The Pebble smartwatch is best-known for being a smash hit on Kickstarter. It broke records and leapt to a total of 85,000 orders by the time the campaign ended. The only thing left to do was ship, but unfortunately the company quietly announced a pair of delays that left an actual ship date in limbo — an unfortunately common problem with Kickstarter campaigns.
Today at CES, CEO Eric Migicovsky announced that the company now has a firm shipping date for its backers: January 23rd. It will go out in batches, Migicovsky tells us, and it only recently ramped up to full production at its factory in China, producing around 15,000 of the watches each week.
The story of Pebble actually began in 2008
The story of the Pebble smartwatch didn't begin with the record-breaking Kickstarter campaign that launched it. It began in 2008, when Eric Migicovsky was a student at the University of Waterloo, on RIM's doorstep. That's when he began development on what would become the inPulse smartwatch — the so-called "BlackBerry watch" designed to work with RIM's phones. It was not a commercial success, to put it mildly: first announced in 2009, only 1,500 had been sold as of last April.
Migicovsky's latest smartwatch has sold 85,000 units on Kickstarter, and now that his company has announced it's beginning shipments later this month, that number will surely go higher. The difference between 1,500 and 85,000 is as big as the difference between the smartphone landscape in 2008 and 2013 — and that difference helps to explain why the Pebble has had so much more success. That, and the fact that it's one of the best-designed smartwatches to date with a relentless focus on simplicity in its slightly limited featureset.
Pebble's Kickstarter success created an entirely different set of problems, however. It meant that Pebble had to radically rethink its original plans for manufacturing the e-paper smartwatch, which in turn meant delays — the bane of too many Kickstarter projects. Originally, Migicovsky told The Verge, Pebble had planned on making "small batches of one to two thousand units in the Bay area."
Pebble had to radically rethink its original plans
"Luckily," he says, Pebble "had another plan in parallel to the original small-scale manufacturing plan where we would pursue manufacturing in Asia." He hired a "team of consultants" on deck to help guide Pebble through the process of ramping up manufacturing. That inevitably meant tradeoffs as the company got a crash course in yields and other "things that only sort of come into play when you're manufacturing at a large scale."
Not over promising is a good way to think of the watch itself
Pebble was juggling a lot: trying to rapidly spin up a factory in China while simultaneously having to learn how the whole process even worked would be complicated enough, but Pebble also needed to finish the software for the smartwatch at the same time. Unsurprisingly, Pebble's original shipping estimate of September flew by. Since then, it's obvious that Migicovsky has learned not to over-promise. After September, Pebble didn't give a new date because "we weren't really interested in just constantly pushing back something."
In fact, not over-promising is a good way to think of the watch itself. Unlike other smartwatches — and even the original inPulse — it's not launching with any third-party apps beyond simple watch faces. Instead, it focuses on its core time-telling and notification features.
In terms of the ecosystem, our feeling internally was that we want to make sure that when people open Pebble, when the open the box, it works great and it fulfills the basic needs that they had for the watch and I think that it fills the features that we promised on our Kickstarter page. If we failed to do that, there probably would be no need for an amazing [app] ecosystem because people wouldn't be happy with the watch.
Migicovsky says that apps are "still very much a large part of where we're taking Pebble," but didn't promise (notice the theme?) when they would be available. What he did promise is that his company will be delivering regular over-the-air updates to the smartwatch to add more features and functionality. A deal with Runkeeper is already on the books; accelerometer updates and direct push alerts from apps are planned as well.
"We're pretty confident that we've got the hardware right"
With Pebble about to ship to Kickstarter backers, the next step is general retail availability. Migicovsky says that Pebble has "tens of thousands" of pre-orders lined up and that "our goal is to just keep pumping out Pebbles."
"We're pretty confident that we've got the hardware right, down pat," Migicovsky says. "Now it's just up to us to make sure that we're updating and continuing to publish updates on the software side." With the smartwatch space just starting to really heat up, Migicovsky and his team at Pebble will have to make good on that promise — over and over again.