COMMENTARY--Once upon a time, the Internet was supposed to make our technical products better. Buzzwords like 'community' meant tapping into a user base of others just like you, while the browser itself was to be your gateway to a world of applications you never had to install on your hard drive. The products meanwhile would be smaller and smarter and thanks to this online/offline melding, product usefulness would shoot through the roof. Problem was, no one really got us there.
And then I found SportBrain.com.
Let's start with the fact that like most writers, I'm no stranger to sitting motionless and typing all day. Sports gadgetry has been an unappealing foreign concept to me, and I'm not the type to prance around desperately trying to clock my optimum heart rate. But SportBrain changed all that.
Each day I clip this little device to my waistband and forget about it. All day long it captures a surprising amount of information about me. How far I walk, how fast, how many calories I burn, my peak activity times and on and on. And unlike fitness software that has you entering page after page of data and feeling daunted when you get behind, SportBrain builds all the charts and graphics without my lifting a finger. I can tell you how many miles I walked on January 15th with three mouse clicks.
Just add Internet and mix
The real innovation comes when you add the Internet. Instead of using installed software to tell you about your activity, SportBrain in an all-online product. You simply go to SportBrain.com, create a user name and password, and then enter in the serial number of your SportBrain. No software installation, no disc to keep track of, and all updates happen on their end without your downloading a thing. To get your data online, you pop the SportBrain in the "SportPort", which then dials up the sportbrain.com server, uploads your information to your page and then disconnects. The whole upload process takes about 2 minutes and does not require a computer--you can keep the SportPort by any phone jack.
From that moment on though, your info is ready to be accessed from any place you find a browser. You can log in from work and browse you past day's data, or check in from a loaner PC while traveling. The SportPort is also generic, so you can upload your data from any port you may find while traveling, in gyms, at a friend's house, etc.
But the real magic happens when you login. Like a large odometer, the main screen shows you how many steps you did that day and the day before. There are bar charts showing you how close you came to your goal (my goal is 10,000 steps, or 5 miles a day) and that simple daily summary is instant and unexpected motivation. I found myself devastated when I found I did 9,973 steps. Within a week, I was walking around the block to make sure I hit my numbers.
For people who are not scary Type A's like me, there is also a rewards program that lets you win points for the number of steps you average. Win enough points and you can qualify for more SportBrain accessories, and discounts on sports gear.
The power of motivation
Exercise experts like to point out that motivation is the difference between someone who exercises regularly and someone who finds excuses not to. The genius of SportBrain is that it took a simple concept--the total number of steps you take each day--and made that the basis for motivation. Whether you run or limp along, the software literally has the power to move you forward.
Last but not least, the data is always charted against what other SportBrain users in your age group are doing. When I was regularly a good 20 percent more active than the gals in my age group, I felt downright sporty. Go figure. Bottom line: keeping track of your activity level leads to more activity, but to do that you need a smart gadget. SportBrain wins my approval because it beautifully incorporates the freedom of the Web browser, the data of a group of similar users, and the power of a non-obtrusive gadget you can wear and forget. This one got it right, and it's even good for you.
Alice Hill was the vice president of development and editorial director for CNET and is EVP of Cornerhardware.com. She covers technology every other week for ZDNet News, pondering everything from the wireless Web to why geeks love motor scooters and the twillight of the LCD display. She welcomes your comments and e-mails.