Category Archives: dongles

Nike’s GPS watch and the new age of dongles

This is more than a Nike+ SportsWatch with GPS that allows you to track your runs without using an Apple iPod. It’s proof that we’re entering an age of dongles.

A dongle is technology key, usually a bit of hardware that forces you to use a certain software or operating system. Own an iPod? That gadget locks you to the Apple iTunes store. Dongles started back in the 1980s when software makers would set up unique connection pins so their software could only get power or data if you used the gadget. Today, falling tech prices have led the big content portals to build their own dongles: Droid phones with hot keys for Google search; Barnes and Noble Nooks that sell B&N books; the Amazon Kindle … the list goes on.

Consumers typically put up with dongles because the value of the content they are connected to seems worth it. You probably never think that your iPod constricts you to only Apple-sold music and videos, because the library is so big it feels like freedom, but you’re really in chains.

Now, however, with chip and screen pricing continuing to plummet, niche businesses can build their own dongles. Nike+, an online running log and social community, has relied on Apple iPod dongles since it launched in May 2006, back when devices that only played music were $150 and it took scale to get to market with tech. Today, dolls have cameras and Android tablets that act as microcomputers can be had for $200. So dongles are proliferating. LENA, for instance, is a gizmo that attaches to a baby’s clothing; it listens to all the words spoken to the child over the course of a day, parses male voices from female’s, and then uploads the data into a software program that tells the mom and dad whether they are speaking enough to their child — a Nike+ for language development.

Are tethers good business?

The obvious question is what portals are these new gadgets locking us into? But the deeper query is whether dongles are a sound strategy for marketers. Sure, it’s tempting to want to add technology to your service to lock your users into your proprietary system. Nike is obviously doing this; the new watch is much clunkier than the old Apple-powered ones, which are as of this writing conveniently out of stock. But as more businesses build walls to hold customers, consumers may rebel as they lose the ability to share across platforms. The corporate desire to tie a customer down is diametrically opposed to the human need to connect.

We’ll see how it plays out with Nike on the road.