Katherine Boehret

Connecting With Your Inner Earpiece

Apps are hot. These are the small programs that can be installed on a digital gadget to get it to do more than what it did when you bought it. Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone and iPod Touch are the best app platforms right now thanks to the company’s App Store, which offers an estimated 125,000 apps. Research in Motion (RIMM), Android, and Palm (PALM) devices also work with apps.

But why should smart phones have all the fun? Yahoo (YHOO) Connected TVs from Samsung, LG (LG), Sony (SNE), and Vizio allow people to load app-like “widgets”—including Facebook, Twitter, weather and stock quotes—onto their big-screen TVs. And GPS navigation devices take advantage of apps for information on fuel prices and traffic.

This week, I tested a Bluetooth earpiece that also can be made smarter with apps: Aliph’s $100 Jawbone Icon (http://us.jawbone.com). Like many other wireless earpieces, it connects to your Bluetooth-enabled phone so you can talk, hands-free. Unlike other Bluetooth earpieces, the Jawbone Icon can be plugged into a computer and loaded with different settings and apps. This works using Aliph’s Web-based software platform called MyTalk (http://mytalk.jawbone.com) and some apps enable more than hands-free talking.

For now, there are only two apps that truly expand the functionality of the earpiece, in my opinion. But MyTalk is a good start in making this tiny Bluetooth device more sophisticated and encouraging more hands-free productivity.

The idea of connecting an earpiece to a PC is helpful in two respects. First, it turns the Jawbone into a dynamic product that can be updated and enhanced over time, rather than never changing from the day you buy it. Second, it lets users more easily adjust the settings of a device that’s too tiny to have its own screen, thus eliminating the need for more confusing buttons on the device. Over time, these earpieces could become even simpler and smaller as more of their settings are adjusted on the computer.

Since the Jawbone Icon and its MyTalk software platform launched this week, only five “dial apps” and 10 “audio apps” are available for synching to the earpiece. The former are apps that perform functions by dialing out on your phone, like hands-free text messaging; the latter are settings to adjust the voice making announcements in your ear, like telling you that the battery needs charging. As of now, only one of each app category can be synched onto the Jawbone Icon at any given time. Aliph plans to make the Icon capable of simultaneously running multiple apps sometime this year.

If you ever used one of the earlier Jawbone models and thought you weren’t hip enough to remember how its hidden earpiece buttons worked, the Jawbone Icon’s refreshingly simple design will bring a sigh of relief. It uses two easily detected controls. One is an obvious button on the top of the earpiece that controls the earpiece’s functions. The other is a tiny on/off switch on the inside surface that couldn’t be easier to use.

The Ace model personified

The Ace model personified

The Icon comes in six models with catchy names that match the “persona” of the audio apps: The Hero, The Rogue, The Ace, The Catch, The Thinker and The Bombshell—each literally has its own distinct voice. Each device weighs less and has a wider and shorter design than previous Jawbones. The Icons come in shades of black, silver, white, red and gold, depending on the model’s persona, and resemble handsome jewelry.

Each earpiece has a short, gray bendable USB connector that allows for easy access to a PC’s USB port. This is used for synching and charging the earpiece, though a separate wall charger also comes in the box.

I tested my Jawbone Icon by plugging it into both an Apple MacBook Pro and a Dell (DELL) running Windows 7. I logged onto http://mytalk.jawbone.com and requested an invitation to use the MyTalk software by sending Aliph my email since it’s still in a “private beta” or experimental phase. You’ll have to do the same until MyTalk comes out of its private beta stage sometime in the next few months.

After setting up an account using my email and a password, I followed on-screen instructions to get started with synching apps to my earpiece.

MyTalk’s dial apps include five programs that help you do more with your voice, so you don’t need to look down to type on a mobile device. Once synched with your Jawbone Icon, the app will activate as soon as you press and hold the earpiece button.

For now, only two of the five dial apps are really helpful for the headset: Jott and Dial2Do. Both let people use their voice to send themselves reminders, send tweets on Twitter, and send text messages—assuming the programs correctly interpret what is dictated. I had pretty good luck with this, though one test of the text-messaging function thought I said “needle” when I really said “noodle” and another interpreted “blinds” as “blind.”

Of the two, I found Dial2Do a little easier to use. Its Basic Account is free but is limited to sending yourself reminders, while a Pro Account costs $40 a year or $3.99 a month, and offers social-networking, emailing and text-messaging, among other things. Jott can only be used free for one week, but requires a credit-card number for signing up and will charge $2.95 a month after the trial week is over.

MyTalk’s remaining three dial apps aren’t too exciting: “Directory Assistance 411” and “Voice Dial,” a feature that only works if your phone has built-in voice-dial capability, which most do now. Another app called 1-800-FREE411 lets users get 411 information without being charged carrier fees.

MyTalk’s audio apps include six playful voices, three in different languages (German, Spanish and French) and one plain, unaccented English voice. Each of the playful voices has a coinciding photo and name when you’re picking settings on the Web site. One called “The Bombshell” is represented by an attractive, blonde woman who speaks in a sexy voice. A voice called “The Rogue” says, “I am ready for my assignment,” when the earpiece is turned on. During most of my testing, I kept my Jawbone Icon set on “The Ace,” represented by a woman with a smart British accent who said, “They can wait,” when I declined calls.

The chosen audio app voice speaks every so often, like when the device is turned on, when you query the headset’s remaining battery life (an indicator light also tells you the remaining charge), when an incoming call is received or when you turn the headset off. But the Voice Dial app uses the standard voice that comes with your device’s voice-dialing capability—not the fun audio app voice you’ve chosen.

Another downside to the headset is that it isn’t yet able to tell you the name of whoever is calling even if you have them as a contact in your phone; instead, it only reads the phone number aloud. If you’re like me, you don’t know have many numbers memorized anymore, so this isn’t helpful. Instead, it forced me to look at my phone for the caller ID, defeating the purpose of a hands-free earpiece. Aliph hopes to fix this problem within a year.

The Jawbone Icon is the first earpiece to use a software platform for adding apps, and MyTalk makes synching easy. Although Aliph plans to offer more apps and software updates for the Jawbone Icon (and subsequent devices), there will likely always be some activities that are simply too difficult to perform using voice alone. But MyTalk is a good first step toward making the Bluetooth earpiece more useful.

Email mossbergsolution@wsj.com

Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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