Jawbone and the Future of QS

05 November 2014

A few days ago Jawbone announced a new revision of their activity tracker called the UP. This one is called the UP3 and as you can probably imagine, it’s their third generation device. I used their second generation device - the UP24 - for a number of months while studying the culture of Quantified Self (at this point linked enough times that I’ll just say “google it” if you want to read it), and I think that from that perspective I have some insight into the sorts of things they need to do to remain true to their QS roots, gain some budding self-quantifiers, and win precious wrist-space from new and old competitors.

I’m going to try to make my post answer the following questions in order:

  • Who are the competitors?
  • What do they offer?
  • What does Jawbone need to offer?

Let’s get started.

Who are the competitors?

The thesis of this section is essentially that Jawbone can’t afford to mess around like it used to be able to given the competition it faces today. If you agree with this contention but don’t care much either way, you can skip to the next section. If you’re not sold, feel free to read on. If you’re in passionate agreement with me on this, then maybe you’ll enjoy reading about how right you are. I dunno.

Things have heated up a little bit since I wrote my QS thesis, but it’s been quantitative rather than qualitative (I’m so, so sorry). When I was doing my fieldwork, Fitbit, Nike, and Jawbone represented the major players. With the exception of Jawbone’s devices (the UP and the UP24), virtually all of these companies’ wristbands offered some sort of face display, but otherwise their features were mostly the same. If I remember correctly, only Jawbone’s UP/24 offered fine-grained sleep tracking, which was why I went with it at the time.

Things have changed since then. Fitbit has more robust wristbands like the Surge coming out “soon” (as of this writing), Apple’s Watch is slated for - er, well, “soon” as well, Microsoft has announced (and, shockingly, already started shipping) their Band, and Samsung has their Gear (and assorted products) cluttering the market, bless their souls. Just for shits and giggles, we should also include Google/Motorola’s Moto 360, which is admittedly gorgeous but right at the outer limit of what I would call an “activity tracker”. Still, it’s a viable candidate for “things that go on your wrist”, and I doubt more than 2% of the population will ever even consider wearing two smart items on their wrist, so if it’s the Moto 360 then it sure as heck won’t be next to a Jawbone or anything else.

Oh, and Will.I.Am has the Puls (also not an activity tracker per se, but damn near everything else as it seems to make calls without a phone connected to it). I really hope that someday we look back and acknowledge how ridiculous things were getting right around now.

So Jawbone is not in a three-way duel or even a two-way duel (as was effectively the case) anymore. Fitbit has gained in popularity, shipping some 60% of the fitness trackers in 2013, and general-purpose heavyweights like Samsung, Microsoft, Apple, and Google threaten to acquire or otherwise eclipse the landscape. I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that Microsoft has cavalierly hemorrhaged more money than Jawbone is even worth. If it came down to it, any of the heavyweights could hold their breath and keep flooding the market just for the purpose of achieving marketshare. I think the only thing preventing them from doing it (aside from poor business sense, and the fact that I think Samsung maybe is doing it), is the fact that the other major players would get into a war of attrition if they started saturating the market with self-cannibalizing devices. Each needs to come up with one - maybe two - good candidates and lead with them. Apple has done it, Microsoft seems to be doing it, even Google is putting its weight behind only a small handful of Samsung and Motorola devices (although the nature of their role in Android prevents them from doing anything but tacitly accepting Samsung’s spray’n’pray approach).

What do these competitors offer?

Broadly speaking, wristband devices these days are focusing on extending the use case supported by smartphones. To be more concrete, they’re giving you very immediate access to things you might do on your phone (checking time and messages, maybe writing a very quick reply, etc.). In addition to these functions, a lot of these devices are taking to tracking your motion, heart rate, and other quantifiable details. I genuinely believe that this data will soon become a core aspect of the lives of people affluent enough to own smartphones and these wristband devices. Whether it benefits less affluent people remains to be seen, and I can see it going in practically any direction (BP has been testing this idea of tracking its employees’ activity to lower health care premiums and get them to lose weight; that’s great, but gets into a more complex form of Taylorism or Panopticon stuff that I think people should be wary of, and this is pretending that government bodies take no interest in the living quantitative data that their citizens are generating).

I digress. The point is that somewhat clear broader functions emerge when you consider the smart watch and activity tracker market in larger scope:

  • tracking activity (including, in some cases, sleep)
  • nutrition and health tracking (with dubious results thus far)
  • extending smartphone functionality (displaying notifications and other data)
  • contextual computing

There are a few aspects of these functions that need to be sorted out before I think consumers in general will really latch on to these use cases, but these seem to be the primary ways that companies want consumers to use smart wrist devices these days. I’ll get into the solutions in the next major section.

So what does Jawbone offer?

Not much, to be honest. Jawbone tracks activity - and does it quite well, actually - but it doesn’t accomplish nutrition or health tracking at all (not even heart rate measurements, which these days doesn’t seem that hard to incorporate into a device that’s constantly touching your skin). With no screen, Jawbone devices have trouble extending smartphone functionality (although it’s not impossible, which I’ll discuss later). The Jawbone does contextual computing in a loose sense, which is rather cool, in that it will wake you up at the optimal time given the indications your body has made toward what sleep cycle you’re in. So if you’re about to head into deep sleep but you need to wake up in 20 minutes, Jawbone will wake you up “early” - rather than late - to ensure that you awaken refreshed, having not been jerked out of deep sleep (which we now know largely causes grogginess).

