Social Robot Stuck in Traffic

Announced in mid-2014, Jibo captured the imagination looking into the potential of home assistant devices, does it still stand a chance?

Technology is transforming our lives. Taking a constantly growing part in our day to day. It is how we interact with other people; how we manage our time; how we consume our media. I get excited when something new and cool comes along, and so imagine how I felt when almost three years ago I came across this:

Jibo was igniting dreams at a time where the Internet of Things (IoT) was more a buzz word than any significant list of available products. Jibo had it all, it was a connected device acting as an in-home assistant while showing character we often times miss dearly in machines. Its promise, as shown in the video, was two fold: to be useful, through apps/skills such as calendar, reminders, messaging, camera, etc.; and to be a social contributor at home, the “wingman” for a bachelor, educator/friend for a child, friendly assistant for an adult.

Above all else, Jibo had first mover’s advantage. What would now be defined as the voice controlled home assistant market was nowhere to be found. With $2.28MM in crowdfunding (Indiegogo) capital in September 2014, two months before the announcement and launch of the Amazon Echo and Alexa platform, Jibo had the road to greatness paved; so why have most of us never heard of it?

We need to start by telling the story of Jibo; a Boston based startup originating from the research of Cynthia Breazeal, an MIT Media lab professor focusing on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics. After gaining massive traction with the crowdfunding campaign, Jibo went on to raise $50MM in 2015, a considerably higher number than originally targeted for series A, per Steven Chambers, Jibo CEO. The original commitment to Indiegogo backers was shipment of Jibos by September of 2015, this date was later pushed back to April 2016, and then again to October 2016, and most recently, to a TBA time in 2017.

Amazon Echo and Google Home (Image: http://united-locksmith.net/)

In the meanwhile, the competitive landscape changed considerably. Amazon’s Alexa platform, currently arching over three devices and counting (Echo, Echo Dot, and Tap, announced on LG refrigerators) has gone full swing, after a tepid launch and several iterations of software updates, it has captured the interest of the crowd, becoming the most purchased device on Amazon in the holiday season of 2016, apparently selling nine (9) times more devices this holiday season compared to the last, totaling in several millions of devices. More recently, Google has made the leap into the voice activated home assistant market with the widely-advertised launch of Google Home.

At the same time, the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2017), debuted a long line of Jibo look alike home robots, all sporting a very similar shape as Jibo fueled the imagination of multiple designers worldwide.

With all that in mind, one could say that Jibo still has a few visible benefits, with a unique form factor and physical movement, video sensors and display that surpass the leading products that only provide audio, and an attitude, and a good one at that, that is unique in this space. All these can still prove to be appealing to a wide range of customers.

Will this be enough? I believe the answer is no. The home assistant device is a platform, leaning on the efforts of businesses and private developers to launch value creating applications (or skills) that will be hosted on them. While Jibo was hard at work and provided a Software Development Kit (SDK) a long time ago, it’s delay in coming to market have most likely chilled the enthusiasm of the potential members of the ecosystem. In the meanwhile, the huge competition in the market, namely Amazon, has created the Alexa platform that has already accumulated thousands of skills and applications, creating a considerable network effect that will not easily be imitated. Furthermore, Amazon made its smart home assistant platform “injectable” into additional devices, currently partnering with LG to introduce it to home appliances but allowing any and all developers to make it a part of their solutions. Google will sure to follow suit.

The introduction of such wide platforms into the market is bound to create an extremely high barrier to entry that I doubt Jibo in its current form will be able to surpass.

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3 thoughts on “Social Robot Stuck in Traffic

  1. Gil, sharp analysis here. Sadly, I think you’re right. Jibo is really cute, but I don’t think that the actual technology behind it is superior to Alexa or Google’s offerings. It’s an interesting case where first-mover advantage wasn’t really a factor. Amazon’s existing brand awareness meant that they barely had to advertise Alexa (except on the Amazon homepage) in order to get the tech into households across the country; Jibo would have been quite another story, requiring the company to build brand awareness and trust before making a sale.

    I also think pricing is a big factor here. I somehow recall the Jibo pricing being upwards of $500 – maybe even more. I remember wanting to snag one in their initial campaign, and then balking at the price – it was high enough that you wouldn’t buy Jibo on a whim, to test out something fun. Alexa is much more approachable, by contrast!

  2. Super interesting product Gil. It’s too bad this still hasn’t gotten to market since the technology at least looks great in theory, but I think you’re right that Amazon and Google are now way ahead and have the benefit of strong brands and deep pockets to continue iterating on their respective devices. I think there’s also an interesting difference in strategy here between Jibo which looks like it wants multiple Jibo 1P devices in one home, versus Amazon at least that cares more about Alexa-enabled devices being in the home regardless of who makes the hardware. Alexa can then benefit not only from 3P skills development but also from the distribution networks, marketing and sales teams of other hardware manufacturers.

  3. Gil, this is a really interesting product and history so far, thank you for posting. It seems like this is a case where being the “first-mover” did not only not help Jibo, but potentially hurt it, by providing competitors with information and ideas. I wonder how much better off they would have been in terms of competition if they would have postponed the product announcements/sought to sell the technology before Amazon/Google built a series of products with network effects. Given what’s happened, I wonder what direction will be best for Jibo to take in the future — premium differentiated product, simple/easy to use, or something else. It seems they definitely need to pivot their already delayed plans to take into account Amazon/Google products already released.

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