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Wrist-First: This is Pebble

by Rene Ritchie and Phil Nickinson

This inaugural Smartwatch Fans feature is brought to you by the Mobile Nations network, and features two familiar faces — Rene Ritchie of iMore and Phil Nickinson of Android Central. This feature is cross-posted on Android Central, CrackBerry, iMore, Smartwatch Fans, and WPCentral.

"The smartwatch kind of snuck up on us."

I'm sitting with Eric Migicovsky in his office in Palo Alto. Even seated he towers over me, which might help explain his extraordinary vision. Or maybe he’s just that far ahead of the rest of us.

Earlier attempts at making watches smarter, everything from the classic Casio calculator watch to the Sony Ericsson MBW series, didn't do it for Migicovsky. They simply didn't do enough. Inspired by pen computers like the Newton, Psion, and the Palm Pilot, and their eventual convergence with smartphones, Migicovsky felt there was a place for a device that was even more convenient.

He wanted something that could take on a subset of tasks and make them available to you at glance, on your wrist, while in a meeting or on a run. After early attempts to hack extra radios onto the iPhone 3G, Migicovsky, a Canadian, switched his focus to the (at the time) far more accessible BlackBerry platform.


Information pulsed straight to your brain

Migicovsky’s first attempt to revolutionize the space resulted in the InPulse. He began working on it in 2008 and by 2009 had already attracted the attention of CrackBerry, among others. It made a tremendous amount of success. Migicovsky was in Waterloo, BlackBerry was riding high, especially in enterprise, and BlackBerry had the Bluetooth API (application program interface) necessary to make the idea work. The iPhone did not.

The assembly of each and every inPulse watch took place in Migicovsky's garage in Waterloo, Ontario.

"BlackBerry was the exact right partner in the early stages," Migicovsky said, glancing at his wrist. "Those were the people getting a lot of email, and inPulse was designed to be an email conveyor — from your smartphone to your brain. It had that kind of really close connection."

InPulse launched in 2009 and quickly gained popularity. Interest poured in from BlackBerry users around the world, to the point that BlackBerry’s then co-CEO Mike Lazaridis ended up fielding questions about "the BlackBerry watch." It had all the great elements of a classic tech tale, including the assembly of each and every inPulse watch taking place in Migicovsky's garage in Waterloo, Ontario.

Crossing platforms... and continents

But the world was changing. BlackBerry began to wane, and Apple's iOS and Google's Android platforms, barely a blip on the radar when Migicovsky began work on inPulse, quickly became the dominant players. Recognizing this, in 2011 Migicovsky packed up and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and to the Y Combinator program. It was a turning point.

They stopped working on inPulse, made some fundamental changes to the circuit board, applied all the experience they'd gained over the previous three years, and relaunched with a new fresh start, and a fresh product.

"The writing was on the wall," Migicovsky said of the future of BlackBerry and the BlackBerry-dependent inPulse. "We started working on what would become Pebble."

"We wanted people to be able to dream about what the watch could do for them."

Over-the-air firmware updates were built into the core of Pebble, which let Migicovsky and his team move quickly and would give customers the feeling that they weren't just buying a watch once, but a product that would be continuously improved over time. Being accessible to apps on smartphones also was a priority.

"We wanted other people to be able to dream about what the watch could do for them," Migicovsky said. "It's not just our idea of wearable computing, but of each and every person who's working on Pebble apps."

It let them harness the power of the community, a community that sprung up from the Kickstarter project that got Pebble rolling.

From zero to 10 million in one month flat

The Pebble Kickstarter campaign went live in April 2012 with an initial funding goal of $100,000. It reached that goal in two hours. The campaign ended in May with a record-setting $10,266,844 pledged by 68,929 people.

It was ludicrously successful. More than any garage, even in the Valley, could handle. Migicovsky and the Pebble team were prepared — they had already developed a full mass-manufacturing plan when pursuing traditional venture capital funding. They’d scaled back that plan when they turned to Kickstarter. But as the crowdfunding campaign grew ever larger, the grander manufacturing scheme was back in play. But as with any transition, you have to expect turbulence.

"With Pebble the project turned from 'artisan and hand-made' to 'how do you make that same thing 85,000 times?' " Migicovsky said. "We had to go to China. We had to work with factories overseas. We had to build a supply chain. We had to source components. We had to deal with delays."

"The project turned from 'artisan and hand-made' to 'how do you make that same thing 85,000 times?' "

The weather in China proved to be a factor. A change in humidity affected the glue. The chemical composition of different colors of plastic changed the physical characteristics of the plastic.

Then there were the customers. All of them — myself included — wanted their Pebbles immediately. Some went out quickly. Others took a year or more. At the same time Best Buy was getting stock before some backers had gotten their Pebbles. The internet, predictably, grumbled.

Pebble countered this with frequent updates. They tried to keep transparency high. While they couldn't provide specific ship dates for each individual, they tried to keep everyone as informed as possible.

"We had an internal date that we were aiming to hit," Migicovsky said. "And that slipped. As much as we would have wanted to convey that specific piece information, I don't think it would have been as helpful as the behind the scenes videos and blogs were. But it was a difficult thing."

