We’ve got a sneak peek into the next market that Apple is planning on redefining. The industry giants are now on alert. I’m sure the top level execs at CatEye, Vetta, VDO, and Mavic are scrambling to upgrade their offerings as we speak.
CatEye? Vetta? VDO? Yes. Chances are you’ve never heard of those companies, but they are major players in their industry. They make computers, just not the kind that normally come to mind when you think about computers. They make bicycle computers. And this has what to do with Apple? According to this patent filing, Apple is at least looking at entering the bicycle computer market and they are bringing some new ideas to the table.
So, what does a bicycle computer do? The bicycle computer mounts to your handlebars and displays information. The simplest computers give you information such as how fast you are going, how far you’ve gone, and what your average speed has been. More sophisticated units do things like keeping track of your heart rate, telling you which gear you are in, displaying your altitude, displaying the temperature, and some even allow you to download your ride data to your computer. All of these are great, but I’ve never really seen one computer that really pulls all of the functions I’d like to see into one unit at an affordable price.
Enter Apple. Looking at the patent filing, we see a lot of features that will rely heavily on a GPS. Features like wind speed, path completed, expected future path (?????) and a bevy of location based features will use this. Along with those, we get a decent list of somewhat standard features including speed, distance, time, altitude, elevation, incline, decline, heart rate, power, derailleur setting (what gear you are in), cadence, heart rate, power, and pace (average speed). This feature list is quite exciting. Wind speed is something I’ve longed for, but hey Cupertino – what about the equally important (to cyclists) wind direction? Cadence is interesting. Shimano offers this in their higher end components now. It’s not measured however, it’s calculated. You have to enter your gear sizes when you set up your computer, it then calculates the gear combination based upon how fast you are going and how fast you are pedaling. I would have to assume that Apple would follow a similar approach. Power and heart rate are another story however. To get power information, you have to install either a crankset or a rear hub equipped with a strain gauge. The computer then interprets the data from the strain gauge and calculates how many watts of power you are producing. The same applies to heart rate data, which is read from a special sensor, usually worn around the chest. The good news is there is a standard for communications. The ANT+ protocol is supported by a number of power and heart rate meters. All of this data would come close to the grail of cycling information assuming the data can be downloaded by a real computer for analysis. It appears that the data would be displayed via the iPhone or iPod Touch mounted to the handlebars via a custom cradle. That makes a good bit of sense, unless you crash. Since your handlebars frequently take a good portion of the impact in a crash, putting your only means of communication so close to the impact zone seems a bit scary, especially if you are hurt or your bike becomes unrideable in the crash. But, for the most part, these features excite me as a cyclist.
Now, on to the things that do not excite me. It would seem that the people at Apple do not ride their bicycles the same way I ride my bicycle. In fact, it doesn’t even seem close. While I ride with my head down and the gas on, it would seem that Apple people are much more social. It would even seem that they are trying to bring a Facebook like experience to the bicycle. Much of the patent document is spent explaining how the data from one bike can be seen on another and made available to a group. I don’t know how they plan on organizing that, but I don’t really want to be spending a lot of time navigating other people’s data while I’m busy trying to dodge things like broken glass and dump trucks. What’s even worse is the call for text, voice, or video from one or more devices. So, we are in an all out blitz to tell people to put their phones down and stop texting while driving, but Apple thought this would be a fantastic feature for the bike? Really? That’s just scary. Considering that FaceTime requires a wifi connection, how do they plan on pulling video off? What about battery life? Currently, I use the MapMyRide app to track my ride via my iPhone. It uses the GPS and it rapidly drains the battery even with the display off. How does Apple plan to bring all of these features together and keep your display powered for even an hour ride, let alone a nice 50 miler on a Saturday morning? External battery pack? Another thought that I am loathe to consider? iTunes. Assuming that the brains of the entire operation is an iPhone/iPod Touch, all of the ride data would have to come through iTunes. Having to manage all of my rides via iTunes makes me wonder if the whole thing would really be worth it. I’m begging you right now Apple, if you bring this product to life, give me a different app to manage my bike rides. Don’t make me go through the pig we call iTunes! The document lists some other fluffy features like locating the nearest bike path or finding other riders. Chances are, I’m either already on the nearest bike path, or I already know where it is. You see, some of us actually research where we are headed before we go there. Locating other riders has a component of neat to it, but I have to go back to the navigation issue. Do I want to be working through a bunch of screens while I am screaming down a road? Probably not.
The big question assuming this all comes to production is price. I can get the bulk of the features I like in the Garmin 705. With the required add ons, it’s going to set me back around $650 from Garmin. That’s a load of cash and I’m sure quite a bit of it has to be wrapped up in the display. Since what Apple is proposing here would seem to be handled with some custom sensors, custom mounts, and software it should be able to be considerably lower in price than Garmin assuming you bring your own display unit (iPhone/iPod Touch) with you. So, what does Apple need to do to make this something I want? Make it affordable. Otherwise, I might as well buy the Garmin.
I’ll continue to pour through the very long patent filing. In the mean time, there are a couple of drawings on CrunchGear you can look over. What do you suppose they would name this thing?