The Jawbone Up was slated to change the world. It was a 24/7 health tracking device unveiled well before anyone had heard of the Nike+ Fuelband. It was backed by $120 million in venture capital and crafted by one of the most routinely successful consumer electronics companies of all time.
But a mere month into its lifespan, Jawbone pulled the Up from store shelves and offered full refunds to their consumers. The impossibly graceful design couldn’t hold up to the rigors of daily use, and Up bracelets were failing at an alarming rate.
Almost a year later, Jawbone is rereleasing the Up. (You can order it right now for $129.) And while it looks exactly the same on the outside, it’s fully redesigned on the inside. Every single component was questioned, down to the construction of its capacitors. The company created its own, more rigorous electronic testing standards. And 46 weeks of field trials accumulated 3 million hours of real-world human testing.
Let’s call it round two.
We can’t pretend nothing happened in the world during those 46 weeks of field trials. With Jawbone’s svelte Up off the market, the slightly thicker, far more glowy Nike+ Fuelband captivated the market. Eyes still open wide every time I check mine in an elevator.
The Fuelband also made up for some of the Up’s shortcomings. For one, it gave LED feedback right on the device, so you always knew how close you were to your goal with the push of a button. The new Up didn’t add Bluetooth yet. The team felt, somewhat ironically given Jawbone’s lineage, that Bluetooth technology in its current form isn’t quite intuitive enough for the most luddite populations this device would reach. So to check an Up, you need to plug its 3.5mm headphone-style connector into an iOS device. Then you check your progress on the screen, meaning critical feedback becomes a once-removed experience that the new Up doesn’t fix.
The software interface has been streamlined, we’re told—addressing a complaint we had of the original app, which we compared to old-school Microsoft. We’ll be testing the software in a review to come, but its most exciting new feature is a total departure from Nike+. They’ve hired writers and data analysts to produce meaningful advice from your data. So rather than just see a number that sums up a day’s activity, you’ll be offered an actionable way to be more healthy.
An example they gave was, if you’ve been entering your meals into the app (another promising feature the Up supports that unavoidably requires some extra legwork from the user), the Up’s software will compare your activity to your caloric intake. And if you’ve eaten a lot that day, it may recommend you go for a walk after dinner. So you load the app, and right there on the home screen, you’re being told just what you should do.
"We were pushing the boundaries on hardware," Travis Bogard, Jawbone’s VP of product management, tells me. "How far we pushed it caused some of the issues we had."
Before the Up, Jawbone was not a novice to wearable computing; the sleek Bluetooth headsets that gave the company its name have been consistently well-reviewed since their introduction in 2006. But even so, Jawbone predicts that the consumer electronics industry as a whole may not be ready for the extreme wear and tear consumers will sick on the next big wave of wearable gadgets. The Jawbone Up is a true 24/7 device that tracks your activity all day and night with an accelerometer. It plays with your children and follows you into the shower. It’s naturally flexible, so people want to bend it. The Up doesn’t follow the rules of any other established gadget we know (aside from its competitors).
"When people drop their phone, they view it as, ‘I dropped my phone!’ They blame themselves," Bogard explains. "What you see for something worn on the body is, people don’t even think about it."
Jawbone’s problem, they say, was that accepted consumer electronics quality control standards didn’t scale to a device intended to be worn all day, every day. Such a standard might call for the submersion of a watch into lukewarm water to test for waterproofness. If it’s still working and its display isn’t foggy afterwards, the watch is given the green light. The original Up passed these tests, but water was still seeping into the circuits during daily wear, sometimes with contaminants, shorting out various circuitry. The Up might stop working altogether instantly, or its performance might degrade slowly, leaving users confused as to why its measurements have gone funky.
"We created a machine that we affectionately call the Big Shower 2000. It bends, flexes, shoots hot water, dirty water, blasts them with UV rays," Bogard says, "and then it does that all over again."
Their own internal product testing was coupled with what Jawbone calls "one of the largest ethnographic studies you could imagine." While they say most consumer gadgets might see eight weeks of limited field testing, theirs lasted 46 weeks, or just short of 3 million hours of beta testers living with the Up.
"Someone was playing with their kids, and something traumatic happened to the band. It ends up, the child had simply grabbed the band in a strange way," Bogard says. "Or someone bumps into you and spills Jack Daniels all over you—one of our tests became seeing how the Up reacted to Jack Daniels."
It might sound absurd, but it’s these countless, seemingly minor, wholly unexpected scenarios Jawbone had to design around. Ultimately, they made a few big changes. They didn’t want to alter the band’s aesthetics in any way—they knew people liked the form factor, and they wanted to keep it soft—but they did develop new molding processes that built a bunker-like protective layer around the internal circuitry. Jawbone also redistributed electronics to make the internal band more flexible, and they finished the band with a bonding agent that would reduce its friction against clothing, with hopes of preventing stray snags that might jerk the band in an odd way.
That’s the Rocky montage of the improvements, but it was ultimately "hundreds and hundreds of different designs, each being tested one by one" that evolved the Up into what’s returning to store shelves today. That’s hundreds and hundreds of different designs that the end user will never see, that can’t be slapped on a box as a selling feature, and that very few small companies could ever afford to do. But in the end, the Up may go down in history as one of the first wearable devices that just works (the second time around, at least).
"Knowing what we’ve gone through and what we’ve learned, I don’t know how you could build a wearable product without getting to the real world and seeing how people live in their natural environment," Bogard says. Are you listening, wearable computing startups? Start saving for those user-testing hours now.
Strategically, Jawbone’s problem now seems to be that the Fuelband has the usability start. It wirelessly syncs to phones. It has goal feedback right on the device. It’s bigger, sure, but it’s not too big, and that design has become a fashion statement all its own. The Up has solidified its 2011 feature set, sure, but now it’s almost 2013.
So is it too late for Jawbone to make a comeback? Not at all. Health and wellness is a huge sector. Wearable electronics is another huge sector. Combined, there’s enough action for more than one company to be successful, and no doubt, when insurance companies and doctors offices inevitably get involved, the whole market will go nuts. Truth be told, you might not have to win this fight to walk away a winner.