Selling smart

  • 2008
  • Work begins on inPulse smartwatch

  • 2009
  • October 26

    inPulse announced, pre-orders begin

  • 2010
  • January 8

    First live demos of inPulse at CES 2010

  • 2011
  • February 18

    inPulse units begin shipping, watchapp SDK released

  • December 7

    inPulse version 2 ships

  • 2012
  • April 11

    Pebble smartwatch introduced on Kickstarter, seeking $100,000 funding and projecting a September shipping date

  • May 18

    Kickstarter campaign ends with a record $10.2 million pledged by 68,929 backers

  • July 25

    September ship date for Pebble is scratched

  • 2013
  • January 23

    First Pebble units begin shipping to Kickstarter backers

  • April 12

    PebbleOS 1.10 released with third-party watch face support

  • July 7

    Best Buy opens brick-and-mortar sales of Pebble

  • November 11

    Pebble iPhone app updated with full iOS 7 notifications support

  • November 28

    Amazon.com begins selling Pebble

  • December 18

    Pebble appstore announced, coming with Pebble SDK 2.0 in early 2014

Evangelizing Pebble was one thing. Evangelizing the entire smartwatch category was quite another. We already had computers. We already had phones. We'd been told there was room for tablets between them. Was there room for something else entirely alongside them?

Migicovsky had to prove not only that there was indeed space for a smartwatch, but that Pebble was *the* smartwatch for that space. Pebble chose to do that by focusing on the experience, on how it could be used, and on notifications as the "killer app." Smartwatch became the idea, Pebble its proof.

"We had to set the tone for what a smartwatch would be."

"We had to set the tone for what a smartwatch would be," Migicovsky said. "We built in waterproofness from the beginning. We made sure the battery would last from 5 to 7 days. Our goal wasn't to build a gadget only super-geeky people would use. Our goal was to build something that would mesh with everyday people's lives and start providing value."

It had to work with the phone you already had in your pocket. Which meant, at least initially, iPhone and Android. That was yet another challenge. At the time, Apple provided very little by way of notifications access, which meant Pebble was far more useful with Android than it was with the iPhone.

With feature parity being impossible, Pebble concentrated on making the best possible experience for each platform. iOS 7, which shipped in September 2013, greatly improved how notifications could be relayed from iPhone to Pebble, and that in turn made Pebble even more useful to iPhone owners.

Third-party developers became incredibly important as well. With a JavaScript platform, Pebble enabled devs to write apps that could work with the watch on both iOS and Android. More recently, they've announced an SDK and appstore, making Pebble a full-fledged platform in its own right.

The battle begins

Pebble was making huge advancements, and it wasn't going unnoticed. Approximately 30 seconds after Apple announced the iPad — the length of time it took most analysts to put down their beverages and reach for their keyboards — the "what's next?" questions began to surface, with a television being one contender, and an "iWatch" being another. Big screen and small, Apple was expected to cover the whole spectrum. Steve Jobs had already joked that Apple board members, on seeing the square iPod nano, had wanted to strap it to their wrists, and a variety of accessory makers jumped on the market to help owners do just that. It wasn't smart. It wasn't connected. But it was absolutely testing the waters.

Motorola took it one step further with their MOTOACTIV an iPod nano-looking product with a built-in band and a focus on fitness. Google later bought Motorola and, of course, rumors of a Google watch surfaced just as fast.

Nike Fuelbands, Fitbit Forces, Jawbone Ups — the fitness band field began to evolve quickly. And then came Samsung.

The Pebble team not only has years of experience — and cross-platform support — behind them, but put both focus and compatibility at the top of their priorities.

The Samsung Galaxy Gear launched in the summer of 2013, initially working only with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3, but since expanding to work with the Galaxy S4 and other Samsung smartphones. It has a color display. It has a camera. And a touchscreen. And it has Samsung's billions of dollars of marketing muscle behind it.

Yet Samsung's current strategy seems to be to throw as many products and features at customers just to see what sticks. And Apple, which has thus far shown much more focus, will almost certainly limit an iWatch to Apple's own ecosystem, and likely even limit what an iWatch can do. Migicovsky and the Pebble team not only have years of experience — and cross-platform support — behind them, but put both focus and compatibility at the top of their priorities.

"Pebble is still the standard for iPhone and Android compatibility," Migicovsky said. "And if you're going to get a watch, you're going to get one that works with your phone. Which is a Pebble."

Rather than underestimating the competition, however, he sees it increasing, both for watch-as-companion devices that piggyback on the connectivity and power of a smartphone, and for watch-as-primary-device that try to cram everything, including the complete Android operating system and a full complement of radios, right into the watch.

By making Pebble its own platform, with its own community, they can also make it not only something that appeals to non-Apple, non-Samsung customers, not only to people who want to be able to change phones and keep the same watch, but to people who might even be watch-first in other ways.

Absent the legacy of the Apples and Samsungs and absent historical products and interfaces which are as limiting as they are enabling, Migicovsky feels Pebble is free to think just exactly that way. As a watch-first, wearable-first company.

The future of Pebble

We're still in the early days of wearables. We're still in the era of Newton and Palm Pilot, not quite to the Palm Treo, and certainly not yet the iPhone. Pebble's vision remains consistent, however: to unlock the value of what's on your phone and the internet by making it ever more accessible on your wrist.

"If we can get as many Pebbles out there as we can," Migicovsky said, "the opportunity that we have is more of a software play."

Get a Pebble of your own

Migicovsky sees notifications as continuing to be an area of great interest, as well as health and fitness. He also sees remote control — a method for managing our every-expanding internet of things and even home automation — as being something Pebble can help with. He envisions all these screens sitting on all these wrists around the world, and Pebble's opportunity to surface contextual information, location-specific knowledge, an immediate interface that may only be important for a brief period of time, but is incredibly important at that time.

Given Migicovsky’s passion and Pebble's focus, it's not tough to imagine that the days of laboriously reaching into your pocket and pulling out your phone just to see what's going on in the informational world around you might eventually come to an end.

"For Pebble," Migicovsky said, "the goal is to provide that key interaction that you care about most, right on time, right on your wrist."

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