iPhone App RunKeeper: Nice, Just Not Necessary

While Apple’s television ads show off brawny and multilingual applications for the iPhone, the vast majority of those available in the much-ballyhooed app store seem to be glorified four-function calculators. Of course, just as the modern computer emerged from the simple electronic adding machine, many of these apps hold the potential to grow into something impressive. But when?

This puts the app buyer in a tough spot — who’s going to shell out real money for something that doesn’t do much now but perhaps, down the line, could evolve into a killer app? On the flip side, what’s an app developer to do? Risk losing market share by taking time to create a truly robust application or rush something out the door and fix it on the fly?

These thoughts came to me when I was testing out a potentially very cool app today called RunKeeper. The app uses the GPS in your phone to track how far and fast you’ve traveled on your run, bike ride or journey to your local Starbucks. The app works fine, collecting GPS data many times a minute and displaying your run time and speed in a bar graph as well as a map. But $9.99 is lot to ask for something I could do with a cheap digital watch and GMap pedometer for free.

FitnessKeeper, the startup that makes RunKeeper, says they’re adding a number of features their forum members have been suggesting. Founder Jason Jacobs explained their strategy as such: “Instead of sitting in a vacuum and developing a laundry list of features we’re not sure people would use, we’d rather get a product out early and be very nimble and really grow with our community.” But with a price tag of ten bucks, it’s an expensive app that doesn’t offer a huge amount of functionality yet.

It been less than two months since the app store went live, and I’ve downloaded scores of app updates, but no updates have yet offered serious upgrades. App developers will have to show that they are dedicated to keeping their offerings fresh if they expect users to pay up front.

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