Nike's FuelBand may be the first big failure of the wearable activity tracker market -- or the company may be pivoting into an emerging paradigm of software-based tracking, possibly related to the upcoming iWatch launch. Either way it seems a chapter is over in the life of a company that has been one of the longest running and most high profile companies in the mobile fitness and wellness space. Nike was doing mobile fitness tracking before the iPhone even existed -- and now it looks poised to continue doing so, even if the iPhone is supplanted. Read on for a timeline slideshow of the history of Nike and mobile fitness.
Nike teamed up with Apple for the first time a year before the first iPhone came out, with a smart shoe, a clip-on receiver, and software built into the iPod Nano. The Sport Kit could track data on time, distance, calories burned, and pace, and display them all on the iPod Nano's screen, as well as delivering audio feedback through the headphones. It also introduced nikeplus.com, a website where users could analyze tracking data. The system cost $29.
The product offering was announced at a New York event with Steve Jobs and Nike CEO Mark Parker standing alongside Lance Armstrong and marathon champ Paula Radcliffe.
“Nike+iPod is a partnership between two iconic, global brands with a shared passion for creating meaningful consumer product experiences through design and innovation,” Parker said in a statement at the time. “This is the first result, and Nike+iPod will change the way people run. Nike+iPod creates a better running experience. We see many more such Nike+ innovations in the future.”
It would be more than a year before Nike+ would find its way onto the iPhone, forcing early adopters to either hang onto their iPod Nano for run tracking or explore alternatives -- like a little app called RunKeeper that would come along in 2008 and offer GPS tracking as an alternative to a pedometer worn in a shoe.
By 2008, Nike+iPod had a solid user base and added another way to track workouts -- Apple and Nike partnered with gym equipment manufacturers such as Life Fitness, Precor, Star Trac and Technogym so that users could simply plug their iPod Nano into a cardio machine and record their workout on the iPod, to be later uploaded to Nike's website. This idea of translating different kinds of exercise to the same tracking platform wasn't yet called Nike Fuel, but it was headed in that direction.
Two months later, Nike added it's first wrist-worn product, although the Sportband didn't contain any sensors. Instead, it provided an alternative to the iPod for viewing data from the sensor in Nike's special Nike+ shoes, and doubled as a wristwatch. It had a 14-hour battery life, sold for $59, and connected to a computer via a USB cord to upload data to nikeplus.com.
In late 2008, Nike finally released an app, but not for iPhone. The iPod Touch app did everything the Nike+iPod on the Nano did, but nothing more, despite a built-in accelerometer, WiFi, and GPS on the iPod Touch.
In 2009, the iPod Nano got its own built-in activity sensor, and Nike wasn't forgotten. Jobs said at the time that step counts and estimated calories burned data collected by the iPod Nano could be sent to the user’s Nike+ iPod account for tracking. Users no longer needed a special shoe (or, more accurately, a sensor tucked into a special shoe pouch) to track their workouts.
Nike and Apple took a step toward making Nike+iPod more health related when they added integration with a Polar Heart Monitor to the Nike+ system in 2010.The accessory allowed users to monitor their beats per minute while they ran with their Nike+ SportBand, or hear spoken feedback of their BPM during their Nike+ iPod workout. Following the workout, users could track how long they ran in their target heart rate zone and track heart rate trends over time.
In September 2010, Nike finally caught up with the GPS running apps like RunKeeper or Adidas MiCoach that had been out for a little while. The Nike+ Running app used not only GPS but also the iPhone's built-in accelerometer to allow anyone with an iPhone to track their runs. Why the delay? Well, up until this time, the Nike+iPod system was still a way for the shoe company to sell shoes. Embracing an app that didn't require a special external sensor was an important shift in Nike's corporate identity.
In 2011, Nike teamed up with GPS-maker TomTom for a GPS SportsWatch, taking the same sort of tracking available on the iPhone app to the wrist. The SportWatch didn't have any wireless connectivity to speak of, but connected to a user's PC via a USB port.
Although Steve Jobs announced the iPod Nano's pedometer back in 2009, it wasn't until 2011 that they began recommending using the Nano to track workouts without the shoe sensor. Around the same time, people started to wear the new miniature iPod Nano on their wrists, spawning the some of the first predictions that Apple was headed to the wrist in future iterations.
