Breeze, RunKeeper’s New Step-Tracking App, Aims to Bridge Workouts

Xconomy Boston — 

RunKeeper has been helping people master their fitness routines since the very early days of the smartphone revolution. Along the way it’s collected about 30 million users who have tracked hundreds of millions of miles and burned billions of calories. 

But when your product is designed to get people off their butts and work out, you’re missing a big part of the day for all but the most dedicated runners.

“Even for our most engaged users, we’ve only got them for 30 to 60 minutes a day, a few times a week,” founder and CEO Jason Jacobs says. “How do we help people make the right decision to lead an active life every day, throughout the day, not just when they have their gym clothes on?”

Today, the Boston-based company thinks it has an answer. It’s called Breeze, a new step-tracking app that lets people see how much they’re walking throughout the week and offers little nudges to help them increase the totals.

Simply debuting a smartphone app is not a stop-the-presses moment these days. But Breeze represents a very big statement about where RunKeeper sees the future of personal fitness gadgets evolving.

It’s also a really big bet for the company. Breeze is just the second app ever produced by RunKeeper, and while Jacobs says the two apps will have close integration, building another brand on top of your existing business is a time-consuming and potentially risky step.

Some recent thinking in the software world, however, backs up the strategy of breaking out a separate app for a focused purpose. Earlier this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in The New York Times that a lot of his company’s work on mobile devices is focused on “unbundling the big blue app.”

“In mobile there’s a big premium on creating single-purpose first-class experiences,” Zuckerberg said. Jacobs would agree: “A be-all, end-all, monotlithic app that becomes a one-stop shop or source for all of the things you do is a recipe for disaster.”

Taking that plunge is easier because of the technological advances in the latest version of the iPhone. Apple’s flagship device recently incorporated a new chip that lets apps tap into a constant flow of motion-tracking data without sapping the phone’s battery.

That innovation is the key to Breeze, which is why it only works on the iPhone 5S. Versions for Android-based phones with similar capabilities are probably not too far behind, although Jacobs wouldn’t commit to any sort of timeline.

I tested Breeze over the past few days, and found it a fun, easy-to-use app for tracking my movements. Even though I tend to dislike most home-screen push notifications, I didn’t find the nudges from Breeze to be annoying in my journeys around the Boston area.

I’m also probably the kind of user they had in mind—I’ve downloaded RunKeeper, but I only run a couple of times a week, and tend not to take my iPhone along for the ride anyway.

As Jacobs hinted, Breeze is not a grab bag that tries to get its hooks into you by offering a million different features. It’s really focused on tracking steps, and displays the current week as it shows how your actual walking stacks up against goals the app sets for you. It does that without the need for a separate wearable device, a la the Fitbit, the Jawbone Up, or the Misfit Shine.

There are fun features that keep Breeze from seeming like a scold, including the “spirit animal” award you get based on how much walking you’re doing. Breeze also gets bonus points in my mind for being very up front about some of its data-collection practices: when you first start using the app, it digs into your past week of motion-tracking data to build the first set of goals and get a working profile. But it warns you it’s doing this, and there’s a permanent reminder of how that happened (and what kind of data the app didn’t track) on the user timeline.

It’ll be interesting to see how many people pick up Breeze, given the importance of its daily-tracking applications to RunKeeper’s clear direction toward more robust data and frequent user interactions.

Tellingly, Jacobs says the company plans to draw many Breeze users from the existing RunKeeper user base. That makes sense from a marketing point of view, since getting noticed in the crowded smartphone app stores is a top complaint (and expense) for many app-builders today.

It’s also a response to the way people are using RunKeeper already—more than 20 percent of the activities people track on the app are walks, and even those who use it for jogging aren’t exactly hard-core road warriors.

“If you ask RunKeeper users, only a very small percentage of them self-identify as runners. They’re people trying to get fit, people trying to lose weight, people trying to hold it all together,” Jacobs says.

Breeze is a key part of the company’s bet that smartphones will win the battle for mass-market fitness and health-tracking applications, rather than wristbands and other wearable electronics that are focused on tracing a user’s movements. 

It could be joined by others in the future. Jacobs wouldn’t commit to any specific areas as targets for possible companion apps, but RunKeeper clearly could find new ways of helping users take advantage of an explosion in personal data collection.

“If we did expand into other things, it likely wouldn’t be by jamming it into RunKeeper or Breeze,” he says. “We think with an integrated suite of, say, three to five core apps, over time we can cover the vast majority of things that the vast majority of people care about.”