It hasn’t escaped even the most ardent of technophiles that smartwatches aren’t exactly the Next Big Thing that a lot of companies were hoping. Even Apple is seemingly struggling, the lustre of the brand sucking in users – but the lack of sales figures seems rather telling.
So when the founder of Pebble, the company that arguably started the smartwatch trend, tells me “our vision is not of building watches”, it’s not as surprising as one might initially think.
Pebble is a company that’s outperformed its startup status – the impressive feat of being one of the first ‘big’ smartwatches to market with a long battery life and compatibility with both Android and iPhones – and it’s a brand that even those with no interest in buying a tech-filled watch will have heard being kicked around.
It also just launched its latest set of gadgetry: the Pebble 2, an update to original Classic model, Pebble Time 2 which has a more ‘fashion conscious’ element and the Pebble Core, a clip on wearable that’s new territory for the brand.
But in many ways Pebble is a barometer for the smartwatch industry: a huge flame of interest and furore around the brand to start, but recently it let go 25% of its workforce and has been criticised for its retail techniques of constantly plumbing the Kickstarter well, selling three rounds of new products through the crowdfunded platform where some see it as as place for startups only.
Does that mean this company – and smartwatches in general – are on the wane?
Then again, it’s hard to criticise a retail strategy when it works: Pebble was one of the first big success stories on Kickstarter, making $10 million when it launched its first smartwatch on the crowdfunded platform. Then it repeated the trick with the launch of the Pebble Time, raising even more at the second attempt.
So when it went back again to do the same thing with the third round of new devices – which still proved popular – it forced new thinking about what the crowdfunding platform really is.
“With Kickstarter, 60% of [our customers] already had an account, so there’s a very high overlap between Kickstarter’s audience and ours,” Pebble founder and CEO Eric Migicovsky told TechRadar . “It’s a low barrier to entry and easy for people to back and buy. They understand the platform, so it’s a bit of a no brainer.
“We are a startup, against the largest companies in the world – so we’ll take anything we can get. Companies who spend hundreds of millions on advertising, and we spend basically nothing.”
It’s tricky to say what the company is really advertising though – you’d obviously argue it was the new trio of products, but the main ‘hero’ product is hard to work out. Despite Migicovsky calling smartwatches the future (“People aren’t going to go back to dumb watches,” he says) it’s clear they’re not the primary focus for Pebble, as the spec boost to the wristwear is really minimal.
So what is the future of a company that’s only ever made watches? The clue is in the interloper: the Pebble Core. This tiny little device, so small that “if you carry it in your pocket you can’t feel it”, points to the future of what Pebble is trying to do.
“Our vision is not of building watches but a network of devices around the body, allowing people to talk and live more efficiently,” says Migicovsky.
“Apple and Google are confusing people, [by] making a tiny smartphone on the wrist. People want great innovations, in a place where your phone doesn’t make sense. In the long term we see people using their phone less as a central point of connection.”