Mobile

Mobile headset maker Jawbone raises $49M

Jawbone, the maker of smart wireless headsets, said today it has raised $49 million from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

The amount is one of the biggest raised by a mobile hardware company, but San Francisco-based Jawbone has always been ambitious. You could say that “over-engineering” a headset has gotten Jawbone pretty far.

The company makes wireless Bluetooth headsets for cell phones, but its latest devices are more like motion-sensitive computers that you wear in your ear. The funding means that the company isn’t yet done beefing up the ordinary headset into something cool. As you can tell from the image below, Jawbone is selling a “mobile lifestyle” to discerning consumers.

The company (formerly Aliph) has launched several generations of its smart Bluetooth headsets and has pretty much turned the latest Jawbone Era device into a connected app platform whose features can be updated over time. It also provides caller identification by verbally telling you the name of who is calling you. To date, the company has raised $100 million.

Founded in 1999 by Alexander Asseily and Hosain Rahman, the company used advanced noise cancellation technology as the defining feature for its first headset launched in 2006. Touting “military grade” voice clarity, it sold the device at the hefty price of $120 when competing products sold for $40.

Jawbone billed its headset as sounding even better than listening directly to a phone. The better sound came from having three microphones built into the device. It also had a sensor that felt the movement of your jawbone and correlated that with your speech. Digital signal processing took the data, stripped out the noise, and then reproduced the sound. The noise was stripped out even when the user wasn’t talking. Jawbone said the speech turned out more intelligible, letting you hear the difference between a “p” sound and a “b” sound.

The company followed up with a smaller version in 2008. The third-generation headset, the Jawbone Prime, arrived in April, 2009, and the fourth-generation Icon (pictured above) model debuted in January 2010 with a web site where you could customize the device. The most recent version was the Jawbone Era with motion-sensing controls, multiple processors, and a free voice communication service.

All of these models have relied on a noise-cancellation technology dubbed Noise Assassin. And the Jawbone models became the best-selling Bluetooth headsets at retailers such as Verizon Wireless and Best Buy. The company’s surveys showed four out of five people preferred using Jawbone with a phone over using only a cellphone itself.

Jawbone said the money will be used to help it expand worldwide and keep coming up with new products, including new categories of products where it doesn’t participate now. The Jawbone Jambox wireless speaker is an example of the company’s move into a new but related category, as is its Jawbone Thoughts voice-driven communication service.

Ben Horowitz, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, will take a seat on Jawbone’s board. He said Jawbone’s products bring smartphones and tablets to life and that chief executive Hosain Rahman is the thought leader in the industry.

Rahman said the future of consumer tech is about “unlocking the full potential of the mobile lifestyle.” He added, “Now that mobile is our new hub, our vision is to create ways for people to get the most out of those experiences.”

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