Buying Gadgets That Don't Exist
There is a trend now for technical journalists to write about gadgets that don't actually exist. Well, technically they do exist, but there is no stock to ship to customers even though it is possible to pre-order them. The reviews help fledgeling companies raise enough money to pay for the final development and manufacturing of their great idea. And the folks who put their money down on crowdfunding Web sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo get to be the first to own these terrific gadgets.
It is easy to get caught up in the excitement. The funding campaigns identify a problem that we all share. They have videos showing a prototype of their product actually working. They have different price points for different levels of rewards. The problem is that few crowdfunded products ship close to the promised time, and many never even make it to shipping. And while a prototype may do all kinds of amazing things, when you have to deal with the economies of manufacturing the commercial product may or may not live up to the promises in real-world conditions.
I've gone down this road five times, and I swear I will never do it again. In fact, when I see a tech review I scan for the words Kickstarter and Indiegogo. If I see them I won't read any farther. Because only one of the five times I bought into crowdfunded products was even close to a satisfactory experience.
The first of the four wasn't actually a crowdfunding project. The developers had gotten funding themselves, but they were taking pre-orders. The device was an OBD-II device (that reads data from your car computer and sends it to an app on your phone) called Automatic. It happened to be one of the few affordable such devices that worked with the brand of phone I have, and it was something I wanted to try out.
I ended up having two problems, one of which may have been my fault. The first problem was that the product didn't ship near the estimated time. It did come some months later, but I had hoped to have it by the promised time, which happened to be just before a long-distance trip for which it would have been handy.
The second problem was that the phone app -- the interface for the data the car sends to my phone -- really, really annoys me. The company's idea was that the device would improve your driving by beeping at you every time you accelerated or decelerated too fast or just went faster that the device thought you should go, regardless of the actual speed limit. I wanted it for informational purposes, and perhaps to reset the check engine light on rare occasions. It wanted to judge me. The company was clear that the app would do this -- mia culpa, it was my bad purchasing decision.
Next came Lockitron, a smart door lock that you could control from your phone over the Internet. This company greatly underestimated their manufacturing challenges, and more than a year later I cancelled my order. I was tired of unfulfilled promises and reviews from people who did get their units indicated that some of the features that were promised were not actually working in the production units.
In April, 2014 I pre-ordered a $14.99 thermometer called a Kinsa that plugs into your phone. This was my one really good crowdfunding experience. It arrived a little late, but generally the company was communicative and informative. They had a few issues, but they were up front and informative about them. And the product and its app on the phone is fantastic. The product is quite good, better than I expected, and reading the big numbers on your phone makes taking your temperature easy and accurate.
The third was the OBDLink Wifi to replace the one that annoyed me so much. Again the company underestimated their manufacturing issues and shipping date, but eventually it did come. But it wouldn't reliably connect to my phone. I kept trying from time to time over the course of a year during which I got a new phone that I hoped would connect to the device more reliably. No joy. I finally just bought an Bluetooth OBD-II device that has been on the market for a while, that got many good reviews, and it has been 100% reliable so far.
That brings me to the TrackR Bravo. This is a nifty and attractive little gadget that helps you find your lost keys or suitcase or phone or whatever. A phone app locates the little tags and the tags can also locate your phone by making it beep if you happen to misplace it. I liked it better than the also crowdfunded Tile because you can replace the batteries, which is more economical in the long run than replacing the whole Tile each year.
Of all my crowdfunding experiences this has been the most frustrating, even more so than Lockitron, which was plenty frustrating. Evidently some early buyers have received their units, but even though a large number of the crowdfunding investors -- who should get their product first, don't you think, since they funded the thing -- have not received their TrackRs, the company has been aggressively advertising to the general public, and, evidently, taking more orders they can't fulfill.
