Article co-written by Albert Meige and Nicolas Chanut.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to turn a business into an Open Organization. In this article, we will use two businesses specializing in high-end athletic smart watches as examples: Garmin and Suunto. In at least two of the dimensions of open organizations—user experience and platform strategy—Garmin is much more advanced than Suunto, which gives it a sure competitive advantage.

For years, I brought my Suunto Ambit watch along on all my adventures, from Western Sahara to Arctic explorations, with a couple of Paris half-marathons along the way. Recently, after accidentally leaving my Suunto in Paris, I was way out in northern Norway, and I had to buy a Garmin. The user experience was beyond common measure. As we were both fans of athletic challenges and the digital revolution, Nicolas and I began a systematic comparison of these two firms, using our rubric for analyzing open organizations.

Comparing the Garmin and Suunto watches (Forerunner 935 and Spartan Sport Wrist HR for those in the know) is very interesting for two reasons. First, because smart sports watches are a good example of a traditional sector (sporting gear) that is remaking itself entirely under the impact of the digital revolution—and the opportunities, in terms of data and services, that the revolution brings. Also, the comparison between the Garmin and Suunto watches is made all the more important by the fact that these two products are extremely similar in nearly all aspects: the price is about the same, the style and the colors can be personalized in each case, and the watches’ functions are nearly identical—even the specialized review press has trouble distinguishing them on this front!

But that being said, what is it about their sports watch program at Garmin that makes them a much more open organization than their competitors at Suunto?

Reason 1 – A Much More Advanced User Experience

Sub-Reason 1 – Data analytics conceived for the user

The Garmin and Suunto watches can collect roughly the same data: heartbeat, GPS positioning, speed, estimated VO2 maximum, altimeter, compass, etc. The crucial difference is in how the two companies use the data.

In boiling down and displaying the data, Suunto spits it back completely raw, while Garmin transforms the data into a clear, precise message for the user. Even after several years of running and with several half-marathons under our belt, we couldn’t really tell you what the lactic threshold or the VO2 maximum actually mean, never mind properly using this knowledge to plan our training.

Garmin put themselves in the user’s shoes and not only asked what use they could find for all this data they were collecting, but also how it could simplify the product user’s life. They realized that the read added value lay more in the transformation of the data than in their production. This is why the Garmin watches offer a complete array of analyses of which the Suunto watches are incapable. By using the data they collect, Garmin creates a personalized training plan; tells the user after each workout whether it was too intense (or not intense enough) in light of our objectives and our current physical capacity; whether the workout has done more to improve our endurance capacity or our short-term sprint speed; the recommended rest time for full recovery; and whether the amount of training we’ve done for the past few days is optimal.

How do you get from a “Suunto” situation to a “Garmin” situation? By always asking yourself why. Why collect this data? Because the users need it. But why do they really need it? Because they want to train with an objective in sight that is appropriate for them as individuals. It is this observation that is at the heart of the difference between Garmin and Suunto, which makes the experience of owning the Garmin watch more agreeable for the customer.

Sub-reason 2 – Garmin sells a virtual training coach, whereas Suunto sells a watch and some data.

“Much more than a watch” could be a publicity slogan for either of these brands. However, Garmin has much more thoroughly grasped what this means—because through their watches, it is not a simple product they are selling, but the services of a kind of personal trainer.

Garmin gets its advantage over Suunto, in fact, because the company understands that data collection is a necessary but not sufficient condition for an exceptional user experience.

Whether it is a cause or a consequence of this more advanced user experience at Gamin, the fact is that the “community” called “Garmin Connect” is much larger than the “community” called “Suunto Movescount.”

Take the numerical analysis method developed by Philippe Letellier (a Digital Fellow at Presans). The three first aspects of his method concern the clients, their pain points, and data. Everything begins with the client and his or her real needs, in order to offer an irreproachable user experience, so that in turn one may attract more users and thus generate more data and improve the user experience. That is what Garmin does. Whereas Suunto seems to start from the watch and the data.

Reason 2 – Advanced Openness and Compatibility

The second reason why Garmin is a much more open organization than Suunto is that they have a much stronger platform strategy.

The reverse of Suunto, Garmin do not hesitate to rely on third parties for help, and they own it! In the same way as with the data, the two enterprises seem alike at first and both work with other organizatons in order to deliver better services. For example, you could use either the data from the Garmin or the Suunto to connect to the very popular online community, Strava. All the same, the companies each have their own platform (Connect IQ and Movescount, respectively) where independent developers can propose complementary “apps.”

However, on closer inspection, one gets the impression that Suunto was more or less forced to open up to Strava, whereas Garmin embraced the opportunity! You only need to look at the watches’ description pages, here and here. Garmin mentions that two of these companies have formed a complementary service (Strava & TrainingPeace); this is not the case with Suunto.

This tendency toward openness at Garmin and closed -offness at Suunto is even easier to see when you compare the compatibility of the two brands’ watches. As this specialty magazine can tell you, “there’s no need for special software to access [your workout data taken from a Garmin watch”; you can then export it into any other application. Inversely, “Suunto won’t let you access its logical data without the Suunto Link.”

                  SUUNTO         GARMIN   



— Both companies collect a lot of data during training. The quantity and quality of the data are very comparable.

            SUUNTO          GARMIN  



— Both companies have their own platform allowing developers to upload apps for their connected watches. But it is clear that the popularity of Strava is even more important.

   SUUNTO         GARMIN  


— That’s the real difference between Suunto and Garmin. The data collected by Garmin is presented in a way that is really useful for the user.




— We don’t have information on the organizational structure of these two companies.

 SUUNTO         GARMIN  



— The inspiring mission of the two companies is quite similar, it is to allow the users to take control of their training, to surpass themselves and to reach their objectives. However, as Garmin’s user centricity allows it to reach a less expert audience, we believe that it better communicates this mission.

Conclusion: to survive, think “consumer experience” instead of thinking “data.”

I was faithful to Suunto for years. Then I had to switch to Garmen; I really had no choice. But the first time I used the watch, I understood that there was no going back. I no longer wanted a watch that would give me my raw data. I wanted a virtual personal trainer. And Garmin had understood that completely. Garmin made the switch to digital perfectly. And the starting point for a digital migration is not data. It is the user experience. The rest follows naturally.

Will Suunto also succeed in the switch? Time will tell.