Nike’s most-advanced kicks have been turning into bricks. Blame the internet. Last month, Nike began selling shoes that lace themselves, much like Marty McFly’s sneakers in “Back to the Future 2.” The $350 Adapt BB shoes wirelessly connect to a phone to tighten and loosen with an app.
Then a dream from 1989 met the exhausting reality of 2019. Fresh out of the box, Nike’s connected shoes recommended a software update — which broke some. More than an embarrassment, it exposed a truth that bears repeating about the future of all sorts of products: When something connects to the Internet, you’re not in control of it.
Mike, a sneaker collector in Virginia, told me his expensive shoes were suddenly no longer even useful as ... shoes. The software update via his Android phone corrupted the “lace engine” so the sneaker couldn’t tighten — even with manual buttons.
“The whole thing is surreal,” said Mike, who spoke on the condition of not using his last name because he’s in the shoe-reselling business and feared retribution.
Nike says the problem affected a small number of customers, though its app has a 2.4-star rating in Google’s Play store.
The self-lacing shoes are hardly the first “smart” thing to turn dumb. We’ve seen Nest thermostats freeze out owners and Teslas that won’t drive after an over-the-air update, a phenomenon called “bricking.”
Nike says it has fixed its shoes, but we can learn a few things about staying in control from how it bricked them in the first place.
What really is a connected shoe — or smart speaker, thermostat or other connected thing? It’s a way for a company to stay in your life. Before you bring one home, it’s best to ask if they’re truly relationship material.
Of course, the manufacturers don’t present it that way. Nike says the power-lacing tech in the Adapt BB sneakers allows the shoe’s fit to adjust to athletes’ changing needs. A cable tightens the shoes when you press a button or tap on a smartphone app.
I don’t recall the shoes in “Back to the Future 2” using an app to operate. Nike’s app lets you dial in a precise fit and personalize buttons.
But it’s planning for more: Inside the shoes, there’s an accelerometer, gyroscope, capacitive and temperature sensor that could be unlocked with software updates to collect information about your steps, performance or ... who knows.
Executives talked about the Adapt BB as an “intelligent product” or even a communications device. (Remember, this is a shoe.)
Staying in our lives after a purchase gives a manufacturer new opportunities to make money, be it from our data, advertising, in-app purchases or services.
But there’s trust in that relationship that has to be earned, and can be easily ruined by putting features ahead of privacy, simplicity and reliability. My least-favorite example is printer makers that got caught issuing updates that make it harder to use cheap, unauthorized ink.
Nike, which has had fits and starts with connected products including the Nike+ footpod and Fuelband that it no longer supports, missed a few trust elements. For one, these sneakers have physical buttons, but they still require working software and power to operate.
While software mishaps happen to every company, Nike really messed up. There are many different phone models, and in its testing Nike didn’t realize some couldn’t maintain a Bluetooth connection well enough to apply a software update.