Abvio vs. FitnessKeeper: The Running App Founder Smackdown

10/18/10Follow @wroush

If you’re a runner, walker, or cyclist, there’s a lot of great mobile technology these days to help you track your activity and stay motivated. On Friday I reviewed two apps in particular: RunKeeper from Boston-based FitnessKeeper, and Runmeter from San Francisco-based Abvio. I talked about my personal experiences using the apps, which both work great, but which represent strikingly different approaches to consumer fitness—not to mention contrasting business models.

For readers who want to know more about the two apps and the philosophies behind them, I promised that I’d come back today with with some first-hand insights (and, it turns out, jabs) from their creators. So, without further ado, here are some minimally edited quotes from Abvio co-founder Steve Kusmer, the former CEO of Atomz (acquired by Adobe in 2005), followed by perspectives from Jason Jacobs, a Babson College MBA who founded FitnessKeeper in 2008.

Steve KusmerSteve Kusmer, Abvio:

“When Kevin Wallace and I set out to build our app, we thought the iPhone was a wonderful platform, with GPS and Internet connectivity, and that the potential for innovation was amazing. So we are iPhone-centric. Our competitors mostly treat the iPhone as a data collection device. They put the data up to the Web, where you can share it. We do everything, pretty much, directly on the iPhone. As we’ve built our app with that kind of focus, we’ve been adding things that we feel are iPhone-centric, like remote control capability, the ability to stop and start the stopwatch using the earphone remote as you’re running. We did ghost racing, so you can see your best, median, and worst runs on a map right there on your iPhone.

“Our core belief is that anything you can measure, you can improve. Yesterday I said, ‘I’m going to run three miles and try to beat 8 minutes per mile.’ And because I was measuring it, I did a 7:40 mile. It’s called the Hawthorne Effect—if you measure human behavior, it improves, no matter what you’re measuring. That’s what the apps are all about.

“Another difference between us and our competitors are these crazy things like our text-to-speech ability for Twitter and Facebook replies. One Cyclemeter customer blogged about how he almost crashed his bike because he was laughing at his friends’ tweets!

“Another thing you’ll see is automatic stop detection. Our competitors haven’t chosen to do that. We focus on the hard stuff on the iPhone. Automatic stop detection sounds simple, but it’s really hard because the iPhone’s GPS chip is kind of noisy. But if you go out running tomorrow and stop to tie your shoes, we’ll detect that you stopped and we won’t attribute the time you stopped to your pace.

“When we do things, we do it really deep. For example, we keep all the runs you’ve ever done on your iPhone. While other apps are always discarding the runs, or keeping only a few and showing a sample list, I’ve got 600 runs on my iPhone. A whole year’s worth of running only takes a couple of songs’ worth of space, because we have compression to keep the data small.

“Whenever we implement something like the Twitter updates we make it hyper-configurable. If you want to change your announcements to hear one of 20 different announcements, like how fast you’ve run or how far, you can do that.

“We do calorie counting more accurately than just about anyone. The inputs are not only weight and activity and speed but also inclination, so if you are running uphill we are going to count that as more calories than heading downhill. I don’t think that’s something the other apps are doing.

“One concern I wanted to share about both Nike+ and RunKeeper Pro concerns data ownership. Both RunKeeper and Nike aim to acquire and monetize customers by providing a service that keeps their data and holds onto it. You cannot mass export any of your data in either system. So once you’ve invested in their app and started entering data into their Web sites, you’re stuck. It’s like the rock lyrics ‘You can check in any time you want, but you may never leave.’

“Runmeter takes a more open approach. We believe your data belongs to you, and allow you to mass export your data. If we’re going to keep a customer, we want it to be solely because we’re providing a better product.

“Over time we see ourselves connecting to other companies, to sites that help you with diet or training, but we are focused on the iPhone. That makes sure that if there are things that are really important to our customers, we do them.”

Jason JacobsJason Jacobs, FitnessKeeper:

“Runmeter is a good, solid iPhone app, and I’m happy to talk you through the similarities and differences, but there is a broader distinction that needs to be made. Their business is the app. With RunKeeper we think about it much more like a system or a platform, with iPhone apps and Android apps that feed into the system. You can manually input data without any of those devices. You can weigh yourself on a Wi-Fi scale and send your weight data. You can input your heart rate data. Soon you’ll be able to use a Garmin watch.

“Once that data is in the system, it’s not just about tracking, it’s about community. You can have a Street Team and comment on each other’s activities. You can have a feed, like Facebook, of what your friends are doing. You can figure out what routes to run—maybe you are in a new city and you aren’t familiar with the area around your hotel and you want to find a good 10-mile route around that hotel, you can find that.

“Beyond the social aspects, there is a whole coaching aspect as well, where using RunKeeper you can set a target pace and in the headphones it will tell you if you’re ahead of or behind that pace. The ‘Couch to 5K’ course has a mix of walking and running that will slowly get you off the couch and prepare you for a 5K race, giving you intervals when it’s time to walk and time to run. And it’s not just about you, but people like you who are training for the same milestone.

“So for us it’s not about fancy abilities like pause and unpause. That stuff is nice, but it’s not the real core of what drives people to live healthier lives. For us the tracking is just the gateway into the system, and it’s the coaching and the social accountability and leveraging the wisdom of the crowd and the fitness classes, that’s what makes RunKeeper a system. The app is important, but the activity tracking is just one piece of what is making the RunKeeper system so addictive to so many users.