Making matters worse, the infrequent email communications and blog entries are nothing but happy talk -- plenty of promises and reports that thousands of units are shipping, but no apparent substance. You get more of the same when you write for customer assistance. When you ask specific questions the replies are simply boilerplate text that cheerfully talks about how the TrackR will ship 'soon' but with no actual substance. And these replies rarely answer the questions asked.
So I pulled the 'power of the press' card. This article was scheduled for this issue, and -- to be honest -- I had hoped to have my TrackR Bravos in hand so I could include a review. As it became evident that was not going to happen I wrote for support. I identified myself as a journalist and asked questions about the shipping problems, the communication problems, the issue that it appeared the same person was answering all the mail, and what procedure was in place for order cancellations. As had happened in the past it took about a week to receive a reply.
"Thank you for reaching out to us about your TrackR order and we apologize for the long wait! Due to the popularity of TrackR, we are still back ordered! (bummer, we know)," began the reply. Then I was told my order would be 'personally looked into' and in this case I could fill out a form to have it expedited. As with all such communications from this company I was thanked for my patience.
The company representative greatly misjudged my state of mind. I lost all semblance of patience months ago. And none of my questions for the article were addressed. So I tried again, explaining that my deadline was July 22 and that I wanted them to have an opportunity to respond. I asked:
- It appears from your Web site that you are now selling to the general public. When do you anticipate all of the crowdfunded customer orders, which I presume would be shipped first, will finally be shipped?
- Why have communications been so few and far between?
- I may be missing something, but I don't see anything about cancelling orders for a refund. How is that achieved? Can you speak to the percentage of crowdfunded orders that have been cancelled?
- What would you say was the problem with making your shipping estimates? Was it design changes or unforseen manufacturing problems, your shipping procedures or something else?
- Do you have any realistic estimate of when you will catch up?
This time I received a reply the next day.
"We are working hard to catch up," replied the company representative. "We are shipping over 20,000 devices a week and should be caught up soon. We have hired a bunch of new customer service techs to catch up. As you can see this is not boilerplate, and I got right back to you. Number 2 answers itself. Anyone can seek a refund. We had some defective devices produced during manufacture and had to remake some so we didn't send out problem devices, but all is well now and we should be caught up in the next month or so. Thank you for your patience."
I am still hoping to receive my order before I am dead and buried, but am not holding my breath. Meanwhile I have seen mixed customer reviews, which I am taking with a grain of salt. As was probably the case when I bought the Automatic OBD-II device, customer expectations are sometimes different from what the manufacturer promises. It's hard to tell with Internet customer reviews, but my sense of the negative reviews was that they were asking for things the product was not designed to do. So if my order ever comes I'll have to judge that for myself.
Star Trek fans in the 1960s were delighted with transporters, communicators and tricorders, but they knew -- well most of them knew -- that these were things of the future. They turned out to be right. Recent experiments have managed to transport atoms. Berkley has conducted experiments that could lead to an invisibility cloak like the one Harry Potter has. I have seen crowdfunding pitches for medical tricorders, and smart phones have far exceeded the capability of Captain Kirk's communicator. But the only people who bought tricorders in the 1960s were people who knew they were getting toys. Toys, I might add, that existed on store shelves at that time.
The idea of these cool gadgets often leads to the things themselves, and a lot of these product ideas do solve everyday problems that we all have, like misplacing your keys or wallet. But the fact is, these products don't exist until they actually exist. A video of a prototype is not a product. A beta test is not a release product. While companies like the makers of Kinsa do it right, they may be perpetrating a myth that leads many crowdfunding investors to put down their money for what, in the software business, is called 'vaporware'.
Tech journalists should content themselves with writing about products that actually do exist now, but being gadgety people like me I understand how their enthusiasm overwhelms common sense. Crowdfunding seems like a great, innovative way to get amazing products into production, but you have to understand you are buying something that doesn't exist. It may or may not exist any time near the promised ship date. If it does exist, it may not live up to expectations.
It may never exist at all.