Enterprising Kickstarters Recreate the Nike+ Fuelband

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. While the world drools in anticipation of the Pebble or an Apple or Samsung smartwatch, Nike is sitting idly by fielding a promising piece of tech on the JV team while it could be a runaway hit in the big leagues. I speak of the Nike Fuelband, the wristband with a white and RGB variable-brightness LED output, accelerometers, an input button, Bluetooth and USB interface, iOS interactivity, and a four-day battery life in a well-designed water-resistant package with three color options (see teardown here).

I’d be pretty excited if had that tech on hand to sell. It could alert me to and read txts and e-mails, it could give me some basic gesture input to an app, it could show caller id, etc… basically what the Pebble proposes to do, even if in a more spare LED graphical output. Nike has not only refused to market the product as a mobile-connected wearable output device, but it has actively opposed others’ attempts to liberate the device for such purposes. And so you get what we had here last week, which is the way they wants it: a Kickstarter was launched to essentially rebuild the Nike+ Fuelband. LinkMe is essentially a FuelBand clone that can marquee SMS and other messages on a shiny band.

It didn’t have to be this way: hackers, makers, and users across the web have been asking Nike to open an API for Fuelband. They have made slow and ponderous motions toward doing so, but clearly without any urgency. The best efforts I have seen have yielded only the communication streams between the Nike+ and the desktop program (here) and methods to add and delete fitness data. No one (that I have seen) has been able to write data to the output, or receive non-fitness data (accelerometer, button-press, etc.) from the Fuelband. In the meantime, individuals’ attempts to wrest some control over their Fuelbands have been met with defeat, or threats of legal action. In November 2012, a fellow named Ben launched hacknikefuelband.com which offered a cash prize to the first person that could liberate the Fuelband. He received a cease and desist letter from Nike in less than 30 days and shut down. The most successful “hack” I’ve seen claims to track tweets on the Fuelband – awesome, except that in practice that’ve just taped it to some servos that shake the Fuelband when a tweet comes through… so they haven’t actually customized the Fuelband at all.

So what has Nike been up to? In January Nike opened an API to a select few developers, but this API treads on well-worn territory: it allows developers to read fitness data from the Fuelband, and nothing else. As best as I can tell it is not even real-time.

Why hasn’t Nike played along? As a brand, Nike has maintained focus on fitness and athletics. It is a preeminent brand in the space, and has much to gain by focusing its energies on the growing area of consumer and professional fitness measurement and analytics. It is a respected brand in the space, and has carved out a leadership position. It would be a strategic distraction to cater to a niche wearable computing market, especially with a lower-end solution that will have difficulty going head-to-head with a fully-featured smartwatch as may be released by Samsung or Apple in the near-future. But in the meantime, why not let people play? It is not required, or even prudent, for Nike to invest in opening the device to developers, but it is another thing to send a cease and desist letter to stop others from innovating. At worst they would have sold a few more units to makers, and at best someone could have identified a whole new market for them without a single dime of investment. It is evident from their lack of progress in the area that they are not seriously concerned with formally entering the non-fitness market themselves.

I won’t be buying a LinkMe (due to both the aesthetics and the limited features), but I would have loved the opportunity to take a wonderful fitness device that I already own and make it a more prominent feature of my daily life.

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