“Pebble has money,” says Eric Migicovsky. The CEO of Pebble, the company that all but popularized the smartwatch with its then-massive Kickstarter campaign in 2012, is responding to a question about how it plans to grow from bit player to massive platform owner. “We make products that get better over time, that do a couple things really well.”
He is in Toronto to talk about the release of the Pebble Time Round, the company’s first circular smartwatch and easily the best-looking product in its lineup. Migicovsky lives in Palo Alto now, along with myriad other hardware startups looking to take advantage of the Silicon Valley belt, but he’s also bullish on Canada’s place in the wearable evolution. The company recently opened an office in Waterloo, with a dozen or so employees that, according to Migicovsky, he was “dying to work with” but wouldn’t leave the comfortable confines of small town Ontario.
He’s also in Canada to visit a number of the Best Buy locations that are exclusively stocking his new smartwatch, a product he is incredibly proud of, especially after the one-two punch of the Kickstarter darling Pebble Time and Time Steel, which raised more than $20 million on the crowdfunding site. “The growth of Pebble Time was unexpected,” he says, noting that close to 40 percent of backers were users of the original Pebble smartwatch.
Now that the Time Round is available, Migicovsky is focusing his attention on building out the retail distribution in the run-up to the all-important Christmas holiday season, which, this year, has seen a lot of interest in the wearables space. Best Buy in particular is focusing a lot of its attention on smartwatches and health trackers from companies like Apple, Samsung, TomTom, Garmin, Fitbit and, of course, Pebble, with new entrants emerging every few months.
But consolidation in the space, as nascent as it is, is forthcoming, according to Emily Taylor, Senior Analyst of Consumer and Mobile Research at IDC Canada. “Pebble’s hardware business may eventually be squeezed, and will have to adapt to the changing market,” she says. As Apple and Google increase their lead in the smartwatch ecosystem, as they did with smartphones in the early years of the decade, companies like Pebble, and larger ones like Samsung with its Tizen operating system, may have to come to terms with the notion that there is limited room to maneuver.
Taylor says that smartwatches are not seen as essential purchases alongside a smartphone just yet, and consumers are just as likely to choose a set-top box like an Apple TV, or a dedicated camera or pair of headphones, to augment their smartphone experience, as much as they are a smartwatch.
It helps that Pebble’s products are generally priced lower than its competition, and that they are compatible with both iOS and Android. “Around this time of year, cheaper Pebble options [like the $119 original] are a good entry to the market,” says Taylor.
Despite growth in the wearables market — Apple is expected to sell roughly 10 million Watches in 2015 — Taylor says that the category won’t proliferate until a number of important criteria are met. “We’re lacking that idea of a killer app or series of apps. But maybe we need to stop thinking of it like that. Maybe we need a killer system,” something that proves wearables have lives independent from our smartphones.
“The value in the next generation of smartwatches will be seen in how they fit into the broader internet of things, transactions, and content,” says Taylor.
That’s exactly what Migicovsky has planned for Pebble. The company has released specifications for its SmartStrap program, which allows creators to augment the Pebble Time with additional features such as NFC for payments or, as one of the more ambitious projects posits, a solar panel charger for outdoor wearers.
“We’re not looking to make smartwatches that mimic and copy what you can do on a smartphone,” says Migicovsky. Everything, from the simplicity of the apps to the chronological nature of the Pebble Time’s timeline user interface, was carefully designed to resist complication. And now, with the addition of a new form factor in the Time Round, it was important to architect Pebble’s developer tools to be adaptable. Indeed, Pebble reconfigured the way the Round displays text on a circular screen, so unlike on devices like the Moto 360 and Gear S2 it won’t cut off text.
Pebble is also making a big bet on voice input, which Migicovsky says will play a vital role in the way we interact with wearables in the future. “We represent the Swatch of the smartwatch world. We take a distinct, unique approach to what the smartwatch can be.”
That future doesn’t necessarily involve apps, which, despite the presence of roughly 2,000 of them on Pebble’s platform, haven’t really caught on amongst early adopters. “We are heading to the post-app world,” he says, citing the proliferation of the “headless” app on smartphones. Software that doesn’t need to be explicitly run, or even be installed, is becoming more of a reality, and the always-on nature of a Pebble watch means that it can accomplish things many others can’t, though Migicovsky isn’t divulging any details for future-generation products.
“There are close to a million Pebbles out there in the world,” he says, a relatively small number on an absolute basis, but a bonafide triumph for a Waterloo kid whose first product, the InPulse, was designed for BlackBerrys back in 2011. A lot has changed since then, and Migicovsky seems more than comfortable adapting to that new reality.