What does Jawbone need to offer?

Jawbone doesn’t need to hit every single point above, and my impression is that at this point that would be damn near impossible. Without breaking apart their UP3 band (to which I don’t even have access yet :), I can imagine that they’ve more or less smashed everything into that space that they possibly can. Barring some limited trade-offs, I’m assuming that the hardware design they’ve come up with is set in stone. Or Silicon.

That being said, there are simply use cases that they could design into the device to start encroaching on devices like the Apple Watch, Samsung Gear, and others. Let’s consider them:

Tracking activity

Jawbone is good here. Really. They do a great job tracking activity with the exception of bicycling and swimming, and with the UP3’s announcement it seems that both will be trackable in the near future with this revised hardware. I ride a bike a lot, so this is personally exciting news as well.

Nutrition and health tracking

This is trickier. Tracking nutrition is basically not going to happen in the hardware. It’s medically impossible, so on the bright side Jawbone, Apple, and others actually don’t need to worry about some company (like Healbe) coming along and “beating them to the punch”, since there’s no punch. Anyone who claims that they can figure out what you ate - or even the constituent nutrients - from your galvanic skin response or from something else essentially limited to accessing the exterior of your wrist is lying to you. It’d be nice if it were true, but it’d be nice if we could eliminate world hunger. Actually, that might be more practical.

That being said, health tracking is certainly doable. Tracking sleep, heart rate, and other superficial criteria of human health is easy, and the UP3 is finally bringing all of this to the table. They need to leverage it, and they’re trying to do that with their coaching app/software, but I don’t think Jawbone should waste its time in software. Software engineering is cheaper than hardware engineering, but it’s profoundly entrenched and there’s really no need to risk that being a failure point that causes people to stop using Jawbone devices. Instead, they should make that data open access. More on this in a bit.

Extending smartphone functionality

Here’s the trickiest part of Jawbone’s problem. See, they’ve focused on not building screens into their devices, which is their call to make, but it means that they’re fundamentally limited compared even to years-old devices like the Nike FuelBand, which has a crummy but technically usable LED display. With no display, users can’t see notifications or interact even superficially without bringing their phones back out.

All’s not lost though. Jawbone UP devices use a very small motor to notify the wearer of all sorts of things, ranging from wake-up time to mode changes to idleness warnings. While this would dramatically impact battery life, Jawbone could open the connection to their wristbands so that very important notifications (perhaps only from trusted apps and services) could feed into the wristband and cause it to vibrate briefly. This gentle nudge would be all most people need to know that the notification is worth checking, and it would provide more nuanced control over notifications than “LOUD”, “vibrate”, and “Do Not Disturb”.

There’s a lot that could go wrong here. For one thing, app makers could get permission from Jawbone and then go muck it up by spamming their users with notifications. I don’t know what viable processes would support approval-revocation, but if nothing comes to mind Jawbone could just mediate the relationship non-stop. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it would allow them to retain ultimate control over the device and the data it produces (because let’s face it, they want that data just like everyone else).

Contextual computing

This is somewhat similar to the previous point. As you enter and exit spaces, do and fail to do certain things, etc. you could get prompted on your wristband to check your phone and see what tip or advice someone has for you (whether that’s Jawbone or some other service).

Open access to data

Here’s the crucial thing: the smart wristband device market is shaping up to get very competitive, and the best thing Jawbone can do, in my opinion, is to make the device well, continue to support a basic app leveraging some or most of that data, and then provide developers with an API to access the device and collect data at whatever granularity the developer chooses. This would finally allow Jawbone to focus its energy on making wristbands, just making sure that they do the bare minimum by tying into major health tracking services and apps like Apple’s Health and Google’s Fit.

If nothing else, Jawbone ought to provide more fine-grain data to developers, requiring them to get permission from their users for the nature and specificity of the data they request, if need be. What matters is that ultimately there should be some way for a concerned or otherwise interested user to get one’s own data in the fineness of granularity that Jawbone is able to get. With that in hand, users can start to piece together their own uses without any significant outlay from Jawbone to figure out what works. It’s a little simplistic just to say “oh the crowd will think of something”, but in a highly active, very conscientious community like that of self-quantifiers, it’s sufficient to hand wave that aspect away; they really will come up with a use for more granular data.

Summing up

So those are my suggestions. Jawbone should continue to lead in design (even if that means taking some funky risks, as they have done in the past) and in simply tracking activity. They should continue to extend on ambient tracking, because major players like the Apple Watch (with its “~1 day battery” life) could never compete on longevity and ambience. They should get serious about extending smartphone functionality by providing developers access to the device’s lower level functions and notifications. But most of all, Jawbone should seriously consider turning its device into a platform, opening access to its data (and maybe even allowing changes to its functionality). By doing that, they’ll turn the Jawbone UP into a whole ecosystem that appeals to the long tail of bizarre users and use cases, creating a dominant collective marketshare and hopefully ultimately gaining the marketshare of the short tail consumers as well.

Whether Jawbone has the interest or the courage to turn its device into a shell and to relinquish control over so much of its functionality and output is certainly questionable. Whether any company would ever immediately gravitate toward that position after having maintained an opposite position for any amount of time is unclear. But if Jawbone can do it, they can undercut even the big players like Apple by creating a device that works just as well for most users as an Apple Watch does, with the added benefit of potential to do even more if someone just thinks up the use and codes it up.

If you have something to say about this post, email me or tweet at me.