Google, Nike, Jawbone and the fight to win wearable computing

The market is still young. But companies big and small are positioning themselves to be at the center of the wearable computing business when it explodes.

Jay Greene Former Staff Writer
Jay Greene, a CNET senior writer, works from Seattle and focuses on investigations and analysis. He's a former Seattle bureau chief for BusinessWeek and author of the book "Design Is How It Works: How the Smartest Companies Turn Products into Icons" (Penguin/Portfolio).
Jay Greene
4 min read
Jawbone's Up wrist monitor Jawbone

When wireless headset company Jawbone announced plans Tuesday to buy wearable sensor maker BodyMedia for what a source said was more than $100 million, it may well have marked a turning point for wearable computing.

The technology, which includes everything from Google Glass eyewear to heart-rate monitors to sensors that slip into running shoes, has come of age. It's moving past the niche gizmos that only appeal to geeks and gearheads.

As a real business materializes around the technology, a battle is brewing among companies that want to put themselves at the heart of it, and profit from its growth.

It's the age-old story of tech -- companies want to control the application standards on which developers build. In the 1990s, Microsoft won the platform war against IBM and became the powerhouse of the PC era. Google's Android mobile operating system is racing ahead of Apple's iOS in the platform battle for mobile dominance.

There's a reason winning the platform wars is so key. Developers have limited resources and often find themselves too stretched to create applications for more than one or two platforms. So often, they focus on the biggest. That, in turn, helps boost the platform, which then is in a stronger position to win over more developers. It becomes a virtuous cycle.

Wearable computing may never become the massive global business that PCs and mobile devices are now. But it's already caught the attention of Google, which is pushing its Google Glass. It's unclear what products might emerge using the technology. But Google's heft alone is enough to lure developers to its technology. And last month, giant Silicon Valley venture capital firms, Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, as well as Google's own Google Ventures, formed an investment syndicate to seed startups creating Google's Glass products.

A handful of other companies are staking their own claim as well to a wearable technology platforming, focusing on the health and fitness market that's become the biggest piece of the business.

"There is a little bit of a platform war going on," said Robin Thurston, chief executive and co-founder of MapMyFitness, a health and fitness service where athletes can log their runs and bike rides.

It's not a full-on combat just yet. MapMyFitness is developing its own platform to which some 400 devices connect, uploading various health and fitness data. But the company is also one of 10 app makers partnering with Jawbone on its Up platform, announced Tuesday, that also hopes to be attract developers.

Right now, much of the data collected from wrist monitors such as Jawbone's Up, as well as heart-rate monitors, sleep-pattern sensing devices, bicycling cyclometers and more exist in digital silos. It's not easy to look at the different collections of data at the same time to determine, for example, if a series of poor running performances might have been related to several nights of fitful sleep.

Wearable tech gets in the game (pictures)

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"At the end of the day, you want to see how one pattern links to another pattern," said Travis Bogard, Jawbone's vice president of product management and strategy.

That's the point of Jawbone's platform. The company also inked deals with MapMyFitness rival Runkeeper, and with Withings, which makes digital scales that send weight data wireless to PCs, among others.

"We wanted to create showcases to get developers interested," Bogard said.

And then there's Nike. The shoe and apparel giant has been pushing into consumer electronics since the 2006 introduction of its Nike+ technology, which began with a sensor that runners could slip into their shoes to track performance. It's Nike+ FuelBand, unveiled a little more than a year ago, competes with Up, monitoring the steps and calories burned by users.

Nike FuelBand
Nike+ FuelBand Sarah Tew/CNET

In December, the company made its own bid for developers, launching a program to offer money and mentoring to companies interested in creating health and fitness apps on top of Nike+. In March, the company awarded 10 startups $20,000 each to work from Portland, Ore., for three months to build those apps.

"We want to work with partners that have the same vision we have for health and fitness," said Nike spokesman Joseph Teegardin.

The platform battle is still young. And many of the companies vying for their spot in the center of the emerging market work with one another. But the competition suggests that wearable computing is moving from being merely a novelty, niche business.

"This is the beginning of an entirely new ecosystem of applications that will exist on top of your wearables," Jennifer Darmour, a user experience designer for the Seattle design firm Artefact and author of the Electricfoxy blog. "And that is a pretty solid indication that wearable tech is here to stay."