Why Nike Is (Probably) Killing Off The FuelBand

Why wait for Apple to kill a bad product when you can team up instead?

On Friday, CNET reported that Nike is planning to layoff as much as 80% of the company's Digital Sport division, the team behind the Nike FuelBand. For its part, Nike is denying the scope of layoffs, but the wording of the company's statement seems to suggest that even if the scope of the layoffs is being misreported, the sneaker company could still distance itself from FuelBand and not upgrade the hardware going forward.

If you're surprised, you shouldn't be. Wearable fitness trackers like the Nike FuelBand are about to go the way of the dodo. Here's why Nike is (probably) killing the FuelBand off.

The FuelBand Sucked

Right off the bat, I'll admit something: I think the Nike FuelBand sucks. It's a bad product. With an aesthetic that only Ivan Drago could love, it has a display that's almost impossible to read without contorting your neck.

But the FuelBand has other problems. Like many wearables, the FuelBand is a gadget that does exactly one thing: Count how many steps you've taken throughout the day. Instead of just translating that number into something as intuitive as calories burned, Nike also turns it into "NikeFuel," a confusing and abstract concept—something like Nike's own version of Weight Watchers points—that users have a hard time wrapping their heads around. Historically, it also wasn't particularly accurate. With the first-generation FuelBand, if you went for a swim, did some skating, pumped iron, or did anything besides walking, you couldn't really accurately track how much you were exercising. With its second-generation FuelBand, Nike attempted to address some of the problems, but at the expense of the user experience.

Smartphones Work Better Than FuelBands

Even if none of that bothered you, there's the price. $150 is a lot of money to spend for something that your iPhone can now do for free. Thanks to activity apps and built-in GPS units, smartphones were already pretty good at tracking your activity. With the addition of new chips and sensors, though, they've suddenly become great at it. Inside every iPhone 5s sold is an M7 co-motion processor, which tracks how many steps you take throughout a day just as well as a Nike FuelBand does. The M7 is always running, and its data is available to any app that cares to use it. Nor is the iPhone 5s the only smartphone that ships with a motion tracker. Google's Nexus 5 also comes with a similar chip.

What's about to happen is obvious. In a year, all new smartphones will be able to count steps just as accurately as a FuelBand or Fitbit. If all your wearable does is track steps, smartphones are about to eat your company's lunch. Just as the smartphone made the alarm clock, the MP3 player, the GPS unit, and the wristwatch obsolete, it's about to make the Nike FuelBand and other fitness wearables obsolete. For wearables like the FuelBand to survive, they need to do something more than just count steps. They need to measure other aspects of your life: Metrics like blood pressure, UV exposure, and more.

The iWatch Cometh

But there's a big competitor approaching in this space, a company that makes hardware better than anyone: Apple. The iWatch is coming. It will probably have sensors that can do a bunch of things beyond step counting. And Nike must know it.

Apple CEO Tim Cook sits on Nike's board, and has for the last nine years. It is because Nike and Apple work so closely together that the two companies were able to enter the wearables market as early as 2006 with the first Nike+iPod sports package. Perhaps it is also because Nike and Apple work so closely together that Nike is stepping aside mere months before the iWatch is expected to debut.

Nike is primarily a sneaker company. Apple is primarily a hardware company. There's simply no way for Nike to compete with an iWatch designed by the best hardware designers on Earth. Better for the sneaker-maker to clear some space for the iWatch to make an impact on the market, and use its relationship with Apple to make sure that when the iWatch does land, there's a library of Nike fitness apps that come pre-installed on every device sold.

Last October, Nike CEO Mark Parker was asked about the future of FuelBand at Fast Company's Innovation By Design conference. Here's what he said:

It's really important to understand what we do well . . . what we bring to the party, so to speak, and actually amplify that, and not to expect [us] to really go in and compete with the latest, greatest development of sensor technology.

In 2014, the latest, greatest development of sensor technology is rumored to arrive. It's called the iWatch, and by Nike's own admission, it knows the FuelBand can't compete, that it brings nothing to the party. The writing is on the wall. Why wait to read it until after it's been splattered in your blood?

Update — This story originally claimed that the Nike FuelBand does not track calories burned by default. It also misspelled the name of Nike CEO Mark Parker. We apologize for the errors.

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  • This article reeks.

    • People raved about the design when Fuelband launched. "Impossible to read without contorting your neck" is just ridiculous hyperbole.
    • It doesn't just count how many steps you take in a day - although it lets you display that too. It takes into intensity & different activities to best measure how much you're moving overall. Nike first described it as oxygen intake/outtake, but I'd say that's actually the "confusing and abstract" part that you mention. Fuel point may not be accurate, but it is precise.
    • You could never "go for a swim" w/ the Fuelband. And you can't with a smartphone either.
    • Constantly track my movement via iPhone when it dies on me twice a day already? Batteries aren't there yet. Even if they were, something like an iWatch is a better contender to take over Fuelband than smartphones. If anything, smartphone functions will be built into wearable tech, starting with bracelets then onto different types of fabric we already wear.
  • Totally agree with you regarding Nike sticking to the NikeFuel "points" hardly gives people information that really matters (in the case of bands: Steps, Calories, etc). On the other hand, Nikefuel band was a leap in terms or design...

