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Mobile Summit 2013: In Smart Watch Category, Pebble Still Awaits the Big Competition

Pebble, the smart watch upstart, is charging ahead while computing giants mull their product plans.

In April 2012, Eric Migicovsky launched a Kickstarter campaign for Pebble, the smart watch that went on to attract almost 70,000 backers and set the tone for an emerging product category that companies including Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Samsung are all likely to pursue. Despite all the buzz, he’s still waiting for the big competitors to show up.

“It’s been a year, and no one’s been able to match what we’ve done yet,” he said, speaking on stage at MIT Technology Review’s San Francisco Mobile Summit, as Apple’s annual developer conference came and went just a few blocks away with no big news on the so-called iWatch. After production delays, Pebble recently finished shipping to its funders and has started fulfilling a long list of pre-orders.

What remains to be seen is how many people really want to buy a smart watch, period. A lot may depend on how useful they find the gadget, and how fashionable, too. Any future iWatch, for example, with a link to Apple’s ecosystem and team of Steve Jobsian hardware designers, will likely have a big advantage over a mere Pebble. But products from these large companies might also boost the broader appeal of wearing a computing on one’s wrist. 

Pebble is trying to create its own mini-ecosystem. Migicovsky considers Pebble a device that links with a smartphone and also provides a platform for other wearable device apps. In May, Pebble released a software developers kit so that developers could build simple apps and games that communicate with a phone. Already, he says, someone has created a hack so that Pebble can talk to Google Glass (as if trying to set the record for how many computers one can wear at once).

More practically, there have been more than 600 apps created so far for Pebble, and Migicovsky showed off a few in his talk. Many relate to fitness and health, or sending notifications to the watch. Some seem niche—there’s an app that checks the latest trading prices for Bitcoin, and someone else has rigged Pebble to let him know when his food is done in the microwave. But many functions indeed seem useful, such as calendar and weather notifications. Migicovsky even showed me some simple games that can be played on Pebble with its side buttons. He hopes one day he’ll be able to open his front door with Pebble.  

Migicovsky does clearly expect some big competition to enter the market in the next year, but he hopes his company’s head start will keep Pebble ahead of the curve. In May, Pebble raised $15 million from Charles River Ventures to keep growing as a company. The company also at some point plans to keep building the ecosystem by setting up ways for developers to charge for apps, he told me after yesterday’s conference. Either way, Migicovsky seems pretty game for Apple et al to join him in his quest to engineer the wristwatch’s big comeback. 

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