Are the good times over for Pebble watch?

Small firm is fac­ing stiff com­pe­ti­tion from the likes of tech gi­ants Ap­ple and Google.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Tracey Lien

SAN FRAN­CISCO — Time’s a tick­ing for Pebble.

As the Palo Alto smart­watch maker started send­ing the lat­est model of its phone-con­nected watches last week to those who helped fund its devel­op­ment, an­a­lysts cast doubt over its abil­ity to com­pete with the likes of Ap­ple Inc. and Google Inc.

“They’re in a very dif­fi­cult po­si­tion right now,” said tech­nol­o­gist Stephen Fluin, an ex­pert on mo­bile phones and wear­able de­vices. “They were the first smart­watch of any kind of scale, they sold more than a mil­lion of the orig­i­nal, and they have a lot of fa­vor in the com­mu­nity. Flash for­ward to now af­ter a year of An­droid Wear and the re­cent launch of Ap­ple Watch, and the re­al­i­ties of their project have be­come more ap­par­ent.”

Ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts, Pebble faces two chal­lenges: a lack of re­sources com­pared with its com­pe­ti­tion and an on­go­ing strug­gle to de­fine its au­di­ence.

With the for­mer, Pebble was ini­tially funded through crowd­fund­ing plat­form Kick­starter, where it raised $10.3 mil­lion in 2012, mak­ing it one of the most suc­cess­ful fundrais­ing cam­paigns of its kind. But com­pared with Ap­ple and Google — two tech be­he­moths with bil­lions of dol­lars at their dis­posal — Pebble faces an up­hill battle in re­cruit­ing the tal­ent, de­vel­op­ing the tech­nol­ogy and in­vest­ing in the

mar­ket­ing re­quired to com­pete at the same level. The pri­vately held com­pany did not re­lease rev­enue in­for­ma­tion.

An­a­lysts have said smaller smart­watch mak­ers don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to com­pete head to head with the likes of Ap­ple and Google to be suc­cess­ful and prof­itable. But to re­main rel­e­vant, they do need to clearly dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves — and an­a­lysts aren’t con­vinced Pebble has done that.

Ap­ple and Google have po­si­tioned their watches as luxury fash­ion items as op­posed to geeky gad­gets, pur­su­ing a more main­stream au­di­ence. Pebble has been less clear about whom its watch is for.

The Pebble isn’t as re­fined as Ap­ple or Google’s of­fer­ings, said Dan Ward, co­founder of app devel­op­ment firm Detroit Labs, but it’s also not as util­i­tar­ian as Garmin’s fit­ness watches, which makes it a dif­fi­cult sell in an in­creas­ingly crowded mar­ket­place.

“De­sign is just as im­por­tant as what’s un­der the hood,” Ward said. “When Mo­torola first launched its smart­watch, there was ex­tra buzz around the Moto 360 be­cause it’s gor­geous. Then with Ap­ple, we saw it strate­gi­cally launch in six designer bou­tiques around the world, which is the first time any­one has done that.”

The smart­watch race looks in­creas­ingly like a David-ver­sus-Go­liath sit­u­a­tion, with Canalys an­a­lyst Daniel Matte say­ing it’s “ba­si­cally im­pos­si­ble” to com­pete with Ap­ple, Google and Sam­sung, which have “many or­ders of mag­ni­tude more re­sources.” But Pebble isn’t nec­es­sar­ily out of the race.

Pebble has dis­tinct ad­van­tages over the main com­pe­ti­tion, Matte said.

Be­ing cre­ated by nei­ther Ap­ple nor Google means Pebble’s watches are com­pat­i­ble with both iOS and An­droid, giv­ing users the abil­ity to switch be­tween phones with­out hav­ing to change watches.

The Pebble also has a longer bat­tery life, last­ing up to seven days on a sin­gle charge com­pared with the Ap­ple Watch and An­droid Wear, which last one to two days.

Pebble’s watches also lack the bells and whis­tles of its com­pe­ti­tion, which, while per­ceived as a weak­ness for some, could be one of its strengths, Matte said.

