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Nike’s Fuelband failure signals a win for wearables

When Nike announced earlier this month that it had decided to stop making its FuelBand — a wearable fitness device — other tech makers, and undoubtedly Nike’s fans, became nervous. Is this it for wearables and does one major player exiting the race herald the end of the road for such a short-lived, over-hyped range of devices?

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No, wearables are safe and Nike is shrewd. As much as die-hard gadget owners love to hate them, wearables sales are booming and by 2015, it’s predicted that the market would have grown by 500%. By 2017, the wearables market may be worth a silly US$2.3-billion.

This is not Nike’s signal to others that the wearables time is over, just that the company has to move in a safer, more familiar direction. It may do this by integrating its fitness software within other devices (possibly in the upcoming iWatch). As CNET reveals, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook is a Nike board member and wore a Fuelband during the launch of the iPad Mini. But how long until there’s an iWatch on that wrist powered by Nike fitness software? Only Apple knows.

For those who want the angry side of the story, a post on Secret — a social media app for sharing private information — reveals blunders by Nike’s management team. “The douchebag execs at Nike are going to lay off a bunch of the eng [engineering] team who developed the FuelBand, and other Nike+ stuff. Mostly because the execs committed gross negligence, wasted tons of money, and didn’t know what they were doing.”

But as I said, Nike is far from stupid. It practically began the wearable trend with the Nike+ Shoe sensor, a tiny bluetooth dongle which slid inside the soles of certain Nike shoes. When paired with an iPhone or iPod, the shoes sensor relayed health tracking information to the iDevice. The pedometer inside our Galaxy S5s and iPhone5s we take for granted was inspired by Nike’s innovation. Fitness tracking apps like MyFitnessPal, Noom, RunKeeper and Runtastic were inspired by Nike’s propriety software.

The Average Fitness Band

FuelBand released February 2012 as competition for the FitBit Flex and Jawbone UP, two wearables seeking to disrupt the market alongside Nike’s device (the latter of which suffered some early issues). I can’t say how many were sold, but what we do know is that 2013’s fitness band sales were US$238-million and that the FuelBand was the third best-selling wearable in 2013. FitBit ate up 68% of the market, Jawbone UP 19%, with FuelBand crawling in with 10%. There’s a reason for the Fuelband’s failure.

Ultimately, its exit could be down to it being a crappy product, and Nike is simply ending the Fuelband’s lifecycle before further damage can be done. Reviews were never great, with one of the main sticking points being that the FuelBand “provides little information about how much activity you need to be healthy”, has no heart-rate monitor and altimeter, and that it doesn’t correctly analyse sleeping patterns (the FitBit does though).

I had one as well for the shortest of periods and what bothered me the most was how I seemed to reach my daily fitness despite not going to gym. The Fuelband couldn’t seem to tell the difference between a strenuous workout and me sitting at my desk eating a bag of Doritos.

So what now? There’s no plans to stop sale of existing FuelBand hardware says Nike. “The Nike+ FuelBand SE remains an important part of our business. We will continue to improve the Nike+ FuelBand App, launch new METALUXE colors, and we will sell and support the Nike+ FuelBand SE for the foreseeable future.” So new colours, better software.

Hopefully this fills the void until the inevitable iWatch and Nike app collaboration. Gaming company SEGA pulled off the same trick quite famously in the early years of the millennium as it shifted from hardware to software only. While Nike will still continue to support the Fuelband, its software will find itself migrating to unfamiliar territories as it completely ends hardware production.

There are hundreds of fitness bands available to buy, and countless apps that track and measure like Nike’s now defunct Fuelband. There’s also smartphones which replicate the features of wearable fitness tech without the extra cost. So Nike will do what it does best. It will make shoes and leave its software in the hands of tech firms who’re fully invested in the future of wearables.

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