The effort for adding phone function into watch had started much earlier in 1999 when several tech companies joined the crusade to enter the big watch market. Notable among them were Samsung, IBM, Microsoft, Fossiland Sony Ericsson. The effort lasted for about a decade before showing its signs of fatigue. Microsoft SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology) closed in 2 years after its launch in 2006. Sony Ericsson’s MBW series was a little known that contained a small OLED display and worked with Sony Ericsson phone via Bluetooth. It vibrated on an incoming call, displayed caller identity, and notified on new text messages. However it was priced very high to the tune of $400. Samsung tried its next version S9110 in 2009 which was thinnest of all other smartwatches at that time and had a touch screen, Bluetooth, email and MP3 support. However, these smartwatches couldn’t takeoff, mainly because of their bulkiness, frequent changing, extra service subscriptions in some cases, and so on. The companies started focusing on the flourishing smartphone market instead of investing into smartwatches.
Between all this scepticism over initiation of a new smartwatch market was this 22 years old engineering graduate in systems design, Eric Migicovsky quietly developing a smartwatch. The Allerta inPulsereleased in 2010 is not known to many of us. It was actually developed by Migicovsky and his team before he started Pebble Technology. The inPulse worked with BlackBerry smartphone at that time. This is the time Migicovsky groomed himself in real smartwatch technology and its requirements, but he was not so lucky in the first-time business. Every business has its own challenges. A large inventory of inPulse watches was ahead of their sale and couldn’t sell. He couldn’t get further funding after his initial fund from a venture capital firm, Y Combinator and a few angel investors. But these challenges also provided him good learning about future strategies to work upon.
Firm in his ideas about a smartwatch that will be appealing to people to have it on their wrists, this time Migicovsky initiated a kick-starter campaign in April, 2012 to crowd fund his project on Pebble smartwatch. It was like a pre-booking for the $150 smartwatch at discounted prices of $99 for first few hundred backers and then at $115. The campaign had an stellar success; within a month it raised more than $10 million, more than 100 times the initial target. This was the most successful crowd funding of that time that set this record with about 69 thousand people investing into the Pebble project. The Pebble smartwatch started shipping in early 2013 that reached one million in number by the end of 2014.
The hidden advantage which is apparent in this kind of funding is that you already have your customers, backers and well wishers lined up; the tall challenge here is to convince them into your project. You directly talk to your customers at first hand and build the strongest support group. Migicovsky was able to do that, he knew exactly what is needed for a smartwatch and created the much coveted, long awaited new smartwatch market. Interestingly, he used an army of about 70 bloggers for the campaign to reach to every single potential customer.
So, what were those specific features in Pebble that rejuvenated the fatigued smartwatch market and gave it a fresh breathe? Pebble created an entirely new market for smartwatches. One of the very important mantra Migicovsky used is to let the watch adopt people’s habits instead of asking them to adopt the watch. In his view the most important core functions for the watch were notifications and phone calls. He exactly deciphered this from the fact that people looked at their smartphones for messages and phone calls for about hundred times a day. What if they could do this just by looking at their wrist watches instead of lifting the phone every now and then? Again for this much favour done by a watch on a wrist, one shouldn’t be paying a hefty amount like $400. Another important clue Migicovsky took it that these watches shouldn’t trouble people to charge them every day or even worse, twice a day. A smartwatch should work like any other watch for long on a single charge. The battery in Pebble lasts for about seven days on a single charge.
The credit for the long battery life goes to e-paper display, the feature in operating system on Pebble that lets other apps run in the background, and no packing of stuff that are not meant for a watch. The advantage of e-paper display is that it can be perfectly viewed in the direct sun light. Pebble has sports activity tracking, fitness tracking features, other activity tracking like sleep or walk detection, calories etc., notifications for phone calls, text messages, emails, etc., remote control for smartphones (where one could dismiss any phone call or notification from the smartwatch), and so on without any burden on battery life. The sensors for these activity tracking are actually inside the watch which can work from wherever it is.
It’s a small size watch (1.26”) with ultra-low power transflective LCD, vibrator, magnetometer, accelerometer, and ambient light sensors. It’s versatile to connect with any iOS as well as Android device (including smartphones and tablets) using Bluetooth 2.1. In a later upgrade it supports BLE 4.0 as well. It’s waterproof and can be used by divers. The Pebble team used all the feedback received on inPulse to improve this blockbuster smartwatch called Pebble.
While Migicovsky primarily focused on the core functions of Pebble, he developed an SDK (Software Development Kit) called PebbleKit for app developers in the community who could use it as an open platform and develop innovative apps that could ease and automate several of our daily activities. This was another innovative idea of pooling innovations from the community which could go much beyond a single person’s imagination. Today, Pebble has built a large community of more than 25000 developers who have already built more than 6000 apps and watchfaces for Pebble appstore, and still continuing. Many companies including Mercedes-Benz, GoPro, iControl, and others also have joined the initiative. The idea from Mercedes-Benz includes an app which can make your wrist shake when it sees any obstruction on the road while driving. The PebbleKit provides a complete customizable wearable platform for the watch; the app store has a watchface generator where images can be uploaded to generate an specific watchface. Pebble team is also building an operating system, the platform designed specifically for wearables.
Pebble Steel with a thinner body, Corning Gorilla Glass, and tactile metal buttons was released last year at CES 2014. Pebble Time was announced this year in Feb, again through a kick-starter campaign which reached $14 million by the beginning of March setting another record while the campaign still continued. Pebble Time will have 64 color LCD, a microphone and a more ergonomic and thinner chassis. It includes a new interface designed around a timeline, similar to Google Now. Pebble Time is reported to be selling at $199.
Pebble Time Steel is another latest in Pebble smartwatches that is tipped to have room for a larger battery to last for 10 days. It’s the top model of Pebble in stainless steel which is yet to start shipping in second half of this year and is expected to be priced at $299.
Recently, along with Pebble Time Steel, Pebble team brought their open wearable platform to next level by announcing an open hardware platform for wearables, called “Smartstraps”. By using this platform, a developer can design and develop a new strap that can connect to a special port in the watch to add new features like heart rate monitor, extended battery life, GPS, and others, thus keeping the smartwatch in itself small and slim.
In August 2013, Eric Migicovsky, the founder of Pebble Technology was selected as one of the remarkable 35 innovators under 35 for all of his innovative work on smartwatches.
Also read: Passage of Time with Watches