“It’s a very sim­ple, stream­lined prod­uct,” he said. “They’ve made some­thing that’s not in­tru­sive to your life.”

The lack of in­tru­sive­ness is what ap­peals to Pebble user Tim Shrimpton, 32, a San Fran­cisco Bay Area res­i­dent who backed the orig­i­nal Pebble on Kick­starter.

“The thing I like about it is it’s first and fore­most a watch,” Shrimpton said. “The screen is al­ways on. You don’t have to do any­thing to it. Even hav­ing to f lick your wrist to get it to turn on [as is it the case with the Ap­ple Watch] seems coun­ter­in­tu­itive.”

Some watch wear­ers find the fea­ture-packed of­fer­ings from Google and Sam­sung off-putting, and have grav­i­tated to Pebble’s min­i­mal­ist de­sign.

“I don’t want a mil­lion fea­tures — long bat­tery life and be­ing a watch first ap­peal to me,” said Pebble user Aaron Crocco, 35, of Selden, N.Y. “Pebble goes with ‘Less Is More,’ and I ap­pre­ci­ate that.”

Pebble Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Eric Migi­cov­sky said Ap­ple’s and Google’s foray into the smart­watch mar­ket has helped the com­pany by rais­ing aware­ness of smart­watches, which has led to con­sumers seek­ing out al­ter­na­tives.

“We’re not go­ing af­ter that luxury jew­elry mar­ket like Ap­ple is,” Migi­cov­sky said. “The orig­i­nal Pebble was sim­ple. We didn’t say it was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary de­vice that would change your life. It did a cou­ple of things like text mes­sages, email, calls, the abil­ity to con­trol your mu­sic, and did them well, and I think it clicked with our cus­tomer base.”

The lat­est Pebble watch, the Pebble Time, which re­cently shipped to Pebble’s Kick­starter back­ers and will soon be avail­able to the wider public, sticks to Pebble’s sim­plic­ity ethos by fur­ther stream­lin­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence. In­stead of load­ing the watch with dozens of in­di­vid­ual apps, the Pebble Time lets users or­ga­nize and view in­for­ma­tion chrono­log­i­cally in a timeline for­mat.

Pebble also plans to soon of­fer “smart­straps,” wrist straps with dif­fer­ent func­tions such as GPS and heart rate mon­i­tor­ing that users can swap onto their de­vice.

Like many of Pebble’s other fea­tures, the smart­straps are de­vel­oper friendly, and Pebble has even posted 3-D print­ing in­struc­tions on­line for build­ing a Pebble smart­strap, en­cour­ag­ing de­vel­op­ers to make their own.

Pebble’s open­ness to de­vel­op­ers is an­other strength. The com­pany stands in stark con­trast to Ap­ple, which is no­to­ri­ously cagey about its prod­ucts, go­ing so far as to re­ject apps that men­tion their com­pat­i­bil­ity with other plat­forms such as Pebble.

Fluin be­lieves Pebble can stay in the race if it can clearly carve out a niche for it­self. One idea is to po­si­tion it­self as a geek prod­uct that ap­peals to the do-it-your­self crowd who like mak­ing or tin­ker­ing with gad­gets, he said.

Or with its lower price (Pebble’s orig­i­nal model starts at $99), it could ap­peal to chil­dren and fam­i­lies, Ward said.

Matte said the com­pany could even pivot to be­ing a soft­ware com­pany that fo­cuses on mak­ing apps for smart­watches.

Migi­cov­sky has given no in­di­ca­tion that Pebble will point it­self in ei­ther of those di­rec­tions, but Matte says “it’s a plau­si­ble sur­vival strat­egy.”

What­ever di­rec­tion it does choose, an­a­lysts agree it needs to be more bullish about it.

“With the mo­bile and wear­able land­scape shift­ing as rapidly as it is, you’re ei­ther grow­ing and suc­ceed­ing, or you’re fad­ing and dy­ing,” Fluin said. “With Pebble … I don’t think they’re out yet.”

Pebble

PEBBLE smart­watches are com­pat­i­ble with both iOS and An­droid and have a longer bat­tery life than Ap­ple’s or Google’s.

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