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I recently spoke with Jason Jacobs, part of the team that created RunKeeper ($9.99, App store), an app designed to use the iPhone's built-in GPS to record the distance and speed of runs (or anything else for that matter - Jason added that 50% of RunKeeper's users are cyclists). This data is then sent to the website FitnessKeeper.com, where users can compare their results and fitness maps with other RunKeeper users.

AppleInsider: What sparked the development of RunKeeper?

Jacobs: So when I first set out to build this business, the initial thought was to build a web dashboard. But not just any web dashboard, one that really did it right. [One] that integrated with all of the disparate fitness tracking devices, that provided the user with a window into all of their own data but also see that data in the context of the broader community.

At the time, it was "let's nail running, and then we'll incorporate other activities over time".

But as we set out to build this, we saw very clearly that there was a convergence happening.

Mobile devices were getting smarter and more computer-like. They were having GPS in them for the first time. As these devices evolved and fitness became increasingly important to the masses, we saw no reason why these emerging mobile devices shouldn't be used by the masses to track their fitness activities

AppleInsider: When were you thinking about all of this?

Jacobs: Well, I've been thinking about innovation around fitness and technology for years as an avid runner and cyclist, but it was really over the last year or so that things really started to get serious.

AppleInsider: So after Nike/iPod and its ilk were available, then?

Jacobs: Well, Nike/iPod was out and Garmin GPS watches were out, those were already being used by a portion of athletes. But with GPS watches you need a separate device and they are expensive ($200-400) and with Nike, it is $30 and you need a separate pair of shoes or technology. We wanted to bring the utility of these kinds of devices to the mainstream by enabling people to get comparable use out of the device they already have in their pocket---the mobile phone. For a fraction of the price.

AppleInsider: So I'm guessing you saw a lot of potential for this in the iPhone.

Jason Jacobs: Well, what we saw was that ultimately this is where things are going -- mobile devices will keep getting smarter and many things that required seprate devices or technology before will now be done using your mobile device. We saw the iPhone as the perfect device to start with. Great user experience and design; people are already used to wearing their iPod when they run and the iPhone has one built in, and the innovative distribution model really revolutionizes things both for the developers (us) and the consumers (runners and other fitness participants). For developers, I would have had to wait in line for years to try to get onto a carrier deck and Apple has removed much of that process. For consumers, it is one click on my device and they already have my credit card info -- Apple has really made things much more frictionless. We believe that while Apple is the pioneer, there will be many other devices and carriers folliwng closely behind, the whole industry is transforming.

But Apple is the leader and the best place for us to start -- it was a no-brainer.

AppleInsider: Did you come across any problems with the iPhone as a platform when developing RunKeeper?

Jason Jacobs: Overall, it has been working out really well for us. The platform is intuitive and easy to use. The iPhone is a 2nd generation device and the iPhone with GPS built-in is in its first generation, so of course there will be challenges and things that need to be tweaked or tightened up, but Apple is not wasting anytime fixing issues and making improvements. It is a great device today, and we have no doubt it is only going to get better over time.

AppleInsider: So tell me about Runkeeper.

Jacobs: RunKeeper uses the built-in GPS in the 3G iPhone to enable runners, cyclists, hikers, etc. to track their outdoor fitness activities, including duration, distance, pace, speed, and path travelled on a map. Over time you can save all of your historical activities, and we are in the process of building in the ability to analyze and chart the underlying data as well as share it with your friends

If you have the iPhone in your pocket, put it on your arm, or on the handlebars of your bike, you can now keep track of all of your fitness data automatically for a fraction of the cost of a separate device.

AppleInsider: And how do you feel the iPhone fares as a GPS device?

Jacobs: I think they made a good showing with this device for sure. It tracks your activities with strong accuracy, both for the location and your distance and speed data. Like any GPS, it works best when you have direct line of sight to the sky, but they have done pretty well here and it is only going to get better.

AppleInsider: Speaking of things only getting better - earlier you mentioned stat analysis and sharing as future features - what else do you envision RunKeeper being able to offer in future?

Jacobs: Well, I can tell you what you see is really only the beginning, we have a lot of plans from here. Some of it is around individual data, some if it is around competitive features, and some of it is around more social features. I can't say a whole lot right now, but if you go to our user forum at www.runkeeper.com/forum it should give you some insight into the kinds of things our users have been asking for.

We were originially going to focus it on running and have lots of sister apps focusing on different sports. We thought what people wanted was very different. We were surprised when we put it out that, while the runners have been flocking, so have cyclists, hikers, walkers, motorcycle racers, hang gliders, I even got a note from a Trikke user yesterday.

Our core focus is really outdoor fitness activities, and we plan on giving the users [the capability] to group their use of RunKeeper by activity and then maybe have sub-communities within the website itself around each sport.

AppleInsider: Looking ahead, how do you think fitness and technology is going to interact? We've been seeing things like your app, Wii Fit, and more - any predictions for the future?

Jacobs: It is amazing how many new technologies are coming into the fold -- mobile advancements, video advancements, location-based advancements, social networking advancements, mapping advancements, and many more. Ultimately, these technologies will enable new and innovative ways for fitness enthusiasts to track their performance and interact with each other. That being said, it is important that companies do not forget the basics along the way -- the core utility that the user is seeking can not get dilluted or all of these other advanced features become worthless. But as long as the core utility remains entact, the sky is the limit!

After my interview with Jason, I decided to try out RunKeeper for myself, and go on a little bike ride. At first I couldn't get a fix with the GPS, but after moving a little further away from some buildings I got a good signal. With that said, I put my iPhone in my pocket, and started my trip.

Due to the way Apple has implemented GPS on the iPhone, you cannot lock the iPhone while using RunKeeper, else the GPS will stop working. Fortunately RunKeeper disables the auto-lock and re-enables it after closing. I did notice some buttons could be accidently "pushed" while the iPhone shifted about in my pocket.

Halfway through my course I stopped to check how the app was keeping up, and all was sound. I quickly exited and put on some music to see if RunKeeper would keep all my progress so far, and was pleased to see I could just press a button to resume where I'd left off.

At the end of my cycle, I chose to save the data and then posted it to FitnessKeeper.com:



Quite an accurate map, save for the brief plunge into the canal (though it was a grey day and I live in an area with very tall buildings and lots of trees). As of right now you can only view maps on Fitnesskeeper.com, but the feature is supposedly coming to the iPhone's Maps app in future. The app also recorded my average pace of 7 minutes and 49 seconds per mile, my average speed of 7.68 mph, total time and milage, and change in altitude.

In short, RunKeeper does exactly what it says it does, and with a good interface to go with it. With plenty coming in the future, it looks like RunKeeper is a must try for fitness-way iPhone owners who want to leverage their handset's built-in GPS technologies for more than just tracking runs.