Essays on Technology and Culture

The Miserable State of Fitness Tracking on iOS

It hasn’t been a month since I wrote up my iPhone fitness tracking setup, and it’s already been thrown into disarray. I don’t even have my Apple Watch yet. Back in late April, when I wrote about the apps I use to track my food and exercise, I had a system that was working fine. Then, Jawbone made changes to their API, things started breaking, step data stopped ending up where it should, and I decided it was time to throw it all out and start over. It also didn’t help that the clip for my Jawbone UP Move had deformed after four months of use. Frustrating.

There’s two main problems with the state of fitness tracking on iOS, at least if you’re relying on third-party hardware and software. The first is that most applications do not use HealthKit effectively, if at all. I know HealthKit has had its fair share of flaws and problems since its release, but they’ve largely been ironed out. There’s no good reason for a fitness tracking app, like Jawbone or FitBit, to not read and write as much data as they have to HealthKit. In the case of Jawbone, their app can only read and write step and sleep tracking, but in their API, they expose a ton of useful data. This includes walking distance, active calories, and BMI. I used a third-party app to sync this data with HealthKit—the need for which indicates that someone on Jawbone’s software team is falling down on the job—but that also broke with the API change.

This means that the picture of my health that I was trying to formulate is now fractured. And it leads into the second problem with Fitness Tracking on iOS: the companies that make many fitness tracking products want to silo the data we feed them. FitBit is probably the worst offender, without making even a token gesture towards interoperability with the iOS fitness ecosystem, but other products have similar degrees of lockdown. It’s easier, I suppose, to build a business on data if you’re keeping the juiciest bits for yourself, but I thought these companies were in the business of selling gizmos, not my data. And that’s not even getting into the problem of apps that use the iPhone’s internal CoreMotion data for step counting instead of what’s in HealthKit, a problem I’ve chatted about with Jamie Phelps quite a bit on Twitter.

Elsewhere on iOS, several apps that track food, Lose It! and Lifesum come to mind, even have the audacity to lock fitness tracker integration to their premium, paid memberships. A decent, standalone tracker like the Jawbone UP, costs about $50, while a year of premium membership to these food tracking apps costs about the same. Suddenly, you’re paying $100 to see data that you’re generating and pipe it into another app full of data that you’re generating. This just seems unfair to me. I don’t begrudge food tracking apps and companies adding premium tiers—they gotta make money somehow. I just bristle at the idea of locking tracker integration behind that wall. Fortunately, my food tracking app of choice, MyFitnessPal, has kept tracker integration free. If only it still worked with my Jawbone UP…

The only way to stay sane is to stay first party, as much as possible. So, I’ve tossed my Jawbone aside, and am now using my iPhone as a fitness tracker, until my Apple Watch shows up sometime in the next five to eight weeks. Inconvenient, but it looks like enough bugs are ironed out of HealthKit that i don’t think it’ll start losing my steps again. I have a few apps I’m using to pick up the slack of what Jawbone did: Pillow for sleep tracking, Caffiend for caffeine tracking, FitPort for quick visualization and an app called QS Access to let me pull my data out of HealthKit for… some future endeavor.

Which is the one thing I miss about having a service like Jawbone. I recently started using an IFTTT recipe and a script to get my daily activity data and save it into Day One. Now, there’s no sane way to get that data out of HealthKit and into Day One, or any other app, at least not yet. That’s the most frustrating part: I’ve given up putting my health data into one silo, only to start putting it into a different silo. The new one is (hopefully) less leaky, but it also means there’s fewer ways to get that data back out. This is my data. I’m creating it, and I’m using it to improve my health. I should control of it, not Jawbone, not UnderArmour, not even Apple.