Forget the Apple Watch, Pebble is far more fascinating

Pebble Time
Pebble Time
Pebble has weighed heavily on my mind since Digital Trends first asked me to write a weekly column about wearables last year. For most people who follow the field, the company had become something of a footnote, a blip on the radar of the wearables conversation. But in 2012, Pebble was everywhere.

The unknown startup from San Francisco initiated the wearables conversation, shifting the notion of the smartwatch from the theoretical and gimmicky to the legitimate. Sure, it’s not a mainstream success, but $10,266,844 pledged by 68,928 people sure looked like the beginning of a movement.

That a tiny unfamiliar company could generate that level of excitement among early adopters seemed like a surefire sign that the wave was about to crest. Just imagine what would happen when well established companies like Samsung and Apple joined the fray!

Pebble jump-started the wearables conversation, shift-ing the notion of the smartwatch from the theoretical to the legitimate.

Of course, even in the fast-paced world of technology, such shifts don’t occur overnight. And while every subsequent year has been declared “the year of the wearable,” wearable supply has handily outpaced demand and pundits have sat with bated breath, waiting for the Apple Watch to arrive and vindicate years of anticipation. Along the way, Pebble seemed to lose its footing in the serious conversation about smart wearables.

It’s a shame, really. There’s no metric by which Pebble isn’t a success, including hardware, product space, and the way in which the company completely transformed the conversation about crowdfunding as a viable method of creating a business and distributing a product. And the consequence of generating that level of early excitement was opening up the floodgates for companies both large and small to enter the field.

What’s been most striking about Pebble in the intervening two and half years is the company’s silence. Until this week, the biggest splash the company made since its first campaign was the release of the Pebble Steel at CES 2014. The product arrived in the wake of insistence from the CEO that the company had no plans for new hardware, instead opting to focus on optimizing the existing device’s user experience.

And in a sense, the Steel didn’t break from that promise. The device was essentially the old hardware in a shiny new package. Surely the company would be releasing a completely new watch soon to stay ahead of the smartwatch curve. I know I, for one, banked on CES 2015 being a big return to form for the company. Here’s a thing I wrote in the lead up to the show:

“With Apple’s product in sight, expect the wrist to continue to be the battleground on which much of CES 2015’s wearable war is waged — particularly for those companies who, quite frankly, have just about everything to lose. Namely: the fine people at Pebble.”

Oops.

Here’s a thing I wrote the week after, “This year, however, there was nary a peep out of the company, an absence that seemed to speak volumes in a show otherwise drowning in wearables.”

So it turns out I was off by about a month and a half. Perhaps Pebble didn’t want to be drowned out by the media scrum during the biggest week in technology. A more likely scenario, I think, is that the company just wasn’t ready in time. After all, it had managed to dominate the conversation the year before with what was essentially a spiffed up version of its older device.

Maybe things like scalable manufacturing and crowd-funding are creating a new model for hardware sales.

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, Pebble is still an extremely small company with just over 100 employees. That the company is even in the conversation at all at this point is a staggering feat. As CEP Eric Migicovsky is happily pointing out in his current press rounds, Pebble is “the most popular smart watch platform in the world right now.”

And just as I was wondering how much cache the company still carried in the wake of its non-appearance at CES, the Pebble Time goes and hits its $500,000 goal in 17 minutes flat. Thirty-two minutes later, it became the fastest company to hit $1 million on the site, beating the previous record holder by near two hours. At last count, the company had racked up $10.5 million in pledges, pulling in more than its last campaign in under two days.

This money is coming from people willing to buy a Pebble Time based entirely upon the company’s reputation and a Kickstarter video. That’s a lot of people eager to not have yet another tech vertical dominated by two behemoths. And it’s a lot of people who don’t seem to mind that the company went back to the Kickstarter well once again.

The Pebble Time has certainly proven the company isn’t a one-hit wonder, but once Apple enters the picture, the company is going to have to switch tactics. There’s an excellent chance that the next time the company’s CEO makes media rounds with a new project, he will no longer be able to claim the number one smartwatch position. It’s a question that’s been at the forefront of every interview he’s done. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if the guy has answered more questions about the Apple Watch than Tim Cook and Jony Ive combined.

What’s struck me about his answers is not only the absence of exasperation, but the notion that Pebble can peacefully coexist in a world with competing products from Samsung and Apple. Perhaps he’s just a bit of a pragmatist, or maybe there’s something to the notion that not every single company in the space needs to be number one at all costs.

Consumers have become so used to technology spaces dominated by one or two names that it seems impossible that the arrival of the Apple Watch won’t spell almost certain doom for the company. But maybe the Watch will be a blessing in disguise. If it’s successful, it will create a lot of new smartwatch owners. And if Pebble delivers a superior product, the company will benefit from the exact product many are predicting will spell its doom.

With every subsequent product, Pebble keeps pushing the conversation forward. I hope the company can stick around a good while longer. Wearables will be better for it.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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