It’s every tech company’s nightmare: Amid much hoopla, it rolls out a new product, but the thing doesn’t work as promised. The critics are damning and dwindling customers are in revolt. What to do?
I’ve been watching the fates of three products that stumbled at the starting gate. In two cases, the companies forthrightly owned up to the problems, suffering short-term pain but earning credibility points -- and perhaps a second chance -- with the gadget-buying public.
The third company tried to ride out the bad publicity. The evidence so far: Not such a good plan.
The final verdicts are still out on the Dropcam Wi-Fi home video-monitoring camera, Jawbone’s UP fitness wristband and Research In Motion (RIM)’s BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. Of the three, the Dropcam might be on the way to the happiest resolution.
The original Dropcam system was my favorite in the nannycam/petcam/keep-an-eye-on-the-homefront category. I liked its ease of use. I also appreciated its robust online service for viewing and -- for a fee -- storing and retrieving high- definition video. And I liked the quality of the hardware, which was made by a third party. What I didn’t like so much was the $279 price tag.
For the second-generation Dropcam, the San Francisco-based startup took full control of the camera’s design and manufacturing. The result is a less expensive model ($149) with more features.
Among other things, the new version includes night vision and a two-way audio feature that allows someone viewing the video feed on an Apple iPad or iPhone to speak through the camera.
The new Dropcam HD was introduced at January’s Consumer Electronics Show and began shipping late that month. But the company soon heard from some purchasers that the image quality wasn’t up to snuff. Dropcam stepped up its quality-control checks on the cameras coming in from the Chinese manufacturer, and found that many weren’t meeting their specifications.
The complaint rates weren’t high, and the company could have continued to meet its order backlog while it scrambled to fix the problem.
Instead, it froze shipments for nearly two months while it switched to another manufacturer, notified customers of the problem and offered to send out a new camera to anyone who wanted one, no questions asked. If some users wound up with two functioning, trouble-free cameras, so be it.
The new Dropcam is now shipping in volume and largely delivers on its original promise. Compared with its predecessor, it’s easier to set up -- no more having to plug it directly into a router -- and the new talk-back feature comes in handy for brief exchanges, though not any kind of sustained communication.
The future of Jawbone’s UP fitness-tracking wristband isn’t so clear. The $100 UP, which tracks your activity and sleep patterns and syncs its data to a colorful app on your Apple (AAPL:US) mobile device, was released last year to strong demand. Then, shortly before Christmas, the San Francisco-based company issued a letter to customers disclosing flaws that included the inability of some bands to hold a charge and a data-syncing problem.
Jawbone halted production and implemented an immediate no- questions-asked refund “for whatever reason, or no reason at all.” Moreover, people claiming the refund were allowed to keep their wristbands -- meaning at least some users who never encountered the problems were essentially offered the opportunity to use the UP for free. (The company won’t say how many customers have taken advantage of the offer.)
The company has also continued releasing updates to its app and offering continued support for its customers, who have responded in its user forums with a surprising measure of enthusiasm among the lamentations.
After five months, Jawbone says it’s still developing an improved version of UP. Meanwhile, more competitors have invaded the space, notably Nike (NKE:US) with its $149 FuelBand.
Luckily for Jawbone, we’re still in the very early stages of the wearable-sensor era in consumer technology. If it gets a new UP right, it may yet find a market before it exhausts the patience and goodwill of its customers. But it’s by no means a sure thing, as Research In Motion has painfully discovered with its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet.
I had kind words for the seven-inch PlayBook when it debuted a year ago, but with one big caveat: The software felt half-baked, missing a number of critical applications including contact management, calendaring and -- most stunning for a BlackBerry -- e-mail. Those functions only worked by tethering the PlayBook to a BlackBerry smartphone. No phone, no e-mail.
That was enough to scare off hordes of buyers. Making matters worse, the updated software to fix those flaws, which had been promised for shortly after launch, didn’t materialize. RIM offered apologies -- but little in the way of confidence- building steps along the lines of Dropcam and Jawbone.
Version 2.0 of the PlayBook software, which was finally released earlier this year, largely addresses the most glaring shortcomings. It now has a functioning e-mail client, the user interface has been improved and a new feature allows it to run some apps written for Google (GOOG:US)’s Android operating system, to augment the limited selection available for the PlayBook’s native software.
But in the meantime, the world has largely passed the PlayBook by. A flood of new tablets from Samsung (005930), Motorola (MMI:US) and Asus (2357) hit the market between the PlayBook’s debut and the 2.0 update. Perhaps most damaging, Amazon.com (AMZN:US) released its Kindle Fire, which, while technologically inferior to the PlayBook is almost its physical twin.
RIM has slashed the PlayBook’s base price, $499 at launch, to just $199, matching the Kindle. In terms of the quality of the product, the company probably deserves another chance with consumers. But having done so little in the last year to engender warm feelings, there’s no guarantee RIM will get it.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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