put the effort and resourcing when developing new functionality or new products."
Competition from new places
Demand for new features has undeniably been shaped by the rise of the smartwatch. Google, Apple, Samsung, Fitbit and even Garmin have all been playing in this space, forcing Suunto and others to react as newcomers encroached on its patch. Its Spartan watch collection now lets you see notifications from your wrist, track steps and sleep like a Fitbit and the company has been rolling out regular software updates to keep up with Apple and Fitbit.
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As far as the emergence of the smartwatch being a positive thing for companies like Suunto is concerned, Kemetter is unsure. "The good thing is that smartwatches have kept people's attention on watches and the need of wearing a watch still exists," he told us. "However the smartwatch manufacturers have started to notice that actually the most relevant real life use case where you really need a watch instead of a phone is in sports and outdoor. When it's wet or dirty or you just need both your hands and not holding a phone.
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"So the businesses are merging. We are currently seeing that smartwatches are not capable of delivering the needed battery life on one charge compared to a sports watch. On the other hand, the sports watches do not deliver all the functionality that the smartwatches do, including third-party apps for everyday life. The clear direction we are going is that sports watches are becoming smartwatches and the other way around."
So can sports watches and smartwatches live side-by-side or will it be a case that one usurps the other? "Well they are currently living side-by-side," says Kemetter. "There is however still a clear difference between watches that have emphasis on 'smart' versus those that emphasise 'sport' and that is currently dividing the buying consumers. I think this difference will diminish over time."
Challenges and looking to the future
Smartwatch competition aside, there are other challenges that Suunto must navigate. Its latest Spartan family of watches are testament to that based on our time spent running with them. The Spartan watches are proving better alternatives to what Garmin, Polar and others currently offer. But there is certainly room for improvement on both the hardware and the software sides. Kemetter recognises that and is keen to pinpoint some of those challenges it feels it still needs to address to build that ultimate device for runners.
I would want the watch to surprise the user positively at least once a week if not every day
"Runners have the preference of wearing light and thin watches which is natural for the sport," he tells us. "This is in a slight conflict with the battery size needed to cope with the current consumption of GPS. This especially as ultra running has become more popular, requiring even more battery hours. Software wise it's more about combining the most relevant services and algorithms available to serve the consumers in a great way."
Unsurprisingly, Suunto is already looking ahead at what comes next. How its watches can become better running companions, the sensors and technology it could look to pack into its wearables and the metrics that they could one day deliver that will truly benefit runners of all levels.
"I think the user experience can be improved by making the watch understand your behaviour and adapt to it," Kemetter explains. "Let's say you run the same route frequently and the watch could give you guidance already on the run or tell you how you compare to last week or your average on this route. Making things happen automatically and bringing up interesting information based on your training data that you wouldn't necessarily notice yourself. I would want the watch to surprise the user positively at least once a week if not every day."
Keep on running
Kemetter also points out that sensors to measure running technique and efficiency parameters are growing in popularity. These sensors give you more insights into how you run plus what you should improve and, according to Kemetter, could possibly influence what kind of running shoes you should use.
"As far as metrics in the future, how you run, are you a fore foot, mid foot or heel runner and measuring pronation vs supination. This kind of information can be used to select your next running shoes," he said. "I think the running shoe industry should be interested in getting more statistics about how people run in general, what demands there are for different types of running shoes. Educating consumers will not only help them find the right shoes but also keep them away from injuries caused by running with wrong type of shoes."
So will the running watch we know today look that much different in 10 years' time? "I think they will look pretty much the same, slightly slimmer maybe," says Kemetter. "Like they do already but they'll incorporate much more than just running features. Everyday life features like mobile payments, music, weather, activity and sleep tracking and much more.
"I believe we will be looking at great new services coming up on the web and mobile that can offer more value also to the watch. The watch will be more open to external interfaces and more ready to interact with different equipment than today." It seems there's a lot to look forward to.