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New 'Spark' GPS-Music-Sport Watch Wisely Doubles Down on TomTom's Wearables Bet

by Cliff Raskind | 9月 19, 2015

TomTom in recent years has leveraged its strengths as a trailblazer of GPS PND's and top provider of map data, to offer a successful line up of proprietary GPS-enabled running watches. Successful early models include the Runner and Multisport Cardio, with the company recently stating it sold over 500,000 devices last year.

More recently at IFA Berlin, TomTom took the wraps off of an overhauled 'Spark' range of sports watches. All four new models are lighter and offer improved design as well as better outdoor readability

TomTom Spark

A big part of the Spark story is that two of the top-end models allow runners to take their music with them - no phone needed - thanks to 4GB of onboard storage and Bluetooth stereo headphone support. 

The pinnacle of the collection is the TomTom Spark Cardio + Music GPS Fitness. At an estimated US$200 wholesale / US$ 249 retail it provides GPS tracking, heart rate monitoring and built-in music playback. In addition to preloaded motivational tracks from London’s Ministry of Sound, music can be uploaded from a laptop USB port via an updated version of TomTom Connect software that more easily syncs iTunes and Windows Media Player playlists. A terrific feature to be sure, but lacking its own connection or companion phone, I believe the Spark is not likely to resonate with fitness enthusiasts that have made the shift to cloud based services like Spotify and Pandora.

In addition to a somewhat limited range of sleep tracking capabilities and active in-workout user feedback, TomTom's Spark watches now cover more sports as well as a non-sport specific ‘freestyle’ mode. Workout data is compatible with a range of fitness tracking platforms, including RunKeeper and Nike+ (owing to TomTom's unique tie up with Nike). Pulse accuracy is presumably improved as TomTom has swapped out the Mio optical heart rate sensor in favor of another sensor (of unknown origin) for the Spark line. The new sensor is decidedly larger and protrudes further into the wrist for more consistent and accurate pulse readings.

TomTom also claims that smartphone alerts functionality may be in place by the end of 2015 through a software update. However, TomTom will in my view be challenged to match the level of functionality, simplicity and elegance offered either natively or in app stores from more full-featured smartwatches like Android Wear, WatchOS, Tizen and Pebble.

And this gets to a larger point. The Spark range suffers from the same shortcomings facing all proprietary OS sports watches and fitnessbands. Such proprietary platform devices will increasingly come under direct threat from the ever-expanding fitness capabilities of open SDK ecosystem smartwatches

Open OS smartwatches offer a range of onboard as well as competing fitness solutions, messaging functions, social feeds, and most recently GPS and Music-to-go that matches the top end Spark. (Cue the Moto360 Sport running Android Wear revealed at IFA 2015). Beyond which, apps and features are only limited by the skills and imaginations of legions of eager developers. (Proof point: Developer intentions to code for Wearables more than tripled to nearly 50% from 2014 to 2015 in an SA developer survey conducted earlier this year).

More importantly though, open ecosystem wearables benefit from the kind of app creativity, ingenuity and ability to 'go viral' that are simply absent in proprietary platforms.  In my view, TomTom would be well-advised to consider an open OS play. 

That recommendation notwithstanding, wearables are poised for growth -- and given the uncertain long term prospects in other parts of TomTom's business (read: supplying map data to in-dash car navigation systems) continued investment in wearables makes sense for TomTom. This is true both in terms of diversification as well as synergies between wearables and maps/navigation down the road.
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