In early 2012, Nike launched the FuelBand, a wristworn, smartphone-connected activity tracker. At this point Jawbone had just launched and almost immediately recalled the first generation of the Jawbone UP and Fitbit had three devices on the market, its original Fitbit, the Fitbit Zip and the Fitbit Ultra, none of them wristworn. At the same time the company introduced it's Nike Fuel, a virtual health currency that has continued to be a big part of Nike's market strategy.
The following month, at South by Southwest, Nike made its first foray into APIs. At a hackathon, the company opened its programming interface for developers to create music apps that worked with the FuelBand.
In June, Nike added Android support for its GPS Running App, demonstrating that the company is not 100 percent exclusive in its relationship with Apple. However, the FuelBand companion app for Android did not emerge, and the company has said that it has no plans to support the FuelBand for Android devices.
Even with a move toward wristband trackers and apps, Nike, of course, hasn't given up on shoes. In July 2012, the company announced several iPhone-connected shoes, starting with the Hyperdunk+ basketball shoe, the Lunar Hyperworkout+ trainer for women and LunarTR1+ trainer for men. The Hyperdunk+ could even measure the wearer’s elevation on a dunk. The shoes transmitted directly to the iPhone 4S and iPod nano.
At the end of 2012, Nike announced its own accelerator to try to turn the Nike ecosystem into a true platform play. The 10 chosen “partner companies” would receive $20,000, access to the Nike+ APIs, Nike+ mobile SDKs, and Nike+ FuelBand Dev Kit (Beta); a Nike+ FuelBand for each team member; tech support from experienced developers who’ve built companies, or built with Nike+ Application Programming Interfaces (APIs); code and solution reviews during the program; mentor sessions with Nike executives and leaders in the start-up community; and two investor demo days: one at the Nike World Headquarters and one in Silicon Valley.
Nike showed off the power of its new API through an integration with popular weight loss app LoseIt!, the first third party app to integrate data from FuelBand.
“The Nike integration is deeper than some of our other tracker integrations,” Patrick Wetherille, Lose It!’s Vice President for Product Marketing told MobiHealthNews at the time. “We try to integrate the Fuel throughout Lose It! as much as possible. Any place where people can use traditional logging metrics, we’re basically adding Fuel in as one of the metrics people can use.”
Nike announced its first accelerator class last year, including startups FitDeck, GoRecess, Chroma.io, CoachBase, GoFitCause, HighFive, Sprout at Work, GeoPalz, Incomparable Things, and RecBob.
Vogue's September issue highlighted the Nike+ FuelBand as "the A-list’s chicest accessory," adorning fashion models, singers, and actors alike -- including Shala Monroque, Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis, and Kanye West.
When Apple introduced it's M7 motion coprocessor, a low-battery way of doing all-day tracking on the iPhone 5s, it used Nike's brand new Move app to showcase the technology.
"The great team at Nike is creating a new application called Nike+ Move," Apple VP for Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller said at a launch event. "It is all about helping athletes stay motivated, fit, and active throughout their day. It uses the new M7 chip and Core Motion API as well as GPS to help keep track of the kind of activities you are taking part in throughout the day and where you are doing it. It gives you Nike Fuel Points and lets you compete with friends over Game Center. All in the service of helping you have a more healthy and active lifestyle throughout your day.”
At the end of 2013, Nike announced the second generation of the FuelBand, an "evolution" of the previous device rather than a reinvention. Notably, it added sleep tracking, a feature that Fitbit and Jawbone’s wristbands had had for a while. The movement tracking algorithms were also been improved, according to Nike, partly to make it harder to “cheat” Fuel points, for instance by punching the air. The new device is Bluetooth Smart-connected and more water resistant than the original (though still not waterproof).
At the same time, the company reskinned its accelerator as the Nike Fuel Lab and cut ties with TechStars for future iterations of the program.
A study by the NPD Group found that Fitbit was dominating the retail market for activity tracking, and that Nike was hanging on to just 10 percent -- quite a bit compared to the many smaller trackers that didn't make the list, but in third place amongst Fitbit and Jawbone. Some people have floated these numbers as evidence of why the FuelBand has apparently shut down as a hardware endeavor.