Watches Make a Comeback as High-Tech Smartphone Accessories

Ryan Derousseau

When Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky put his idea for a "smartwatch" on the fundraising site Kickstarter, he needed a stopwatch instead of a calendar to measure how fast the money came in. Within five days of launching, he had blown past the site record of $3.3 million. He originally asked for $100,000.
Now that the fundraising has ended, Pebble finds itself with nearly 69,000 backers, over $10 million in the bank, and a sold-out product line. And all of this hoopla for a device that synchs to your smartphone using Bluetooth technology, moving some of the capabilities found in your pocket to your wrist. Ever want to post to Facebook through your watch? Pebble offers that. Caller ID? Check. Read email? Done. Then Pebble added an e-ink display to make it easy to read in daylight and a battery that goes seven days between charges, and people clamored to be among the first to have the $150 timepiece. Pebble hoped to start shipping the device to its Kickstarter backers in September, but the launch has been delayed. There’s no new date set yet.

Watches have become an antiquated technology, moving from necessity to fashion. Supplanted by phones and apps, does the watch need technological breakthroughs to keep ticking? Companies have begun sprouting up with the hope that these watches can find a niche for those looking for more capabilities at a flick of the wrist. Or does the Pebble's success prove smartwatches are the future?
“I think that the watch industry is at a crossroads,” said Peter Hauser, creator of a Pebble competitor called the COOKOO watch. “People in the connected generation have a choice now -- they can use their phone as their pocket watch, or wear a watch on their wrist. This choice has led many to abandon watch ownership all together.” 
Hauser’s iteration doesn’t need recharging, adding an extra layer of convenience. It finished its round of Kickstarter fundraising as well, doubling its goal of raising $150,000. The company hopes to have watches shipped out this November.

With the sudden interest in high-tech watches at an all-time high, Yahoo! Tech caught up with Migicovsky to discuss his resounding success on Kickstarter and to peer into the future of smartwatches.

Tech It Up!: What was the inspiration behind Pebble? Had there been other iterations? Or was Pebble your first watch?
Migicovsky: The paradigm behind Pebble was a more seamless integration of information in daily situations. The idea is that many people carry around smartphones, which have access to an incredible amount of information, however the form factor in which they present this information is quite restrictive and doesn't accommodate a lot of daily activities. With Pebble, you can be connected to your phone even when your phone is inconvenient to manage.

Tech It Up!: When you first launched Pebble on Kickstarter, you only asked for $100,000. How did you come up with that number? What were your dreams to do with that money besides making watches?
Pebble: The hundred-thousand mark was accounting for the manufacture of about 1,000 units of Pebble and allowed us to maintain a team of two full-time employees and a few part-time contractors. One hundred thousand would have allowed us to push a limited quantity of Pebbles to our backer's wrists and really nothing more.
Tech It Up!: Pebble seems to be just as much a software company as a watch company. What are the possibilities that your current software could provide in the future? How high-tech can a watch become?
Migicovsky: On the contrary, we are keeping Pebble as low tech as possible, at least as far as smartwatches go. Our model still relies on the smartphone to do all the heavy lifting and processing while the Pebble basically acts as an extra display. We are definitely focusing on the software-based possibilities for the Pebble. We realized that a lot of people have some great ideas for information they'd like on a wearable display —- this is why we are making a free and open SDK [software development kit] that will allow custom watch faces and applications.
Tech It Up!: How important is it to differentiate it from the phone for fear that the two things will merge into one since it seems the technology could be there?
Migicovsky: The Pebble is definitely not a replacement for a smartphone -- in fact, its functionality beyond being a timepiece is quite limited without a smartphone around. So, we continue to emphasize that the Pebble is meant to compliment one’s smartphone. Having said that, I don't think people are confusing the Pebble for the wrist-worn phone.

Tech It Up!: Since Pebble's astounding fundraising on Kickstarter, there have been a few new watches to launch on the platform as well. Do you think you opened yourself to more competition earlier in the process than you would have if say your business raised $500,000 to start? Did it sort of fast-forward your company's need to grow?

Migicovsky: We're very happy to see other wrist-worn devices show up on Kickstarter -- I think other such projects just grow the wearable technology marketplace. Considering the market still hasn't reached maturity and the technology is new to a lot of non-early-tech adopters, other projects in the same space really help us create more of a mainstream push.
Tech It Up!: What's the next step for Pebble? Besides making the 85,000 watches, are you currently developing any new ideas? Anything that you can share?

Migicovsky: We're currently focused on developing the Pebble for Fall 2012. We do have some cool ideas for the next generation, but that's not something we're focusing on at the moment.