Running App RunKeeper Pro Looks Beyond Running & Apps

RunKeeper Pro was one of the top 10 grossing iPhone fitness apps of 2010 when the company tried something new for the new year. It dropped its $9.99 price tag for the month of January, then made it permanently free last week. The decision made RunKeeper another high-profile app to adopt the freemium model, but it signals a bigger shift for the company as it moves beyond its roots as a running app and branches out to a wider audience across a multitude of devices.

I talked with FitnessKeeper CEO and founder Jason Jacobs, who said the Boston company is becoming more of a fitness system and platform that reaches across more devices and attracts users beyond the hardcore running set. The company has a packed year ahead as it releases an API, improves and broadens its experience and looks to tackle other non-running activities.

The key for RunKeeper’s ambitions has been opening up the audience of the service. That’s why the company went free, to appeal to users who didn’t buy the app. The move has paid off handsomely. Jacobs said RunKeeper is poised to hit 5 million users this month, compared to 2 million at the start of the year. After a big spike of one million downloads in the first week of January, new users are still up five times since going free. Interestingly, RunKeeper’s premium $20-a-year Elite service has also seen a three-fold increase in purchases, though Jacobs said, overall, the company is seeing less immediate revenue than prior to the switch.

The company is now looking to broaden the number of devices that can connect to RunKeeper online. It supports iPhone (s aapl) and Android (s goog) apps, heart monitors, scales and watches. But with a new API due out in the first part of this year, RunKeeper is hoping to create a constellation of sensors that can record user data and plug back into the online system.

“We’re still putting the core foundational blocks in place,” Jacobs said. “We’ve always been this system and the mobile app is one sensor in this system.”

RunKeeper is looking at building out its experience for users, with better analytics, charts and graphs; more robust social community features and game mechanics; and an improved coaching system that will eventually adapt to users as they improve. There will also be ways for RunKeeper users to track and broadcast their progress in big races. Over time, the different features will also be more integrated. The goal is to keep surprising users with free content, said Jacobs.

But beyond running, Jacobs’ RunKeeper is looking to let people track a wider number of activities, not just runs. Users will be able to input more info on swimming or weight lifting, their sleeping habits and the kinds of food they’re eating. It’s the first step to being a more global fitness system, though Jacobs said it still starts with running.

“This year is about taking this big, engaged community and giving more people the ability to participate in the system,” Jacobs said. “We’re giving a more holistic view of their health and really refining the virtual service that resides on the system.”

RunKeeper is a great example of an app innovating both on the development side and the business side. The company is already leveraging location well in tracking a user’s running routes and is riding the wave of connected devices to build out its ecosystem. The future isn’t about one device communicating with one application; it’s about the Internet of Things (subscription required) communicating and creating a web of inputs and sensors. The company is also hitting its stride in an important area of mobile health, which is evolving rapidly to take advantage of the advances in smartphones, tablets and other portable devices.

I’m excited to see RunKeeper finding success with the switch to freemium. It takes a lot to ditch a perfectly good business model, but RunKeeper sees bigger revenues ahead. With freemium, it not only greatly expands RunKeeper’s universe of users but it generates more stable and potentially bigger revenues through its Elite premium subscriptions instead of relying on one-time downloads. RunKeeper has been a popular fitness app with lots of appeal with runners, but it’s proving it’s got the chops to be a great app success story overall.

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