With the market for wristwatch-style fitness trackers such as Garmin and Fitbit surging, the Apple Watch seemed to come at just the right time for fans of the Boston app RunKeeper when it was released earlier this year.
Just one problem: until now, you’ve had to carry your iPhone with you while jogging to maintain a Bluetooth connection to the watch. That meant a quarter-pound hunk of glass and metal tucked into your running shorts or strapped to your arm.
That changed Thursday. RunKeeper, whose legal name is FitnessKeeper Inc., said that its 47 million users can track their distance, speed, and heart rate without carrying their iPhones. Although ditching the phone means losing some functions, such as split times and route-tracking via GPS, chief executive Jason Jacobs said the Apple Watch’s rapid pace of development means even more features are on the horizon.
“When the iPhone first launched, there was no GPS. There were no third-party apps,” he said. “In our view, the Watch, out of the gate, is less of a growth handle and more of a bet on the future.”
The future could be very lucrative for companies like RunKeeper. Globally, $57 million worth of sports, fitness, and wellness wearables excluding the Apple Watch will ship this year, a number that will grow to $103 million by 2020, according to ABI Research, a consultancy based in Oyster Bay, N.Y. Jonathan Collins, a principal analyst at ABI, said athletic companies such as Baltimore-based Under Armour Inc. and Adidas AG of Germany had acquired fitness apps and could use them to collect customer data — like how many miles they’re putting on their shoes — and develop a closer connection with shoppers.
RunKeeper is free, but it gets revenue from a $40-per-year subscription service called Go that gives users access to premium features, like prescribed workouts and suggested routes. The app also runs low-profile “native ads,” with shoe companies like New Balance and Saucony sponsoring fitness challenges that reward users.
Until last month’s release of a new operating system for the Watch, the Apple Workout app, which is installed on Apple Watches by default, was the only fitness app that didn’t need to be “tethered” to a phone. With that limit in place, more than three-quarters of Watch users who worked out regularly used the Workout app, whereas only 13 percent used third-party apps like RunKeeper, according to Bernard Desarnauts, who regularly surveys a panel of 2,000 Apple Watch users.
Jacobs said he expects that to change.
“While we expect that Apple will continue to provide solid basic tracking, we don’t expect they will move beyond basic and we are very confident the market is big enough for multiple players to thrive,” he said.
RunKeeper competes with other running apps, such as MapMyRun, which is owned by Under Armour. Over the past year, MapMyRun has generally been more popular with iPhone users, while RunKeeper has been more popular among Android users, according to app download estimates from the website App Annie. RunKeeper is the most popular third-party running app among Apple Watch users, though, with Desarnauts’s survey finding about five percent of Apple Watch wearers use it.
Consumers also have their pick of a number of fitness wearables that aren’t as pricey as an Apple Watch, whose lowest-end model is $350. The Framingham-based market researcher International Data Corp. said in August that Fitbit Inc., whose products range from $60 to $250, sold more wearables than anyone else in the second quarter of this year.
Jacobs said that RunKeeper, which was founded in 2008, has 40 employees and that its revenue is doubling every year. He said it could be profitable, but was pouring revenue into growth.Jack Newsham can be reached at email@example.com.