The Convenience Product (Problem?)
I've talked before about Designing for Convenience, referencing the Pebble smartwatch in particular as a convenience item. Then, a couple days ago, I found out about Jibo, another crowdfunded tech product that is also an item of convenience rather than necessity. Even though its developer editions won't be released for over a year from funding, I predict the evolution of this product will be very similar to how Pebble has grown in the market since its release over a year and a half ago.
First, tech items of convenience. I knew from the moment I saw the Kickstarter video for Pebble that it would be an awesome companion to my smartphone and offer some great conveniences to my everyday life. It is not a device I need to communicate, travel, or stay productive day-to-day, like my smartphone; it offers me shortcuts for controlling the music on my phone, glance-able notifications, and a few other simple functions like alarms or step counters. While I feel a little weird when I leave the house without it, I can function in the real world without it because I would just need to pull out my phone to do the exact same activities. I think it's pretty clear what I mean as an item of convenience.
Now, I see an item like Jibo that falls pretty clearly falls under that definition as an item of convenience due to its abilities and disabilities. Like Pebble, Jibo offers a shortcut to common smartphone functions like notifications and quick controls to things like music and cameras. Jibo also has its advantages with audio input & responses and an AI (Artificial Intelligence) to custom the experience for the each user. Its disadvantages are mostly portability and cost. Jibo only lasts about 30 minutes without being plugged in, which means it won't shut down while being carried around the house to wherever it is needed, so including that fact with the $600 price point and Jibo becomes a household appliance rather than a mobile device like a smartwatch. The intro video shows Jibo being used by families and single people alike, to show off its various use cases, however spending $600 on something that sits at home all day may not be as beneficial for the single life as it would for a family.
Pebble and Jibo also have another large similarity that comes down to software and business. Like Pebble, the Jibo company will provide the hardware and basic software to sell to consumers, but the sustainable business model comes from extra content and applications that are purchased throughout the lifetime of the product in order to extend its functionality and usefulness. This is how Amazon is justifying their hardware products, like many other large tech hardware sellers, but there is a common Catch-22 that comes with starting this type of business. Without people to make the quality content, no one will buy your product, i.e without its fantastic community of app developers, Apple's iDevices would not have survived for as long as it has. It doesn't always follow the Field of Dreams philosophy*.
*If you build it, they will come.
Once Jibo's developer edition is released, there will be the exuberant group of software developers who will launch the development kit and start hacking on simple apps to test the system. Many of these apps will circulate this small group of early adopters and get the ball rolling on building an initial store of content for Jibo to promote when they start shipping the consumer editions a couple months later. As consumers start to explore this basic collection, they will blow through them quicker than developers can produce new and exciting content. Because Jibo can't sustain making all the content themselves, they will have to do what Pebble has started doing lately—working with well-known companies to integrate their products with Jibo software. For example, Pebble has worked with services like Foursquare, Runkeeper, and Evernote and companies like GoPro, ESPN, and Mercedes to create premium, free apps to draw interest to their product.
The one step I have yet to see Pebble take is making their software community profitable. There are very few paid apps or watchfaces in their store, and I don't think it's even possible to pay for apps through their store so the payments usually are usually for the companion smartphone apps. Without a profitable outcome for the developers, there is no incentive to put in the time and effort to integrate with their existing mobile apps or even create totally new ones. If Pebble, or Jibo, can't produce a profitable ecosystem for app and content creators, then sustainability is a pretty unlikely goal.
I'm sure the fine folks running people and the small team at Jibo are thinking about these all the time as they develop their products and businesses but I wonder how many other potential entrepreneurs do as well. I don't have any definite solutions for building a healthy developer community and booming content system around an indie tech product, but a great place to start is the open source community. There are so many open source projects that have enthusiast contributors and users because they are managed so well out where everyone can see. I take note of projects like Hoodie and Ember.js and companies like &yet, that all work hard to support their open source ecosystem.
All in all, I'm happy to see innovative and creative projects like Jibo get funded by the public because it moves tech forward. It's a very ambitious goal to ship the initial batch of this complex in a year and change, so I wish that team all the luck and look forward to the final result.