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The age of indie fitness apps is over

The age of indie fitness apps is over


They’re all being bought by 'brands'

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What do Endomondo, MyFitnessPal, MapMyFitness, Runtastic, FitStar, and RunKeeper all have in common?

Aside from all being smartphone apps that track your health and activity, all of these apps have been acquired by bigger companies — bigger brands — over the past couple of years, the latest being RunKeeper, which was just bought by running shoe maker Asics. Endomondo, MyFitnessPal, and MapMyFitness went to Under Armour. Runtastic was acquired by Adidas. FitStar was bought by Fitbit, which at the time wasn’t yet a public company, but in its own right has swelled to become the market leader for activity trackers.

Apps joining forces with apparel giants and device makers makes sense, in many ways. For apparel companies, it means acquiring an already-amassed community of digital customers. For app makers, it’s a tidy little exit. Many of the apps offer tiered services, but the number of consumers actually paying for premium subscriptions may not be enough to sustain a long-term business. Just last year, RunKeeper had said it was laying off 30 percent of its staff to focus on revenue generation. Some, like Runtastic, even got into the device business, though as the saying goes, hardware is hard.

Fitness apps are the new photo apps

There are still some outliers. In addition to offering premium services, the still-independent Strava has set up an in-app store where it sells a limited amount of apparel and gear; it also sells map data to city planners. But again, it’s hard to know how much money this actually generates for the company. (Strava, one of my favorite apps, is an increasingly visible target in this landscape.)

But what does it mean for the actual users, the millions of people who have used these apps to fulfill their regular training duties or their weekend warrior goals? What does it even mean for the people who have downloaded them with the best of intentions and rarely used them?

For one, the rash of acquisitions signals that the age of the truly independent fitness app is over. Fitness apps are the new photo apps: if it’s even remotely sticky, chances are that it will get snatched up by a larger company that is trying to bolster its digital products, maybe even muddling through a millennial-retention strategy. It’s your favorite indie rock album being used in commercials for Target.

And as with all acquisitions, the initial promise is that nothing will change — that app will still be your workout buddy, even if it’s upgrading to a much bigger house in a fancier neighborhood. But eventually, things change. It can be as subtle as a logo: the grande jete-ing silhouette in the MyFitnessPal app now has an Under Armour logo hovering over its head. But it can be as significant as ads for services like Munchery now appearing in your food diary, or a deal on sneakers popping up in your workout log. Your runner’s high is being monetized.

There’s also your data to consider. That free fitness app you signed up for a couple years ago, the one that needed you to enter your gender, height, weight, birthday, and general health and fitness goals in order for you to use it? That information is now owned by another, larger company. All of them will hurry to say that the data, when used to inform business decisions, is completely anonymized or non-identifiable. But it’s still there. Your height and weight are part of the borg now.

Your runner's high is being monetized

This isn’t meant to spread fear; rather, it’s about perspective. The market for these health and fitness apps is still relatively new: as young as the app stores are, to be specific. Before the smartphone came along, we weren’t carrying around pocket computers that stored our health information in such levels of granularity.

Now, health and fitness is one of the top categories in both Apple’s App Store and the Google Play store, and makes up an estimated 7 percent of all apps for Apple Watch. It’s not surprising that apps once considered "handy tools" — look, Ma, I can track my steps — would go through this kind of consolidation period, especially as the data becomes more valuable to companies.

And, hey, on the upside, the app is still around after it's been acquired, right? The alternative, in some cases, would likely be a complete shutdown. Which means you would have to go find another fitness app to download. Enter all personal data. Locate GPS. Start. Go.