Nike+ FuelBand The Story of Nike’s Unfulfilled Wearable Ambitions

Nike FuelBand: The Story of Nike’s Unfulfilled Wearable Ambitions

The Nike FuelBand is an interesting story of a great technology pioneer who unfortunately, does not stay around long enough to see their technology flourish. It is the story of how Nike started the wearable craze but was unable to withstand the heat of competition and gave up on the race. Once the biggest player in the industry, now they are nothing more than spectators. Where did it all go so wrong?

Nike FuelBand+ SE price when reviewed: $119.77

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Wearables Revolution

In 2011, wearables were a novel technology. While Fitbit had already released their first fitness tracker, the idea that a wrist-worn band or watch could be used to track your fitness had not yet caught on. But Nike had the perfect recipe to spark a technological revolution.

In January 2012, Nike made the Nike Fuelband available for preorder in the United States. They used celebrities like Serena Williams and LeBron James to create a viral must-have marketing effect. The marketing worked so well that the preorders sold out twice in a single day.

Unknowingly, Nike had pioneered one of the biggest revolutions in the technology world. It had introduced the idea of wearables and most importantly, made it cool. Suddenly, everyone was clamoring for a piece of the cool technology.

This was the opening other tech companies needed to jump into the market. Fast forward to 2016, and it finally seems like wearables are finally breaking out, both in terms of technology and acceptance by the market. From a market size that started out at below a billion dollars in 2011, experts expect the wearables market to grow to $14 billion in 2016 and $34 billion by 2020.

Today, there are tons of different wearables from the common Smartwatches to dedicated fitness trackers. But there is one big name missing from the wearables market; Nike. While sports companies like Adidas and Under Armour go big on wearable tech, Nike has decided to sit out the wave it helped trigger.

Whatever happened to Nike and its pursuit of wearable tech? There is only one place to start; the beginning.

Nike+ FuelBand and the Beginning of a Revolution

When the Nike+ FuelBand hit the market, there was excitement like never before. Fitness enthusiast finally had a way to measure their effort and monitor their progress. It was the ultimate personalization of fitness. Nike used fuel points – gained when you worked out and engaged in activities – to motivate users to get fitter.

Users could use these fuel points to gauge their progress and compare their performance against that of others. Yes, this system had flaws, and plenty of them, but that did not stop people from getting excited over the Nike FuelBand.

One of the most interesting things about the Nike FuelBand was the success it saw despite being a flawed first generation product. The hardware division of Nike immediately saw an 18% rise in profit in 2012, thanks to the FuelBand. Even Nike’s store went down as people scrambled to get their hands on this “new” ingenious way to quantify their fitness.

1. Nike FuelBand: First generation activity tracker

First generation activity tracker Nike FuelBandThe first activity tracker from Nike was purely for fitness tracking applicable in multiple activities including yoga, running, cycling, weightlifting and many more. It could not even receive smart notifications when connected from your phone, a basic feature for all fitness trackers today.

It was quite simple with an easy to use interface. The band had a single button for scrolling through various options – calories burned, Nike fuel score, steps taken and the current time. A row of LED lights changed from red to green as you got closer to your set goal. Here are a few more features of the first Nike FuelBand.

  • Adequately water resistant to withstand the occasional accidental splash of water and you could even shower with it on. But it was not water tight enough for the swimming pool.
  • Bluetooth connectivity that was used to connect to your iPhone to sync data. It also had a USB connecter at one end of the band that could be used to connect to your phone and upload data.
  • A companion app that came with many more functionalities including motivational trophies, activity trends for the last several days and weeks and a total count of your Fuel points.

One thing that everyone, athletes and experts, agreed on was that the Nike FuelBand was one great motivator. It used the technique of gamification to get people to move and rack up their fuel points. It was also quite easy to use, with a simple design and interface.

Not For Serious Athletes

The sticking point was in how accurate the band was in gathering up various metrics. For instance, there were plenty of problems in how points were gained. The band measured activity through wrist movement. That meant that while an hour of tennis might get you 1,000 points and running another thousand or so, riding a bike might not add to your points total at all. In a bit of a funny twist, you could add several hundred points during happy hour as you lifted beers to your mouth.

It was not just the fuel points, the entire device was painfully inaccurate in its measurements. This includes number of steps, distance travelled and calories burned. For serious athletes this was a no-no. It was really good at motivating people to stay fit, but beyond that it did not provide any meaningful training metrics. But again, it was a first generation product. So these limitations, as serious as they were, were expected.

Nike reloaded and fired another shot the next year.

2. Second generation activity tracker: Nike FuelBand SE

Nike FuelBand SEBefore we even say anything about the second edition of Nike FuelBand, it is important to note that all this time, only iOS phones were compatible with Nike’s wearable. In what was perhaps one of their biggest mistakes: they did not expand compatibility beyond iOS with the release of the Nike FuelBand SE in late 2013.

The second generation tracker came with Bluetooth 4.0, an increased variety of colors and styles and an improved battery life thanks to low energy Bluetooth technology. It also included additional social features such as connecting with your Facebook friends. Unfortunately, this was all the second edition of Nike FuelBand offered.

No Substantial Improvements

Where it mattered most – tracking activity metrics – there was no effort to improve on anything. If anything, they made it worse by adding on a highly inaccurate and essentially useless sleep tracking feature.

This time around things were different for Nike compared to the release of the first Nike FuelBand. The wearables market had heated up and people had many more better options to choose from. Fitbit , Jawbone and even Adidas had all come up with their own offerings, with more and better features for around the same price as the FuelBand SE.

