If you’re feeling brave next time you’re walking to the office, try stopping one of the cyclists or joggers you are almost sure to encounter and check their wrists and possibly their chest. Chances are they will be wearing some sort or wristband, watch or other gadget that is monitoring their every step, revolution, and quite possibly heartbeat, telling them how far they have walked, run or cycled, how much energy they have used and how many calories they have burned. And virtually all of them are driven by a mobile app.
According to the analyst, IHS, global installations of mobile apps used for sports and fitness activities are set to rise by 63 percent by 2017, with the number of installations set to his 248m that year, compared to 156m in 2012. While growth will slow from the nearly 40 per cent increase seen in 2012, installations are still expected to expand robustly during the following years, with a 15 per cent boost in 2013, and a 10 percent increase forecast to take place this year.
“Sports and fitness apps have become an integral part in the daily lives of millions of mobile users, allowing them to use their smartphones to do everything from tracking running distances, to recording their strength training sessions, to monitoring their heart rates,” says Shane Walker, senior manager for consumer & digital health research at IHS. “An IHS consumer survey revealed that 62 percent of respondents interested in using sports and fitness apps also were prepared to purchase hardware that enhances the functionality of the software. For makers of sports and fitness sensors and monitoring and devices like HRMs, this means a built-in audience exists for products that can work with fitness apps.”
Walker believes the current craze for fitness apps is being driven by better data derived from the combination of MEMS (Micro ElectroMechanical System), Bluetooth and ANT+(a wireless personal network protocol) connectivity, and algorithms that incorporate personal data to generate meaningful information to the user.
Michael Oldenburg, senior communication manager at Strava, the company behind the popular fitness app of the same name, says the reason he believes the app has been so successful is because the app provides “a motivational experience” for users. “It helps athletes set and achieve training goals and provides a platform for connection with other athletes,” says Oldenburg. “These features make all the time we spend training and racing, much of it alone, more fun and more social.”
This social aspect seems key to the success and popularity of fitness apps. While academic research to support the idea that such app increase people’s propensity to exercise is understandably still thin on the ground, it is slowly beginning to emerge, Oldenburg says that anecdotally, Strava users tell the company that the app does provide encouragement to them to exercise. “One of the phrases we often hear from them is: ‘Strava helps me get out of bed in the morning’ he says. “Whether it’s performance-related (competing on segments, going for PRs, scrutinizing your Suffer Score) or the social component (receiving kudos and comments, knowing your friends will see your rides and runs), Strava is often credited with providing additional motivation and an extra layer of enjoyment for our athletes.”
IHS estimates that the top 20 free sports, fitness and mobile health apps have been downloaded nearly 230m times (as of mid-2013), with over 4m users willing to pay for health or fitness apps, generating nearly $20m from installs alone to date. Many other free apps monetize through in-app advertising, though notably, Strava keeps its app – even the free version – free from apps, making its money through the premium version, which offers more detailed analytics and other add-ons for £4/month or £39/year.
According to IHS’s Walker, a successful business model for mobile fitness apps will include a revenue mix from advertising, product sales, subscriptions and one-time install fees.
“It will also include an open interface for incorporating multiple devices and presenting the data in a way that is immediate for the user, easily understood, meaningful, motivating, social and entertaining,” he adds. “It will need to provide meaningful information to both professional and recreational users. To create meaningful information, it will need to have access to advanced algorithms. Combining all of these elements will not be easy for any one company, which is where licensing can create a fifth stream of revenue. Through the coordination of a unified, white label, best-in-class, solution of hardware, algorithm and interface, it is reasonable to assume that developers can assist in creating a significant branding opportunity for a wide range of industry players.”
So what next for fitness apps? Clearly, as evidenced by the glut of announcements coming out of the recent CES event in Las Vegas, the trend is towards wearable tech. As for the apps themselves, Strava’s Oldenburg says: “Beyond allowing people to track their workouts via GPS and quantifying their effort through leaderboards and metrics, we think there are some really exciting possibilities when it comes to delivering contextual information in real-time to athletes as they’re working out.”
So not only will your fitness app tell you how hard you’re working, it will also prod you to work a little harder. That, though, is for the future. For the time being, I’m on my bike.