RunKeeper CEO: Smartphones Will Beat Fitness-Tracking Wristbands

4/9/14Follow @curtwoodward

If you want to check out a few fitness-tracking gadgets, the Boston headquarters of RunKeeper is a fine place to start. Scattered here and there in the bustling startup office, you’ll find piles of the smartwatches, sleep monitors, and motion-sensing wristbands that typify the recent surge in connected wearable devices.

As a software company that helps people monitor their fitness, it’s natural for RunKeeper to study the next wave of personal electronics that can collect data for its users. RunKeeper also integrates with many of those new devices, including products from Fitbit, Jawbone, and Withings.

But after a lot of research and monitoring, RunKeeper CEO Jason Jacobs is pretty sure of one thing: most of the standalone, limited-purpose fitness trackers out there probably won’t make a big dent in the consumer market.

The reason, he says, is simple—the smartphone is just as good, and already in millions of people’s hands.

Jacobs

Jacobs

“That whole category’s on a path to commoditization,” Jacobs says. “Meanwhile, they’re not just duking it out with each other—they’re duking it out with the phone. And ultimately, the phone is going to win.”

A recent survey by analysts at Cambridge, MA-based Endeavour Partners backs up that verdict. The research firm’s survey of thousands of Americans found that some 10 percent of consumers owned an “activity tracker” like those offered by Fitbit, Nike, Jawbone, Misfit Wearables, and others.

But “the dirty secret of wearables,” Endeavour wrote, was that they’re not very sticky with users—more than half of survey subjects who owned one of those activity trackers had abandoned the thing entirely, with a third of them ditching it within just six months.

“It’s not enough to sync with, link to, or work alongside one of the current devices on the market, or to partner with one of the many startups to design an even better device. Designing a strategy to ensure sustained engagement is the key to long-term success,” Endeavour reported.

There are some major investors who would presumably disagree with the notion that personal activity trackers are destined for the discount bin. Fitbit raised $43 million from venture investors last summer, and Jawbone (which also makes music-focused electronics) banked a reported $250 million investment in February. Major companies like Nike and Samsung also have put significant effort into fitness-tracking wearables.

But Jacobs thinks those particular types of wearable devices—aimed mainly at tracking ambient, ongoing physical activity and giving their owners data about their daily movements—are just too duplicative of the smartphones that millions of consumers already carry.

He points to the wrist-mounted GPS band, which was really the best way for runners to monitor their distance before smartphones became ubiquitous, and are still used by some dedicated athletes.

“It isn’t that the Garmins of the world went away. But the smartphones were really the vessel that took activity tracking to the masses,” Jacobs says. “Phones and general wearables are just poised to do the same thing on the passive side as they did on the active side five years ago.”

Of course, Jacobs has a deep investment in the idea that the smartphone will be the platform of choice for metric-obsessed athletes. The RunKeeper app, which launched in 2008 from parent company FitnessKeeper, has about 30 million users for its activity-tracking smartphone apps. The startup’s argument has always been that the smartphone is the right device for fitness tracking, since you always have it with you. If it’s not in a pocket, then it’s tucked into an armband, where you’re probably using it to listen to tunes as you run.

The company doesn’t say how many of its users check in with its apps on a monthly or daily basis. But it points out that going out for a run is a much bigger commitment than playing another game of Candy Crush.

Jacobs also says RunKeeper is looking for ways of serving its users more often throughout the day, possibly incorporating contextual clues about the user’s schedule, the weather nearby, or what they might want to eat for lunch. 

The possibilities for those kinds of regular reminders get more intriguing as smartphones get, well, smarter. For example: the newest incarnation of the iPhone includes a new type of processor that can collect motion, speed, and location data at any time—something previous versions of the phone didn’t do because of battery drain.

New kinds of accessories that extend and build on the smartphone—basically serving as a second screen for its applications—also play into Jacobs’s theory that limited-use physical trackers will remain a niche product. That means smartwatches, like the RunKeeper-integrated Pebble and Apple’s often-rumored iWatch, and field-of-vision wearables, like Google Glass.

“It’s not that the Fitbits and Jawbones will go away. But for more and more people, the smartphones and general wearables will be good enough,” Jacobs says. “If the intelligence is in the phone and the sensors are in the phone, conceivably, you don’t even have to interact with the phone itself. You can interact with something that’s on your wrist or in your glasses.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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