Tuesday, July 16, 2013
1:52 AM | Edit Post
Ray Maker brought to light last week some disconcerting happenings in the offices of Strava. It seems the preponderance of Strava's users are aware of the changes and their immediate repercussions, but I see relevance in it to everyone who likes to track and/or share physical activities via social media (otherwise known as triathletes). So if you haven't heard about it, now is a very good time to get acquainted with the news.
While the majority of users are most upset about recent "updates" to the website that actually reduce its features, Maker observes the more subtle yet more disturbing change in how Strava allows other sports app developers to interface the site, which is to say it's not allowing them to access it anymore. There are several such apps that interact with Strava. Some of them simply upload data to Strava. Some use Strava functionality (that the user has paid for) on behalf of the user to do other things with their data. Some just let you pull your data back off of Strava. All but about 14 of them were shut out of the site. The app developers are all very upset about this. Their users are all very upset about this.
Here's why you should be upset about this.
1. This is an information-sharing website that no longer wants to share. Plain and simple, this is the root problem. Everything else branches off from this. Whether you are among the 20% of Strava users who pay for premium service or you simply have the "free" baseline account, you are still a customer. Maybe this is "new thinking," but fully a decade into the 21st century and it's time to get with the program. Strava gives you the ability collate GPS and imagery data along with an appended micro-blog and a personal biography so that you can share it all with people around the world via the internet. In return, you give them data. We typically don't think that our ride data or the fact that we like a particular cat video holds any real value. We are all too wrong about that. From Facebook's IPO to the ongoing drama of Sheremetyevo airport's longest layover, it is obvious that data is extremely valuable. We live in the information age. Why is it unreasonable to think of information as the very currency of that age?
That said, it's therefore reasonable to characterize Strava's move as naked aggression in the name of greed. They want you to continue providing them data, and then they want to keep it all for themselves. Maker and I, and most likely you as well whether you've thought of it or not, consider Strava to be like a bank. That's our data we put in there. They're just holding it. Sure, they're free to use it for the conduct of ancillary business ventures, but when I come to make a withdrawal it had damn well better be there and I'd better get paid in full. With their changes to interface protocols, Strava is essentially telling you that part of their freedom to use your data includes the freedom to not let you use it. In fact, almost as if they anticipated how many people they would anger over this move, part of the website update included changes that now prevent you from uploading all your past data in bulk. If you want to migrate data to a new website or program, you have to do it one activity at a time. Have a nice day.
In all of their ham-fisted attempts to give a rational explanation for their decision, there's only been one clear criteria for cutting applications off from Strava access, as written on their engineering blog and highlighted by Maker:
What we can't allow: replicating Strava functionality.
In other words, they don't want competition. Now, quite honestly, I can't blame them for this. After all, this is business. Strava replied to Maker's own requests for clarification by writing:
We encourage applications that enrich and enhance the Strava community, not take the community somewhere else.Which, again is reasonable, but disingenuous. A lot of the apps that got cut weren't competing with Strava on the social front. There's another reason at work, but they're not willing to articulate it, opting instead to spew out the kind of Swedish chef herp-a-derp we got used to hearing from BP Executives giving updates on the Deepwater Horizon. Which brings me to point number 2.
2. They are just plain lying to you. Strava is a company. It was started and is still run by businessmen. They were very successful in multiple business ventures prior to Strava. They like to build their companies to be very successful so they can get rich. I know this because I interviewed them when I profiled Strava for 3/GO magazine a year ago. As Maker describes the situation (with no lack of help from the Strava spokespeople themselves), it sounds like Michael Bay has barricaded himself inside the building and begun giving orders. That's not the case. They have a reason for doing all this. They're just refusing to explain why. Because this is a highly technical issue, I suspect they didn't think they'd have to come up with a sufficiently plausible explanation. There would be some "coding issues," everyone's eyes would glaze over, and that would be the end of questions. It has not turned out that way, and they're floundering in it. Which brings me to point #3.
3. They don't have the same values as the community they say they support. Isn't the whole idea ultimately to play fair, be part of the community and take pride in the fact that everyone gets better through competition and mutual respect? If so, Strava has abandoned it. It seems to have gone completely unnoticed that the company is denying others the kind of relationship that was at the heart of their success. After all, "third-party" is a relative term. As far as Google is concerned, Strava is the third party. Google Maps is the long pole in the Strava tent, just as it is with Run Keeper, Garmin Connect, MapMyRide, and every other sports tracking social media. What if Google had decided that it was okay for Golden Cheetah or Training Peaks to use their map data because it did not have a social media aspect that competed with Google+, but that Strava was a no-go because it "took the community somewhere else" by "replicating functionality?"
Answer: Strava would be the King of the Mountains on a segment titled "Up Shit Creek."
Maker was thoughtful enough in his own piece to engage executives at companies that compete with Strava, and their responses to his questions are remarkable in how they highlight the nature of this sector of the endurance sports industry. Perhaps this, more than any other, is an ecosystem. Nobody has all the ideas in Silicon Valley. Being mutually supportive of others is not only healthy to growth, it's the best guarantee of survival, because you never know who's going to come out with the next revolutionary idea that you have to be able to access in order to stay alive. Insert whatever reference to the Lion King you want here. They all apply. The point is that all of these companies are an offshoot of technology's biggest giants, and it only became a giant by supporting everyone possible. Proliferation is success in tech, especially in social media. In a world where people care about how many friends and followers you have, Strava is making enemies and kicking people out of their party.
As if to help me make the point, I received a message yesterday from a Strava spokesman in which he told me "don't believe everything you read" regarding Maker's article. I was struck by how simultaneously brazen and ambiguous the remark was. This is one of the most respected writers in the endurance sports industry-- as much an institution as Strava itself (he has half as many Twitter followers as them, and they have about 100 more people an a ga-jillion more dollars). He is revered for his independent, no-holds-barred commentary and gear reviews. And the response to his extremely thorough article, filled with official quotes from Strava itself, is to imply he's either lying or doesn't have his facts straight? I think I've seen this movie before.
I'm stopping short of recommending that people should delete their Strava accounts, and I'm keeping mine for the time being. I have long been enthusiastic about the site's capabilities and what it does for the greater athletic community. However, it may be coming to a point at which someone else serves that community better and with fewer drawbacks. It certainly appears that other sites have a different attitude toward their users. I have always logged my ride data to Golden Cheetah at the same time as Strava, because with a power meter Golden Cheetah is much more capable than Strava and doesn't cost me anything. I have only used Strava for the social aspects, which are of negligible value to me. But I suspect that even if I deleted my account, Strava would somehow retain any data I'd uploaded to the site. Though it may not be obvious to us yet, the data does have value and it would only be reasonable to maintain it for future use. With that said, I am for the time being going to avoid uploading data to the site. My account would be dormant, so to speak. I understand if the 20% of premium customers continue getting their money's-worth out of it, but if 80% of the people at your party refuse to talk, it's not much of a party and you'd probably be compelled to order the band to sing a different tune. More people ought to consider giving Strava the silent treatment until they speak up in a forthright manner about their relationships with third-party developers.
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