Switched On: Baby steps toward intelligent apparel

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|06.01.06

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Switched On: Baby steps toward intelligent apparel
Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

For years, futurists have considered a world in which nearly everything one touches or even wears is intelligent and connected. With such a vision in mind, it's easy to poke small holes – eyelets, if you will – around the Nike-Apple "iPed" system announced last week; neither company jumps into partnerships very often. The system that the hardware and footwear giants trotted out works with only one form factor of iPod, albeit Apple's most popular and one that is well-suited to running.

The dock-connector receiver that picks up the sensor's signal protrudes from the nano and may cause problems for some carrying cases. In addition, the NikePlus online service, while slick, has no integration with dotMac, Apple's set of online services that have been a sleeper story since all the online excitement around the iTunes Music Store surfaced. And, finally, the "PowerSong" feature sounds like the kind of device that has magically reinvigorates cartoons, like spinach for Popeye, clapping for Tinkerbell or breakups for Nick Lachey. Indeed, the partnership will probably do little to move the needle of Apple's iPod market share in the short run. Most runners who have been in the market for an MP3 player probably purchased an iPod anyway, and competition for real-time data tracking as it exists in Garmin's Forerunner GPS watch is a relatively small market for now.

While the partnership will translate into more differentiation for Nike (I can see the rise of the show-modders now, cutting holes in their Dr. Scholl's to order to accept the Sports Pack transmitter), both companies suggest that these are the early days of a longer-term collaboration. Perhaps the next component will be a power fork. Dip it into a serving of mashed potatoes and it signals your iPod to play the verse of Old McDonald that describes an oink-oink here and an oink-oink there.

In any case, the Nike+Apple system demonstrates how popular electronics products can be inexpensively accessorized to enhance their functionality, particularly when there isn't a complicating factor involved such as a cellular business model. While the Moire sneaker shown at the launch event sells for $100, Nike representatives noted that sneakers starting at $85 will be able to accommodate the transmitter. The Web presence will even help connect Nike shoe customers across the country – a rare if unprecedented phenomenon for an apparel product – and may even open up new avenues for direct communication with its customer base.

For Apple, the short term offers exposure to more iTunes music sales, but the iPod now continues on its race toward becoming a universal mobile data and media repository ahead of the cell phone. The once exclusively music-focused device that resisted video for years now gains the ability to wireless add a new kind of data from the physical world, providing a solution that is years ahead of mainstream intelligent clothing. If it never goes further than this, though, then at least the iPod had a good run.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.

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