Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky is back to the drawing board. Photo by Steven Levy.

Pebble Is Trying to Run Circles Around Apple

It’s still an underdog. But with the smart-watch equivalent of the Swatch, Pebble is graduating from the nerd market.

Fashion is a funny thing. A single distinctive garment or accessory commonly requires an outlay that surpasses the annual income of most of the world’s population. Watches are an extreme example. There are cults of Rolex, Omega, and Patek Philippe, much to the pleasure of Rolex, Omega, and Patek Philippe. The Apple Watch, despite what seems like an ineluctably brief useful life span, clearly aspires to this class. Significantly, the one new Apple Watch accessory announced at the company’s marathon event earlier this month was a Hermes leather band priced at one thousand five hundred dollars. No one blinked, because Apple had already beat it into our brains that its Bluetooth bauble is a luxury item. Its videos had spread the word with respectful whispers, the kind reserved for speaking in the presence of kings and golf tournaments.

But fashion also embraces the funky and the fun. Avatars of style often blend their premium garb with a cool accessory from the flea market or the bargain bin. Especially when the statement is straightforward and functional. Design stripped down to necessity can also be sexy.

That is why Swatch sells millions of watches. They are promoted not by whispers, but joyful pop music, the kind that you sing out loud to in the shower. Swatches may not be expensive but neither are they outré.

Which brings us Pebble, a 160-person company making watches known for value, an avid developer community, and a geeky look that’s only slightly abashed. When I met with its CEO Eric Migicovsky recently, the 29-year-old Canadian sandbagged me. He entered the room with a handful of stuff, including a jewel case the size of a cigar box. Then we talked about Pebble strategy, a conversation climaxing with the announcement of a cosmetically enhanced version of his watch, called the Pebble Time Gold. “Not real gold,” he quickly added, which expresses the difference between Pebble and Apple in a nutshell. The PTG cost $250, fifty more than the Pebble Time Steel, with a metal matching watchband for another fifty.

Only after this marketing foreplay did he open the box, which, I should have realized, had been sitting on the table like the proverbial gun introduced in the first act of a play.

Five watches were inside, and they were unlike any previous Pebbles. These were versions of what he calls the Pebble Time Round and as the name implies, they are round, like the vast majority of watches have been since the beginning of timepieces. And they are thin. The Pebble Time Round is 7.5mm thick. In comparison, the new Moto 360 — one the best looking round smart watchs— is 11.4mm thick. (The Apple Watch is 10.5mm.)

The Pebble Time Round family. Courtesy Pebble.

In one sense, this is not overwhelming. This Pebble is about the thickness of a stack of four quarters, whereas the Apple Watch is exactly six quarters. But forget the measurements. The Pebble Time Round, with a nice leather band crosses the threshold where it looks like you’re not wearing one of those gadgets, but just…a watch. A watch that happens gives you email, sports scores, weather, texts, calendar items, and advance notice when hurricanes are coming. But it’s also casual and kicky enough to slip it on just to know what time it is.

Pebble has just made the Swatch of smart watches.

The Pebble Time Round itself is kind of a huge sandbagging, because Pebble had already made what people assumed was its big move in 2015. This was the Pebble Time, rolled out on Kickstarter on February. When Migicovsky showed it to me, he seemed to exude with confidence that it would be a huge hit. He also professed not to be bothered with the Cupertino juggernaut that many pundits assumed would stop the clock on Pebble. Only now — after the Pebble Time launch set records on Kickstarters— will he admit that maybe he had a doubt or two. “I guess a good CEO has to always be a little bit worried,” he says. At the company headquarters in downtown Palo Alto — the company will move soon to Redwood City — employees held a betting pool on the money pledged by users. “People at the company had some guesses all across the board from a couple million bucks to a lot more,” he says. “But I refrained. I had bet the whole company.”

Within a few minutes, Migicovsky knew that his bet had paid off. On that first day, over 40,000 people flooded the site to order $9 million worth of Pebble Time watches. (The current tally tops $20 million.)

But in barely more time than the bubbles in the champagne he cracked open that day went flat, Pebble got a reminder of where it stood in the larger scheme of things. “We sold a hundred thousand Pebble Times on Kickstarter within thirty days,” says Migocovsky. “And then [two weeks later] Apple came through and sold anywhere between 1.5 and 3 million.” In its first weekend.

Pebble Time Round, black model. Courtesy Pebble.

Furthermore, the Apple Watch — as well as the Android wearables that compete with it — can do things that the Pebble can’t match. Unlike the Pebble, the Apple Watch (as well as a number of Android Wearable watches) instantly allows you to do almost all of the most sophisticated smart phone tasks. Its display is incandescent. And the Apple Watch has an array of versatile sensors that make it a virtual workout coach and even a cardiologist.

But Pebble has a plan. Migicovsky goes to the whiteboard to draw two curves, on similar upward trajectory, one six or seven inches higher than the lower The upper curve represents Apple and its Android counterparts. These are watches with “cell-phone-class technology.” They can improve, but only as fast as new technology allows them. They are locked into their high costs and performance.

Which does not belong? Photo by Steven Levy.

