Watch out: A hearts and minds battle for your wrist

April 20, 2012

A Kickstarter project for a device you wear on your wrist, but that needs a smartphone to do anything really interesting, has raised more than $5.3 million in eight days. This is this far and away the most anyone has ever raised on Kickstarter, and it’s happening – with a gadget in a category that has a pretty dismal track record – at a sales pace that would make even Apple sit up and take notice.

Mind you, Pebble, “The E-Paper Watch” looks very snazzy. At $115 (only 200 were available for $99, and it will retail for $150 when it goes on proper sale) it’s not terribly expensive. And there is a bit of the Kickstarter effect for things that get lots of favorable press: It’s great to get an insider deal and to get in on the ground floor on something cool. And to risk nothing: If the entrepreneur’s funding requirement isn’t met, you don’t get charged a penny.

Within two hours the people behind Pebble got what they asked for: a measly $100,000. By the time the funding round closes on May 19, they’re on pace to have more than $30 million in orders.

All this for a product that doesn’t exist and – see above – requires a smartphone to do anything interesting.

But therein lies the secret of Pebble’s apparent success. We don’t need something for our wrists that does anything really amazing, because we do have our phones. But we may want something that makes that smartphone we already have a little more convenient to use. The Pebble allows you to see text messages and information at the flip of a wrist, without reaching for your phone. Do not underestimate the power of incremental convenience: How many of us constantly reach for our phone, or always have it in hand, just to keep up with the data overload, most of which doesn’t require our immediate attention?

There have been a handful of attempts to put computers on our wrists. The dream began, perhaps, in comic books, when Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio transformed a mortal policeman into a sort of superhero.

Microsoft got nowhere with its SPOT watch in 2002, and Sony has something out now that seems suspiciously like the Pebble (it, too, requires a connected device to do anything interesting). And then there are monstrosities like this. And don’t get me started about the LG-GD910 video phone watch.

That’s the opportunity for Pebble. The dream of Dick Tracy’s watch resonated only because we couldn’t imagine something better and unpredictable: the smartphone. And what the world has been waiting for was the correct interpretation of the smartwatch. Remember, we yawned at all the tablets that came before (and, frankly, after) the iPad.

Pebble seems to smooth out all the edges and anticipate usability issues we can’t even really articulate in advance. As noted, all the interesting things it does actually come from an iPhone or Android phone via Bluetooth – calendar and weather alerts, Caller ID, email, Twitter and Facebook messages. With Android phones, it will show you incoming texts (this info isn’t accessible to developers on the iPhone).

It will be your bicycle computer, iPod remote, running mate – and, best of all, who-knows-what-still-to-be-thought-up-next.

Pebble has pre-sold tens of thousands of watches, which has convinced developers that this is a viable platform for apps. No chicken-and-egg problem here: The “Hacker Special” funding level, giving developers early access to the information necessary to design those little pieces of software that will even further distinguish this device, is already sold out.

The most astonishing thing about the Pebble phenomenon is that it presumably is targeted at a demographic that is not in the habit of wearing a wristwatch (yes, it does display the time). Does anyone under 30 own a watch? We all have an atomic clock on our phones.

And, yes, those who buy one might just toss it in a drawer. One of the reasons smartwatches haven’t taken off is because of the style paradox. If you want to buy something that tells time and that you can wear on your wrist, you have thousands of choices. If you want an Internet device that you can wear on your wrist, you have almost no choice. This means that anyone who dares make a smartwatch is going to exclude a sizable number of prospective customers who may like the tech, but not the look.

Pebble also seems to have either solved that problem, or overcome it.

Whatever Pebble has done, it’s working: It got $60,000 more in backing and orders since I started writing this. I only started looking into Pebble this morning … and I backed the project. Call that full disclosure (or participatory observation).

None of us will be getting our new toys until September, which is a bit of a risk, since there is plenty of time for someone to try to reverse-engineer the idea, undercut Pebble and come to market sooner (stranger things have happened).

I can wait. And at least my Pebble will arrive sooner than those wearable computers Google has promised us.


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did u put the wrong link in place of “monstrosities like this”? because it linked to the same page/product (the sony watch) that linked from “something out now”.
or did u intend it to be linked to the same product? (if so then that makes no sense whatsoever based on the context of the writing)

Posted by patric627 | Report as abusive

‘Does anyone under 30 own a watch?”

Interesting. I’m 15, and I wore my IronMann sports watch o my wrist for a whole year without taking it off. not even once.

Through showers, pool parties, spelunking, Volleyball, etc., I wore it on my right wrist through think and thin from January 1, 2011 through January 1, 2012, when I took it off. And yes, I do own a smart phone as well.

Posted by michaelboerman | Report as abusive