For the past few months, I’ve done something which is dorky even by my own dorky standards: I’ve often gone out in public with two wearable devices on my wrist. One has been a smartwatch of some sort. (At the moment, it’s Motorola’s Moto 360.) The other has usually been Jawbone’s Up 24 fitness band.
Here’s why: Overall, the Up app, which works only with Jawbone’s hardware, is the richest, cleverest one I’ve found for counting steps, monitoring sleep, and logging information about what I eat. But the slinky little Up band isn’t a full-blown smartwatch, so it’s not the only wearable a gadget freak will ever need.
Starting soon Jawbone is going to open up its excellent iOS and Android apps to support everybody else’s hardware. A Jawbone spokesperson confirmed to me that the company plans to announce its decision tomorrow, when Apple will be announcing its wearable device.
The timing presumably isn’t coincidental. But Jawbone isn’t just planning to make the new Up apps work with Apple’s wearable gizmo. They’ll support Android Wear watches, longtime Up archrival Fitbit, and other major devices–and, thanks to motion-sensing capabilities in current smartphones, will work even if you don’t have a wearable at all.
The company isn’t exiting the fitness hardware business. It’s continuing to work on next-generation devices. (Its acquisition last year of pioneering fitness hardware firm BodyMedia gives it access to sophisticated technologies beyond anything in the current Up bands.) But by opening up its app, Jawbone is creating a scenario where it might reach vast numbers of new consumers, without having to compete head-to-head with Apple or anyone else. Which means that the iWatch being a blockbuster could be good news for the company rather than an existential threat to its fitness business.
The arrival of Apple’s wearable isn’t the only potentially game-changing development coming out of Apple’s big product launch for companies such as Jawbone. HealthKit, Apple’s platform for health and fitness data, is about to arrive. It’ll make it easier for Jawbone and others to get fitness information in and out of their own systems, and will presumably allow them to connect with the data which Apple’s own device collects. If HealthKit catches on, the whole idea of a piece of fitness hardware being tied to one device might start to feel obsolete.
Until now, Jawbone’s business model for Up has been pretty straightforward: Sell hardware, make money. The company thinks that opening up the app could help it move more devices in the long run, since it can market Up bands to a larger user base. (Currently, you can’t use the app at all until you’ve already bought a band.) If the community of fitness buffs who use the Up app grows exponentially, Jawbone can presumably figure out ways to monetize it: in-app advertising, maybe, or paid content.
If I were a honcho at Jawbone or Fitbit or Pebble or any of the other startups which have made inroads in the wearable technology market to date, I’d be edgy and fretful at the moment. Apple’s entry into the business is likely to change it in ways that nobody yet understands; in the past, it’s often turned successful products into roadkill, from the Diamond Rio MP3 player to the BlackBerry. But Jawbone’s revised strategy seems like a reasonable way to brace itself for whatever’s ahead. And for fans of the Up app who don’t want to be wed to one company’s hardware, it’s good news.