“We, on the other hand, are following a curve that is much cheaper by default, but have different options,” says Migicovsky. “Those other guys can’t go down — they can’t fundamentally get down to our level without dramatically changing their course of curve [because they have set the feature baseline at a very high level]. Whereas we can easily jump up and say, okay well there’s actually a sensor that the other guys are using, we can incorporate that into our technology.” For an example he cites the e-paper display on the Pebble Time watch, which brought color to the company’s products, but in a low-cost implementation.

“So what our company is betting on,” he says, “is that in the future, as we wear more and more technology on our body, the curve that we are riding will be better suited for building that technology.”

Right now, the Pebble’s populist approach also offers some other advantages. It is an open system that works with both Android and Apple phones. It encourages people to hack its innards, so Pebble has a fanatical developer community. And its not-so-secret weapon is a battery life that lasts about a week.

What was a secret is that Pebble was working on a smaller version with a round watch face. “This is not a one-look world,” says Migicovsky. “We’re not one and done — it’s not going to be one Pebble that comes in a couple different colors and that’s it. People will be wearing computers on their body and it seems inappropriate to think that people don’t have individual styles and they aren’t interested in different things to wear and include on their body.” Specifically, Pebble believed that none of the current field of smart watches were really good fits for women, or men with small wrists. (Migicovsky himself, despite his six and a half foot height, claims to be one of these.) It was clear that a round form factor would represent a jump in stylishness — but the key would be slimming down the body.

“Your our only alternative up until this point, if you wanted something round, was a hockey puck,” he says.

Pebble Time Round, silver model. Courtesy Pebble.

The result was something that, according to Pebble’s chief of staff Kristin Culp, weighs about half of the avoirdupois of an Apple Watch. (Actually, even the lighter versions of Apple Watch, including band, are more than twice the weight of the new 29 gram Pebble.) “It’s so light I forget I’m wearing it,” she says.

You would think that the challenge of making a smart watch that lightweight would require a bus full of geniuses smuggled out of the Apple design lab. And it is true that some hardware wizardry was required in engineering the case and overcoming some other challenges. But it was actually one single factor allowed Pebble to manufacture the Pebble Round. And it was less a feat of technology than it was a compromise.

Mainly, they just made the battery smaller.

It turns out that for smart watches most of what occupies the enclosure is devoted to energy storage. By shrinking the battery, you could move from hockey puck to poker chip. So instead of the Pebble Time’s week of battery life, the round version is good for only two days. This erodes one of Pebble’s key advantages. But to compensate, Pebble has devised a quick-charge capability that takes a drained watch up to 80 percent in fifteen minutes.

Of course there were other issues. “When you start getting this small, things start hitting into each other,” says Migicovsky. “The other thing was whether could we re-imagine the Pebble experience in a circular form factor.”

This has been a thorny issue, as information generally wants to be displayed in a rectangle or square, and circles — while superb for time-telling — aren’t really optimal for reading.

Fortunately, Pebble had planned for this in advance. When the company switched to a new operating system earlier this year — organizing information around a timeline — it forced developers to format information in a way that would be separated from the ultimate means of display. Thus when ESPN handles data about the score of a football game, for instance, the Pebble operating system can show it to the user in either a square or circular format — without cutting off any information. (Think how lame it would have been if your favorite team’s point total was lopped off by the curve of a circle.)

The scheme isn’t perfect — “Watch faces, for example, don’t work magically,” admits Migicovsky. And it remains to be seen how much Pebble’s approach will really keep all the information inside the circle. But he believes the extra effort required of developers will be more than worth it. “The benefits of going to a circle will really spark people’s imaginations,” he says. “I mean, [round is] the classic watch, right?

Another twist to the Pebble Time Round is that two of the five models accommodate a slimmer size leather band — 14mm wide, as opposed to 20mm on the other three. That’s the classic size of a “ladies” watch. “So on a woman’s wrist, for example, we think Pebble Time Round is the first smart watch that looks appropriate,”says Migicovsky.

Since even the wider band on the other three models is a bit slimmer than that of previous Pebble watches (22mm), this means that Pebble now has three different widths for its bands. This is somewhat of a drawback for Pebble’s development community, which now must design for three sizes of watchbands, figuring out how many of each to manufacture. (Third-party watchband makers are important to Pebble since the company has opened the door for “smart bands” that introduce some of the sensor technology that the Pebble otherwise lacks.) “We’ve got them working double time,” says Migicovsky. But they will need to work triple time.

Pebble Time Round, rose gold model. Courtesy Pebble.

The company plans to ship units on November 8, with preorders being taken at Best Buy, Target and Amazon as well as Pebble’s own site. It comes in silver, black and (hold on, Tim Cook)… rose gold. The price? $250. “I think this solidifies who Pebble is and what we’re building for,” says Migicovsky. “We are explicitly not trying to build the Rolex of the world.”

Indeed, that’s exactly one-sixth what you would pay for an Apple Watch band from Hermes. In fact, the Pebble Time Round’s low price and lightweight, non-geeky look might well move some Apple Watch owners to add one of these for casual wear. After all, the word “Swatch” is a portmanteau of the words “second watch.”

Co-existence with Cupertino would be just fine for Eric Migicovsky. “Pebble is not going to just run over Apple — I think it would be foolish to say otherwise,” he says. “But we are shooting some pretty good pebbles at the Goliath.”

This is the second in the series “Adventures of Pebble.” I will drop in on Migicovsky and his team periodically for inside views of how the company is faring.

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