RunKeeper's iPhone app lets you broadcast your morning run to a live audience

Running can be a lonely endeavor without a running mate to push you further. But what if you knew you had a live audience? RunKeeper, which offers an iPhone app that lets you track your distance, time, elevation, pace, and path on a map, has now updated its app to let others watch your progress, live, online.

Called RunKeeper Live, the new service works like this: A user starts logging a run on the iPhone and the progress is updated in real-time on a website (the service uses Google Maps to map your path). As a user, you can define what information about your run is viewable as well as who can view it. So you can limit access to your friends and show them, say, your time and distance, but not the path you’re taking. Your personal trainer could follow your progress on the website; or family members could use it to see that you’re safe. You can also share the information activities on sites such as Facebook or Twitter.

“If you know your activity will be shared automatically when you finish, it pushes you to go faster and further because you know people will be watching,” says RunKeeper founder Jason Jacobs, himself a runner.

The service is one of a growing number of iPhone and iPod apps using GPS for health and fitness.

Now 33, Jacobs was training for the Chicago Marathon in 2007 (best marathon time: 3 hours 41 minutes; best time on a marathon in a giant iPhone suit: 3 hours 55 minutes) and was frustrated by the products available for tracking his progress. After a few months of development on nights and weekends, Jacobs quit his day job and launched RunKeeper, determined to “nail it” as far as running is concerned. And, he says, RunKeeper Live is doing just that.

“If you are running a race, I could go to a web browser on my computer or on my phone and see where you are on the course. It wouldn’t be a far stretch to imagine several other people live on the same map, in the same race, for example,” Jacobs explains in an e-mail.

The social aspects of RunKeeper should bring a dedicated customer base to the product, as people who share a hobby such as running or biking tend to create a strong sense of community. But is that demographic enough, given that RunKeeper faces tough competition from companies like the Finnish Polar and Suunto—not to mention the popular iPod/Nike sport kit, where a sensor in the user’s shoe transmits data wirelessly to the iPod?

RunKeeper Activity Data“Initially our addressable market is iPhone-owning runners. Soon, it will be all runners. We will expand to provide solutions for cyclists, skiers, hikers, walkers, etc. Our competitors are devices like Garmin and the Nike chip. But our big picture is less about an app or device, more about the system that integrates with multiple apps and devices that let users collect their fitness data. A few solutions do parts of this for hardcore fitness enthusiasts, but we are looking to bring similar value to the mainstream,” says Jacobs.

RunKeeper is distributed via the iPhone App Store for now. (It will soon launch the application for another mobile platform it hasn’t disclosed yet, although you can probably guess.)

“In terms of other devices, the plan is to integrate with several additional, non-phone devices and data types as we grow. We already integrate with certain Polar heart rate monitors. We’ve also announced a partnership with Withings [a French company that makes a Wi-Fi body scale]”, says Jacobs. He adds that RunKeeper is interested in any data that helps form a picture of a user’s health and wellness.

The Boston-based company runs lean, with only four full-time employees. It pulled in $400,000 in seed funding in November 2009. The team’s background is varied: Jacobs comes from enterprise software and most recently worked with executive search, finding CEOs for venture capitalists to lead companies they were investing in. One member of the team comes from a web technology and music background, and the other two have backgrounds in military and defense. Which brings to mind the other possible application of RunKeeper’s tracking system: surveillance.

The real-time tracking system could conceivably be used to track down people for other purposes than running. Right now, a spouse can use the system to see if the runner is all right, but also track whether he or she really went running or snuck off somewhere else instead.

“As with any new capability like live tracking, it raises new questions around privacy,” says Jacobs. “But as long as users can control their own privacy settings, everyone’s individual privacy needs should be met. We let users decide if they want to make their activities public or keep them private. Users always have these options and control. Over time, there will be more privacy and customization options”, Jacobs explains.

RunKeeper offers ‘free’ and ‘pro’ versions of the app. The free version is ad-supported and the pro version costs $9.99 at the App Store. The company plans to roll out other premium services later. Currently the company offers RunKeeper Live and FitnessReports, an analytics service, as part of a bundled monthly subscription on the web.

Here’s a demo of RunKeeper Live.

[This story is part of a weekly series on location-based services, written by VentureBeat's JP Manninen. If you have an idea for a story you would like to see in this series, drop a line at jp@venturebeat.com]

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