When I read earlier this week that Under Armour was planning to pull the plug on its HealthBox platform, I was disappointed, but not all that surprised.
Don't get me wrong, when CEO Kevin Plank first unveiled HealthBox, a suite of connected fitness devices borne out of a partnership with HTC, I was pretty damn excited about the prospect of being plugged into an ecosystem that offered fitness trackers, headphones, smart scales and even running shoes. Not just that, but the fact that they could all communicate with each other to draw a much more comprehensive picture of your fitness and health made it even more appealing.
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You couldn't help but get caught up in Plank's enthusiasm as he outlined his plans and talked about his vision of the future of biometric measurements. When I spoke to UA's chief digital officer Mike Lee he talked of the potential of the integration with IBM Watson, a system that combines AI with analytical software to provide meaningful insights into fitness tracking data.
Then there was software led by its own UA Record app. Buying up the likes of Endomondo and Lee's old company MyFitnessPal gave Under Armour the big user base, the pools of data and some of the best fitness apps in the business to provide the foundations. Everything seemed to be in place to do what Nike, Adidas and others had failed to do in the past – to deliver something that could be the ultimate fitness solution.
I remember when that big red Under Armour HealthBox turned up. I pulled out the UA Band fitness tracker first. The one that had evolved from the Grip, the wearable that was first unveiled by HTC and Under Armour back in 2015. Design-wise it actually looked like a backwards step from the Grip; the screen was bad quality and I just couldn't get excited about it. Then out came the heart rate monitor chest strap. Okay, it looked nicer than a Polar or Garmin chest strap, but it was just a chest strap, one that was included because Under Armour admitted the one inside the fitness tracker was not really cut out for proper heart rate based training. Then there was the scale. A nice looking scale, but there was nothing groundbreaking to see here.
What I really cared about though was seeing was how these devices all came together as one, but I never really got that sense during my time testing it all out. Even when I gave it another chance to convince me later in the year, it was more of the same. This wasn't the harmonious, seamless integration I'd believed I was going to experience.
The heart rate monitoring headphones followed but those underwhelmed too, and the smart running shoes came soon after that. If there was one part of this HealthBox experience I thought Under Armour would nail, it was the shoes. Both myself and our executive editor James rigorously put them to the test and came to the same conclusion: it was a missed opportunity to do something truly great for runners. Then UA's Jump Science to measure runner fatigue got thrown into the mix with the next generation Gemini shoe and it felt like we were finally getting connected shoes that offered something new and unique.
But for HealthBox as a whole it was clearly all too late. The athletic apparel brand announced a drop in overall sales (not just HealthBox), slashing projections for sales and earnings for the rest of the year. A victim of that sales plunge is the suite of fitness devices, which will continue to go on sale until the end of 2017 before they're likely to be officially axed.
Is this the end for Under Armour's wearable ambitions? Perhaps not entirely. Despite the disappointment of HealthBox, it looks like some of its running shoe smarts will live on in a shoe that Under Armour is planning to launch next year, when it introduces its new HOVR cushioning tech. It looks like it will still pursue making connected apparel as well. The analysts keep on telling us smart clothing will take off and it looks like Under Armour is banking on that happening too.
For HealthBox, though, it's a sad but ultimately unsurprising demise. It was expensive and never really delivered on its promise to be the ultimate collection of fitness devices. Plank and company should be applauded for what they tried to achieve, and while the hardware will not live on, one thing that will is the software. It remains one of its greatest assets and why Under Armour is able to still play a part in making wearables more desirable. Like forming partnerships with Samsung to put its suite of apps onto devices like the Gear Sport, Gear Fit2 Pro and the Gear S3.
It's this software that will give Under Armour hope that while HealthBox didn't work out, this isn't necessarily the end of its wearable tech journey. This is a company that knows a whole lot about making apparel and sports shoes, and I would not be at all surprised if UA still has designs on building the ultimate smart running shoe or smart garment, ready to prove that the hard work that went into HealthBox was not a waste of time.
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