    Can't agree with you regarding smartphone doing a better job than bands...In my personal experience (using an Iphone 5s) smartphones can give you the "basic experience" of tracking motion, but you can't track all you activities and currently there not design of this purpose (..even with an armband).

  • disagree entirely, it was a great product with a very minimal aesthetic. Even the display is hidden when not in use. This team made some great products, a shame to see them go.

  • Nikki Roth

    I deeply disagree! The Fuelband is great! Especially, as other commenters have pointed out, for athletes. It may be obsolete for tracking steps, but nobody plays a sport competitively with their phone in their pocket. I love my FuelBand because it is rugged and meant for activity. I am a competitive ultimate Frisbee player and I love being able to start a session at the beginning of a game and not have to worry about it until the end. I love to compare the data from all my various activities (snowboard, ultimate, running, weight lifting, etc.). Admittedly, I know little of the iWatch rumors, but I am weary that it won't be as durable as the FuelBand and that I wouldn't want to wear it during intense activities.

    In addition, while I recognize that NikeFuel points are arbitrary, you better believe that I am going to squeeze additional activity in to hit my daily goal! It has definitely motivated me to walk instead of drive or do a set of jumping jacks before bed to hit my goal.

  • Beverly Stuckwisch

    The fuel band WAS great. I've had nothing but problems with the band and app over the last month...several bugs in the app that seem to have the tech support stumped and I am ready to get rid of the thing altogether. I personally don't like carrying my phone in my pocket all the time to track my movement (especially when working out) so I LOVED the fuel band--until recently at least.

  • Dave Rosen

    This article seems to have been written by someone who enjoys tracking their daily activity during casual motion but not during fitness. Attempting to do any of the activities described in the article (weight lifting, swimming, etc.) while holding a phone is impractical at best and more likely impossible. The FuelBand may not be the answer but neither is a phone.

  • Perhaps the reason was that Apple didn't want to make the same mistake they did with Google and the iPhone - Google were making Android while also being partners with the Apple. I think it's possible that Apple have insisted that Nike stop making a potential competitor to the iWatch because they've probably had so much access to it. It won't bother Nike much as I doubt the FuelBand made much money, and I'm sure the iWatch will make them more. That plus all the reasons outlined in the article.

  • The reason I got the FuelBand is because it normalizes various activities into a consistent variable. This allows me to compare my running to biking, to weights, and so on.

    Right off the bat the FuelBand calculates calories. This article is incorrect at the 5 sentence mark. This is pathetic for both the author and Fast Company.

  • Wow, wow! Though I abandoned Nike Fuel after using for almost 2 years to go to the Garmin Vivofit when it came out (because I am invested in the Garmin ecosystem and it has more features for less), I'd have to say that you are way, way off with much of your info and/or impressions.

    I suspect that you have spent little-to-no time with a Fuelband, and probably didn't do much of any research on it to begin with.

    If this is your job (writing about things), please take it seriously and do it right. Blind shoe-horning to fit your end game is not cool.

  • I agree with some of the opinions voiced in the article. It's too bad most of the article is poorly researched and pure speculation. The referenced article by Kevin McCullagh was a great piece of work, backed up with solid research, reasoning and deduction. I'm not sure if Fast Co chooses to publish some articles simply because they will be inflammatory, but if that's the case then at least make sure they've been edited properly. How long does it take to check to find out that the FuelBands do count calories? Or that the CEO of Nike is Mark Parker, not Matt Parker?

  • I actually just bought a new FuelBand because:

    • The appearance and experience are by far the most engaging. I even splurged for the Rose Gold version. Everyone at my office with a tracker has a FitBit but everyone asks about my FuelBand. It's eye catching, the display is beautiful bright and motivating.
    • The universal unit of measurement makes friendly competition manageable. The more accurate it is to me specifically, the less people it would compare me to. I don't need to be better than everyone in my weight class, I just want to take more steps than my little brother...
    • I don't want to have to carry my smartphone around all the time. If the iWatch comes out and it's just a touchscreen FuelBand, they're making a mistake. Like another commenter said, the price for the iWatch is going to be a reality check and I'd rather spend $160 on a FuelBand than $300 on a iPhone for my wrist when I already have an actual iPhone in my pocket, a bigger iPhone in my bag (iPad) and a Mac.
  • I looked at both the fitbit flex and the fuel band and in the end price point and the number of friends already on the fitbit flex tipped the purchasing decision in their favor. There is nothing quite like the competition and mutual shaming of friends to keep you motivated and active.

    And the commenters here are right, you can't use your phone for all activities because it's not waterproof and it just gets in the way when you're excercising.