“The fundamental distinction is, are you only looking for an app, or are you looking for a system that coaches you to make ongoing improvements in your life? If it’s A, take your pick of the other apps, but if it’s B, there is only one possible solution.

[On the data ownership issue:] “If a company makes an iPhone app and has no Web service to store your data over time, comparing it to the RunKeeper system is apples and oranges, as the tracking of data is great, but it is everything you do with the data once you have it where the real value comes in. That being said, you can export any activity you like from the RunKeeper system, have been able to for quite some time, and more export options (as well as an API) will come as we grow.

“I think our most direct competitor is much less something like a Runmeter and more something like Nike+, which has both a sensor and a community with game mechanics and challenges and coaching and analytics and goals. That stuff is really powerful to me—that’s where the magic is. That was the impetus for us to start the company: I couldn’t believe that the only company doing this was doing it for one pedometer for one pair of shoes for one sport, and doing it as a closed brand play so they could sell more shoes. Someone needed to carve that out and apply the same principles to the Web and across many different devices and data types and sports, as an independent fitness platform. That is where we’re going, and that’s totally different from anything we’re seeing from Runmeter or other people.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://gregmills.com Greg

    There are already several excellent social/community platforms for runners. DailyMile has built a large community around a great site and they already have Garmin support and an API. RunKeeper has lost some of it’s focus by trying to play catchup with a web service. Runmeter has got it right, the focus should be on the app and making the data free to flow to whatever site the user chooses.

  • http://www.abvio.com Steve Kusmer

    Wade, thanks for giving us the opportunity to discuss our core values. Jason and I are both passionate entrepreneurs who care about our customers, and wake up every day thinking about what we can do to fulfill our vision of helping people lead healthier lives.

    I would like to clarify Jason’s statement about data ownership. While RunKeeper allows GPX and KML exports of individual runs, it is not a mass export. If you had 300 runs, you’d have to download 300 different GPX files manually and have to find a way to convert them to get them into a spreadsheet, which would deter most people.

    RunKeeper customers have been asking explicitly for a simple CSV export capability for more than 18 months, yet what should be a four hour programming task is nowhere in their plans, as evidenced by the following:

    http://support.runkeeper.com/discussions/questions/57-exporting-to-excel

    Such mass export capability has been in Runmeter since day one, and underscores our belief that you should own your own data. In Nike+ and RunKeeper, your data is held hostage.

    Steve Kusmer
    Abvio

  • Mike

    Nice article, thanks! Strands is another training log built around a social network. It also has Garmin support and a great training/tracking (http://strands.com/iphone)app that is free! They also have CSV export capability and the ability to link to Twitter and Facebook.

  • Steve Kingsland

    I’ve been using both apps (RunKeeper Pro and Runmeter) for several months now as I’m training for a marathon. I tried several other running apps (including iMapMyRun), and I think these two are the cream of the crop. My current pick is Runmeter; even though RunKeeper has a more complete feature set, for what I’m looking for, I find it’s a bit buggy and occasionally crashes on me (especially during longer runs). So I’ve switched to using Runmeter.

    Here’s what I like from RunKeeper, that Runmeter does not have:

    1. The ability to create a running map before hand (via the web) and have it automatically synced to my phone is really useful, because it means I can look at the map while I’m running if I get lost. Runmeter has maps, but you can only create them by running the route first, which isn’t as useful.

    2. The ability to input Heart Rate is nice. I use my HR, in combination with pace and distance, to track my progress over time.

    3. The ability to view reports on the web to see my progress over time is also nice. Although I think Daily Mile has nicer reports, and with RunKeeper you have to pay a yearly fee to view most of their reports. The iPhone is great platform for collecting data, and viewing it while on the go. But for looking at reports in detail, sharing them with other people, and reading things in general, I’d rather use a 20″ screen than a 3.5″ one. I think this is where auto-syncing with the cloud is nice.

    So after paying $15 total for both apps, I think I’d stick with RunKeeper if it worked better, mostly for reason #1 above. The problem I’ve had with it is that the app freezes and crashes sometimes. When I create a new route with a large map (say, over 8 miles) on runkeeper.com, and then within a few minutes I try to select that route on the app to start a new run, it takes several minutes to appear. Seems to take longer, the longer the route is. If I wait (1-10 minutes) for the map to appear, then hit “Select this route”, everything works OK. If I try to select the route *before* the map has appeared, then the app starts freezing up and crashing. Other actions within the app – that appear to depend on the successful completion of a call to the web site – will also freeze it. Because the Runmeter app is designed to operate in a more standalone fashion, it does not suffer from this type of freezing up.

    But since I figured out the cause of the above freezing, I can work around that. What I can’t forgive is when I’m on a long run (8-15 miles), and the app completely crashes with no warning and no notification. I check on it when I don’t hear the voice announcing the passing of the most recent mile, and sure enough it’s crashed and the phone is displaying the home screen instead of the app. Sometimes it’s able to recover and figure out the missed mileage, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it happens when I lose GPS service, and sometimes it happens in the middle of the city. Usually it only happens after 10 or 15 miles, and even then it’s only about 5 or 10% of the time. I logged about 40 or 50 runs with RK, and it crashed about 4 times I think. I’ve got less than half that many runs with Runmeter, but so far the worst to happen is a “Failed to shorten URL” error when it’s trying to auto-post to twitter.

    Wow, turned out to be a long comment. Anyway, I think both are great apps, but both fall short of ideal in my opinion. And I have no relationship to either company, FWIW.