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Eric Migicovsky. Photo: Vivian Johnson

A Pebble in Apple’s Shoe

In the battle for your wrist, a small company thinks it can hold off the tech giants by going back to its Kickstarter roots— with a watch called Time

I made it a point to visit Eric Migicovsky on September 10, 2014. It was the day after the lavish event announcing the Apple Watch, the long-anticipated wrist computer that many observers predicted would be the end of the nice little smart-watch business called Pebble that Migicovsky had been building since 2008. Pebble’s big breakthrough had come two years earlier, with a record-setting Kickstarter debut. Though Pebble has since carved out a sweet niche for itself, I suspected that the shockwaves from Cupertino the previous day might have shattered the windows and upended the whiteboards in the loft-like space in central Palo Alto where Pebble was headquartered. I was even feeling a little guilty at my shameful attempt to rubberneck a promising business at just the moment when dreams turned to twisted metal.

I arrived early so as not to be trampled by a rush of employees seeking to divest stock options. But the Pebble-ites in attendance seemed to be surprisingly calm, conducting their morning routines as if the world had not crumbled around them. Then came Migicovsky. For a broken man, he seemed pretty chipper. Tall (6’ 6”) and male-modelish (you would cast him for a Superman sequel, set in the period between Smallville and Metropolis), the 28-year-old CEO bounded into the office with a hop in his step and his usual puppy-dog smile.

OK, I told myself, he’s Canadian. He can’t help smiling.

Whether delusional, manically focused or simply well-rehearsed, Migicovsky chose to view the Apple announcement as a plus for Pebble. “It’s pretty incredible to see the world’s largest company come into the watch space,” he said. “It’s validating something I’ve known for the last six and a half years—that the next generation of computing will be on your body.”

And then he ticked off the advantages Pebble had over the specs of Apple’s vaunted vapor-wearable: a week-long battery life, compatibility with iOS and Android, and a wide-open API that let developers run wild with apps. Oh, and its cost—$99 for the standard model and $199 for the deluxe Pebble Steel — was a fraction of Apple’s stated opening bid of $349. (Of course, Pebble does not have the dazzle element of Apple’s promised offering, like a super-high-res touch screen, a wide variety of exotic sensors, and a world class Marc Newson/Jony Ive design.)

Still, Pebble was refusing to bow. And in the weeks following that meeting, the company had a blowout holiday season that ended with its millionth unit sold, just before the ball dropped on 2014.

What Migicovsky did not tell me on that September day was the contents of Pebble’s pipeline. For that I had to return to the Palo Alto headquarters in mid-February. The place seemed to be more bustling than usual: it had the unmistakable frisson of a small company preparing a big launch. Indeed, the company was only weeks away from debuting an entirely new product: the Pebble Time. (The announcement date is February 24.) Unlike the previous generation of Pebble, the Time has a color display, courtesy of the first smart-watch implementation of a mysterious new e-paper technology. It also has an ingenious new operating system that may be transformative in itself.

What’s more, Pebble is going back to Kickstarter to launch it. That’s something else that the biggest company in the world can’t match.

I first met Migicovsky when he was a founder of one of 43 startups enrolled in the Winter 2011 session of the Y Combinator incubator. His company, then called InPulse, might have been the only hardware startup in the bunch. He had arrived from Waterloo, Ontario, with a little funding from the government and an ungainly wrist computer that worked only with the BlackBerry OS. Still, he felt confident that his plan was a winner — to put the notifications, weather info, sports scores and other timely data (like time) on a wrist display. He was 25 and had already been at it for three years.

Early in the session, the Y Combinator founders learned that they would be offered funding from investor Ron Conway and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. Every startup in the group received $150,000 at impossibly favorable terms. For almost all of the young companies in that group, the bonus was a launch pad for more significant sums from angel investors or venture capital firms. But not InPulse; investors were steering clear of hardware startups in those days. Migicovsky left the program with around $300,000 total and spent all of it on manufacturing Blackberry-compatible InPulses that he couldn’t sell.

In a hail-Mary move, Migicovsky rebooted his company. He renamed the product, made it compatible with multiple operating systems, made the watch waterproof, and contracted with Chinese factories to produce thousands of units. To pay for all of that, Pebble took to the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter on April 10, 2012. The goal of the 37-day campaign was to raise $100,000 in pre-orders. Would-be customers pledged that sum in two hours. And they kept coming: a total of 68,929 people ordering over $10 million worth of Pebbles. (It could have been more: Migicovsky pulled the plug a week before the period ended. Why get greedy?) “It felt fresh and tangible,” says Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler. “And it had a price point that was enticing and did not scare people away.” It remained Kickstarter’s biggest project until last August, a record of 862 days.

Since then, Migicovsky has built a thriving developer community (over 26,000 have written over 6000 Pebble apps — everything from golf aids to one that rolls six-sided dice for Dungeons and Dragons); introduced a premium model, Pebble Steel; and forged partnerships, including one with Jawbone that takes Pebble more deeply into the quantified-self personal fitness category. He got retailers like Best Buy to sell the Pebble. Meanwhile, major competitors began selling smart watches on the Android platform, notably Samsung’s Gear and the Moto 360. Their reviews were mixed. None of this quelled Pebble’s momentum. On December 31, it sold its millionth watch.

