Apple announced a special edition of its Apple Watch—the Apple Watch Nike+—today, and it might be Nike's reward for exiting the fitness wearable business just as Apple was preparing to enter it.
It’s become quite clear that Apple believes the way to the next 20 million Watch sales might be through fitness use cases. The Apple Watch Nike+ offers a different set of sweat-resistant fluoroelastomer bands, which have rows of brightly colored perforations to release heat. It also has run-tracking functionality that's far more advanced than the ones in the Watch’s regular Exercise app.
So the new partnership with Nike on a co-branded Apple Watch makes sense. But there might be another reason for the existence of the co-branded device.
Beginning in 2012 Nike produced the FuelBand, a product that many see as the pioneer in the fitness wearable space. With FuelBand, Nike pioneered that idea of getting points (Fuel Points) for workouts and comparing them with friends. My colleague Harry McCracken remembers this as being an impressive device. Apple CEO Tim Cook wore one.
Then, just when Apple was getting ready to launch the first Apple Watch, Nike suddenly discontinued the further development of FuelBand. Nike fired its whole wearable hardware team, and some of them went to work for Apple, including Apple rising star Jay Blahnik.
Nike and Apple have a long history working together, and Nike may have ceded the fitness wearable business to Apple with the agreement that Nike could put its software on the future Watch.
If such an agreement was struck, Nike got its payoff today. A full co-branded Apple Watch pushes Nike into a different category than just another third-party app partner. In some ways the Apple Watch Nike+ may represent the fruition of Nike's vision for the FuelBand.