At $150, most people felt that the Nike FuelBand SE was not worth the price tag. It had carried over the painful limitations of the first Nike FuelBand and there was no meaningful improvement in performance. Even worse, Nike still was not catering to core fitness enthusiasts and serious athletes. For a major sports company, this oversight was incomprehensible.

In a growing wearables market, Nike had failed to leverage its brand recognition and resources to create a product that led the market. It had failed to make the leap, to think differently, to push the limits. There was no worse time for such mistakes than then, when dozens of competitors were springing up on every side.

Android Compatibility

Nike finally made an Android app in 2014, more than two years after the launch of the first edition of FuelBand. But by then, it was far too late. With so much competition springing up and Nike’s seeming inability to create good wearables, the end for Nike in the wearables market was inevitable.

The end and the Pivot

In April 2014, Nike let go of most of its wearables team, heralding the end of their pioneering efforts to create a great fitness tracker. Shortly after, the company announced that it was axing production of the Nike FuelBand and no subsequent wearables would be produced.

It was a sad end to a company that had pushed wearables into the market. It was even sadder when you consider that they had not tried their best in making good products. Nike is a big company with the resources to attract top talent and conduct top of the line R&D (research and development).

There was absolutely no reason they could not have made a product as good as those from Fitbit or Jawbone. Even if the first product was understandably terrible, they had a chance the second time around to correct their mistakes and resume their top dog position. Instead, they made matters worse.

A New Hope

Nike was not getting out of the fitness tracking market; it was just pivoting from hardware to software. Nike reasoned that there were already plenty of fitness trackers on the market and there was no point in making yet another fitness wearable. Instead, they would partner with tech companies, especially Apple, to create a great all-round experience for athletes and fitness buffs.

Of course, the special collaboration with Apple was never to be. When the Apple watch came around in 2015, Nike was relegated to a third party app position. But Nike went on to focus on its new direction. In 2015, the updated the iOS FuelBand app, making the band itself unnecessary. The updated app could collect the same metrics using your Smartphone.

The company has a range of other fitness apps. One is dedicated to running while another provides tools, resources and knowledge for all-round fitness training. As of now, there is no sign at all that they are planning to get back to the wearables market. At the same time, sports giants Under Armour and Adidas have gone all in to create great wearables for fitness buffs and athletes.

Did it Have to End?

The biggest question regarding Nike’s short-lived foray into wearables is whether they gave up too soon? The wearables market may be crowded but it is still young and rapidly changing. It is not like there is an iPhone-like brand that has dominated the market, shutting out other players.

There is a feeling that Nike could have done something more. After all, they were the pioneers of wearables. With a novel product and through ingenious marketing, they managed to create a huge wave that is still rolling to date and getting bigger.

They had a chance to improve on their product and create something that could be held up as the industry standard. Instead, they seemed to be afraid of pushing the limits. As a result, they were quickly overtaken.

With a little bit more effort and innovation, Nike could have been on the forefront of a quickly growing industry. Even if the second edition of Nike FuelBand was no better, they could have still made a third attempt.

Sure, they might find success in making software but right now, the focus is on wearables and will remain that way for the next several years. The winner in the end will be the company that can provide great fitness trackers and the software to back them up.

Nike FuelBand+ SE price when reviewed: $119.77

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The Future for Nike and Wearables

For now, Nike is adamant about staying clear off the wearables market. While they say that they are focused on creating great software, the reason seems more like a fear for competition. With everyone from Apple to Samsung to Garmin and Fitbit in the game, the field is truly crowded. But there is still an opportunity for a great fitness-dedicated product to shine and dominate the market.

Nike could still decide to take another shot in the future especially as the market for wearables grows larger. Being a sports company, it is hard to imagine Nike without a wearable or two of their own. But then again, maybe their pivot to software could prove successful and they will see no point in going the hardware route.

Whatever the case, Nike has big decisions to make. Wearable technology – both the software and hardware aspects – is becoming more important in fitness tracking and athletic training. Everyone from jogging mums to fitness buffs and professional athletes are relying on this technology to improve their performance. Whichever road they decide to take, they have to come up with not just good but great solutions.

Do you think Nike blew it with the Nike FuelBand? What should they have done? Feel free to leave your comments below.

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There are 2 comments

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  1. Isaac

    Max, good article and history of the product. I think it’s all quite accurate, but it underestimates the likely effect of Tim Cook being on Nike’s board of directors at the time the flawed FuelBand was plateauing and the Apple Watch was in secret development.

    It may be that Nike realized its core strength is not in digital products, especially hardware, and that it should focus on the shoes, especially if it has native support in the Apple Watch. Nike has made a few moves to “focus” on its strengths in the last few years, including selling off the dress shoe brand Cole Haan it acquired in the 1990s. I think they realized that there were too many smart hardware makers for them to compete, including Fitbit, Misfit, Jawbone, and Garmin.

    After all, they say focusing on your weaknesses is how you become mediocre. Focusing on your strengths is the way to win. That’s Nike’s way.

    • Max

      A good point, Isaac, thank you. Time will tell, but I think their attempt was a good one, and there is and will be enough room for a player with enough courage, be it a newcomer (Pebble, Fitbit) or a veteran (Garmin).

      “Focusing on your weaknesses is how you become mediocre. Focusing on your strengths is the way to win. That’s Nike’s way”, well said, reminds me of the late Steve Jobs 😉


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