“Pebble didn’t break any new boundaries for fashion,” says Migicovsky. “It didn’t revolutionize anything. But it was the first smart watch that people would actually consider putting on their wrists.”

Photo: Vivian Johnson

But in 2015 that wouldn’t be enough. Pebble would need a major upgrade.

Migicovsky understood this years ago. In our mid-February conversation, he lays out the process for me as we sit in a small windowless conference room—Tintin books on the coffee table. He had entered carrying a paperbound copy of Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine.

In November 2013, he gathered the entire company—around 25 people at the time—for a multi-day brainstorming session. They met in the Tintin room. (There is a kind of company obsession with the beady-eyed Belgian cartoon character.) Everyone was asked to envision walking through a day in their life with their version of a reimagined Pebble. “We challenged people to start with blank slate,” he says. “It could be software, it could be hardware, it could be a watch, it could be not a watch. Just walk me through a day in the life. We focused on a day because one of our stated goals and my core belief is that we want to make technology that is with you every single day of your life. There were some pretty crazy ideas.”

If there was a logic to the craziness it was this: a new version of Pebble had to involve everyday activities that would appeal to a broader audience. “We knew we were choosing a different path than Apple and Google,” says Migicovsky. “Apple is this beautiful, high-class, expensive jewelry piece that’s not even called a smart-watch. Google is enabling the Android Google Now watch — or something like that — that shows you what Google wants you to see. [It’s actually called Android Wear.] We’re building something for people who live busy lives. Who have a schedule and try their best to stick with it. Who communicate with each other on a regular basis. We are not building a watch for a person who has a Rolex. We are not building a watch for a scuba diver. We are building something for people who want to get shit done.”

Project Snowy was launched. Named, of course, after Tintin’s dog.

The company went through multiple iterations in hardware, a process made immeasurably easier by two 3D printers on site. “We built a shit load of watches,” says Migicovsky. The result is something that sits on the wrist more comfortably than current models, and this thinner model looks a little less geeky. It’s also got a microphone, allowing users to make voice notes.

The big leap in hardware involved a color display. When Apple and more usable Android watches appear, monochrome might be a deal breaker for the new users Pebble wants to reach. But Pebble didn’t want to give up the advantages that came from restricting itself to black and white. Its current models are perfectly viewable in bright sunlight. The display is always on. And it’s ridiculously low power. He didn’t want to lose those Pebble differentiators. “We looked at OLED,” he says. “We looked at LCD. We looked at retina screens and some of them looked fucking beautiful. The caveat is that they suck the battery dry.” Finding a color display that satisfied his demands seemed impossible.

“But we found one,” he says, grinning at the achievement.

What they found was a color e-paper display. This has been sort of a white whale of gadgetry. E-paper technology is known for its static nature, visibility in sunlight and battery conservation. For many years, Amazon had been expected to deliver a color version of its e-ink technology in its Kindle devices; it even bought the leading company in the field to corner the market on what seemed to be the inevitable rollout of a color version. But color e-ink never appeared in Amazon’s products, presumably because the displays always looked dull, like comic books left out in the rain. Kindles are still monochrome; Amazon’s tablets use a high-quality HD display.

Migicovsky says he found a supplier in Tokyo that solved the problem, at least as far as watch displays are concerned. (He won’t reveal the name of the company.) “It’s not going to break any records for number of pixels or whatever,” he says. “But it does what it has to do to be on a smart watch. It’s color, it’s always on and it uses, for all intents and purposes, the exact same power as our black-and-white display.”

But how does it look? To answer, Migicovsky opens the Kidder book to what I had assumed was a thick bookmark. It is his new watch.

“So this is Pebble Time,” he says.

A watch called…Time. No one thought of this before? It’s even more obvious than, um, Apple Watch.

The 64-color display doesn’t jump at you like the Apple Watch or even a brightly colored Android wearable. You are not going to use it to scan through your Instagrams or watch clips from John Oliver. But the color is perfectly fine for the highlighting tasks it will perform on the watch, allowing for a more meaningful information display in the constraints of a space barely larger than a mahjong tile.

And it won’t eat up the battery. Same seven-days-on-a-charge.

In a sense, though, color is a distraction from what Migicovsky and his team believe is the real advance in the watch: a radical new interface metaphor. Because Pebble was out there so early, it had the luxury to rethink the digital watch when others were still preparing the wearables that reflected their first thoughts.

Migicovsky thinks that every smart watch he’s seen — including Pebble — is unwieldy in the way it tries to balance its functions. Apps are great for smart phones, but they quickly overwhelm the user on tiny watch faces. The Pebble itself has eight virtual “slots” for apps, and even that presents a juggling challenge. “The smart watch has been dramatically lacking in a metaphor,” he says.

