If you’re crafting a list of influential tech giants, Pebble Technology probably isn’t all that close to the top of it. But had a few things gone a bit differently over the past few years? It could’ve been. Apple Watches and Fitbits are ubiquitous today. But flashback a decade ago, and the idea of smartwatches and wearable technology was nascent, nerdy and largely unproven.
It was in that wild west of consumer technology, circa 2012, that Pebble Technology decided to take its burgeoning smartwatch expertise to the masses with a crowdfunding campaign to offer the company’s first formal product: the Pebble watch. As Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky explained to Paste, his team already had some experience figuring out the tentpoles of how a potential smartwatch might work, having started back in 2008 with the inPulse watch designed for Blackberry phones (it found some modest success, but didn’t move the needle).
Looking to do something more ambitious with broader appeal, Migicovsky and his team developed the Pebble watch and decided to sidestep more traditional tech funding routes and took their pitch straight to consumers on Kickstarter. They hoped to raise $100,000 to get a modest run of Pebble watches produced. When the campaign’s clock hit zero, they’d raised more than $10 million.
“The night before our campaign started the four of us at Pebble were making predictions about how much money we’d raise on Kickstarter,” Migicovsky said. “Our original goal was $100,000 for the month-long campaign. I realistically thought we might raise $5,000 on the first day. Our intern was the most optimistic, he thought we’d get $20,000. In the first 24 hours we raised $500,000. It felt incredible.”
Pebble would spend years atop Kickstarter’s record book, and the company’s product line remains among the most successful crowdfunding projects in history. Pebble would go on to release multiple lines of watches, ranging from the more professional Pebble Steel, the very watch-like Pebble Round (which eschewed the typical square smartwatch design for a round face), and the company’s final project: the fun, almost Swatch-like Pebble Time 2.
Along the way, the company pioneered what a smartwatch could do and how it should function, developing health and data tracking features, notification and calendar functions, all largely from scratch. Instead of a touchscreen, Pebble watches used chunky, physical side buttons for navigation. The watches also used energy-efficient E-Paper screens, which meant a typical Pebble watch could run for weeks and weeks on a single charge — which as anyone who has to charge their Apple Watch twice per day can attest — remains a killer feature.
Though it obviously made the Pebble cheaper to manufacture, Migicovsky said he actually preferred the physical buttons over a touchscreen, since physical buttons can be easier to navigate without looking. “I loved having physical buttons and still can’t really stand using any smartwatch without them,” he said. “I love being able to blindly pause my music or reject an incoming call.”
Pebble watches were compatible with iOS and Android phones, and sometimes pushed the boundaries to bring as many features as possible to their users, though that meant Pebble sometimes butted heads with Apple as they tried to wring as much functionality as possible out of Apple’s notoriously closed ecosystem.
Though Pebble developed a dedicated, fervent user base that was happy to back every new Kickstarter and upgrade to the newest watch every year or so, the company’s products still never broke through to the mainstream. They became fan-favorite gadgets among techies and early adopters, but as the market got a whole lot more competitive with the release of the Apple Watch and more refined fitness trackers, Pebble’s niche remained just that — a niche.
Like it does in most categories it enters, Apple sucked the air out of the room when it came to the smartwatch market. A smaller player like Pebble, even with the benefit of a hefty head start, simply didn’t stand a chance.
The company’s final Kickstarter campaign was a smashing success, raising over $12 million, but it still wasn’t enough to keep the company open. Only one of the three promised products ever made it to market before Pebble ran out of money and sold off its intellectual property to Fitbit in 2016. The Pebble 2 — an upgraded, colorful spin on the company’s original watch — went down in history as the company’s final product to hit shelves. The more premium Pebble Time 2, and a hackable, screen-less gadget dubbed the Pebble Core, didn’t make it past the prototype stage before the company folded.
To its credit, Fitbit supported the Pebble user base for a couple of years after the company shut down, and the user base itself stepped up after that to keep watches online with updated software, functionality, and app support through the user-run Rebble project. Thanks to those efforts, to this day thousands of Pebble watches are still chugging along on wrists across the globe. Migicovsky said it’s that love among users, and the pioneering spirit of Pebble, that makes him proud 10 years after the inaugural Kickstarter campaign that started it all.
“I mean, we invented the smartwatch. There were a few proto-smartwatches before Pebble, but we solidified what a smartwatch was and what benefits it could present,” he said. “My favorite part is that now, five years after we sold to Fitbit, Pebbles are still working great. What other piece of technology do you have that works well five years after the company that made it ceased to exist?”
But what if Pebble had survived? If the company could have cobbled together enough funding to stay afloat, Migicovsky says they would’ve refocused on serving the users who kept the company going to that point, with a potential fourth release line more along the conceptual trajectory of the Pebble 2 and Pebble Core.
“We would have doubled down on the hacker/Swatch aesthetic and focused on our core set of users,” Migicovsky said of where the company would have pivoted.
Now 10 years after the first Pebble crowdfunding campaign, and more than five years after the company shut down, what smartwatch is Migicovsky using these days? Did he follow his intellectual property and adopt a Fitbit, or go with the masses and switch to an Apple Watch? Though he’s teased Pebble fans on Twitter showing off a prototype of the Time 2, Migicovsky says his daily driver is actually Pebble’s final formal release, the Pebble 2 with heart rate monitoring.
“You’ll have to pry it from my cold dead hands!,” he joked.
Migicovsky carries that same passion into his latest project, a universal messaging app called Beeper that works across all major operating systems, from iOS to Linux.
The Pebble story is a wild ride, the saga of a company that cut a path through the jungle and created a new tech category where one didn’t exist — yet still didn’t have enough juice to live in the world it helped build. Pebble may be gone, but at least it won’t be forgotten. At least not for a few more years anyway, so long as those old watches keep working.