So Pebble came up with one, the same metaphor that provided a name for the new watch: Time. To explain, Migicovsky calls in Pebble’s head of product, Itai Vonshak, a veteran of LG, Palm and HP who joined Pebble last July. “It’s a very, very simple idea,” he says. “We want to make the best time piece ever. So we said, hey, what if we put everything on a timeline? Apps go and fade into the background. I don’t even care about apps. You see 2:48 — what does that mean? It a very different meaning if I’m late for a meeting or not late for a meeting. It’s very different if I have to go somewhere and there’s a hurricane outside.”

Photos: Vivian Johnson

Migicovsky adds that instead of apps, people will download functions — like travel, sports scores, weather and so on. The data formerly presented within apps will be available to the watch, but will appear only on the proper time. (This data may come not only from a Bluetooth-connected phone, but other hardware devices attaching to a data port on the watch, something not found on the original Pebble.) He describes it as taking away the walls of the app. “You have better things to do in your life than click around your watch to open up new things,” he says.

As they describe the things the watch does — reminding you of meetings, giving you the scores of games played by your favorite teams — the experience is beginning to sound a lot like Google Now. But Itai insists it’s better. “Google tries to be predictive, but you don’t know what’s coming next — it’s this barrage of things, and they’re not organized by something you can understand.” It’s all about time. If you want to know the score of a Phillies game, you flash back to the day it was played. If you want to know how many steps you walked last Tuesday, flash back to then. Pebble Time owners will all be the Marty McFly’s of their own domains, mashing past, present and future to take advantage of their disaggregated apps. It remains to be seen how easily traveling through time will be via Pebble’s pushbutton navigation.

The unfamiliar interface is a big risk for Pebble. (Fortunately, the Time watch is backward-compatible with all previous Pebble apps, so the timid can set their timepieces to the past. On the other hand, older Pebbles will eventually be able to upgrade to the new OS.) Thousands of Pebble app developers will be wondering if their products fit into the timeline metaphor. Migicovsky is assuring that “pretty much 90 percent of the things you do with a watch can be overlaid onto a timeline.” One exception, he admits, is games, but even then some functions — like feeding a Tamagotchi pet — can work into the timeline metaphor. Time to feed the creature!

Photo: Vivian Johnson

As the Pebble Time got closer to launching, Migicovsky and his team began thinking about how they should announce it. There had been a lot of smart watches appearing recently — Migicovsky claims to have lost count — and he felt it necessary to make a splash. “This watch is different and we know it’s different,” he says. “ We knew we could not launch it in the same standard way that others do. That would not do it justice.”

They kicked around ideas like launching it in all 10,000 retail outlets where Pebbles are sold. Or using one distributor, such as Amazon. Or maybe only selling to a limited number of invited buyers, to create exclusivity. But they kept coming back to the idea of returning to Kickstarter.

In a sense, Pebble never left Kickstarter. During the initial process, Migicovsky — compelled to quell possible revolts from early buyers demanding their units — was relentless in using the platform to update them on the progress. “Companies with VC investors had two or three investors—we had 69,000,” says Migicovsky. “We had to deliver. I posted 40 blog posts during the campaign. We did video posts of the factory.” Later, new developers launched dozens of apps and hardware enhancements on Kickstarter — Pebble would often help fund those and in a few cases hired the creators.

“Our origins are Kickstarter and it’s our core user base,” says Ben Bryant, who is overseeing the launch process for Pebble. “They got us where we are today. And by going back to them we get to continue the conversation with them.” (There are already over 15,000 comments on the Pebble Kickstarter page.)

Unlike the first time around, Pebble is perfectly capable of financing its launch without the money from pre-orders, but as Kickstarter CEO Strickler says, money is not always the main reason for a crowdsourced project. “The Pebble Time project will show that the real power and utility of our platform is not in money, it’s in community and distribution,” he says.

Pebble feels that a Kickstarter launch, which features explanatory videos and a range of options for different price points, will not only tighten its connection with its users, but explain what’s different about the Pebble Time for newcomers. To make the launch seem more like an event, the company is planning some surprises, too. Instead of revealing all the product’s secrets right away, it will dribble out subsequent Pebble Time revelations in “a month of fun” following the announcement. Those ordering early will have an opportunity to upgrade their purchases if they prefer whatever deluxe versions may appear in the coming few weeks.

After all, despite its million-unit sales, the 130-person company is still a relatively shoestring operation. Apple will undoubtedly sell over a million watches in its first weekend. By then, though, Pebble hopes to have served an overflow Kickstarter crowd of eager buyers. (Though Migicovsky says, “Our manufacturing capabilities have grown quite a bit—we’re ready for whatever is thrown at us.”) All to create momentum for a wearable with a scrappier feel to it, something that may not wind up in Vogue but nevertheless “gets shit done.”

And the price remains right: the early birds first to order the Pebble Time on Kickstarter will pay $159; those buying later in the campaign will buy Time at $179. That’s a discount from what will be a $199 sticker price. “Pebble will officially be the indie alternative to the Apple Watch,” says Strickler.

The underdog role suits Eric Migicovsky just fine. As April and the Apple Watch approaches, others can say that the clock is ticking on Pebble, and charge that its future is as dim as the feature phone’s. Migicovsky believes that time is on his side.

This is the first 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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Steven Levy

Steven Levy

Writing for Wired, Used to edit Backchannel here. Just wrote Facebook: The Inside Story.