Pebble CEO bets big on developers for the smartwatch's future

Pebble has come a long way since its debut way back in April 2012, having sold more than 190,000 smartwatches and growing the company from 11 employees to 40 in the span of a little over a year. Now that the hardware has proven immensely popular, the company is shifting its focus to software, and nowhere is that more evident than its big announcement this week. It not only seriously expanded iOS 7 support, but it also introduced the second version of its SDK, which should hopefully get its nascent developer community excited about making even more apps for the eponymous smartwatch. Eric Migicovsky, CEO of Pebble, sat down at Expand NY to give a little more insight into the origins of Pebble and the vision of the company going forward.

Even though Pebble seems like an overnight success, it actually originated many years ago as a project idea in an industrial design school in Holland. Migicovsky was inspired by the bike-riding culture prominent in that country and wanted to come up with a watch or bike accessory so that cyclists could quickly glance at their wrist instead of having to take out their phones to read a text message. Other smartwatches did exist at the time, and Migicovsky specifically calls out the Fossil Wrist Net smartwatch as something he wanted. Unfortunately it cost almost $400. "I'm not going to pay a lot of money for this silly little watch thing," he said, which resulted in him making his own.

The first product he created was called the inPulse smartwatch, which you might not have heard of unless you used a BlackBerry. Yes, as crazy as it may seem, the inPulse worked primarily with handsets from the company formerly known as RIM. As a Waterloo resident, Migicovsky confesses that they "had a reality distortion field" back when they made it. It didn't work with the iPhone at all and only a small subset of Android phones could pair with it, which might explain why it wasn't successful.

This was a far cry from Pebble, which became the highest-funded project in Kickstarter history with a total contribution amount of $10,266,845 (their original goal was just $100,000). Migicovsky attributes that success to the benefit of learning from the failures of the inPulse. As for why the name Pebble was chosen, Migicovsky said it's because, like a pebble, the watch is small, pocketable and smooth. "Plus, it just sounded great," he said.

So where does Pebble go from here? Even though Pebble has always been a cross-platform device, it only supported email notifications, SMS, iMessage and caller ID when it came to the iPhone due to the nature of iOS' closed ecosystem. iOS 7, however, unlocked full Notification Center access to any device with Bluetooth LE. So Pebble brought up its Bluetooth stack to support LE, made sure its documentation was in order and announced a new API so that every notification that gets sent to the iPhone will also get sent to the watch. This brings a number of fascinating new use cases, one of which is the ability to have turn-by-turn directions from Google Maps show up on the watch. The Pebble still uses Bluetooth classic when it comes to app and firmware updates, but the watch is clever enough to switch over to LE for notifications.

Eric Migicovsky of Pebble bets big on developers for the watch's future

As for Android users, things are pretty much unchanged. Due to how open Android is, there are already third-party apps that make use of Pebble's API to send notifications. One such app is aptly called Pebble Notifier, and has proven to be very popular with Pebble's Android user base. We asked Migicovsky why Android isn't getting the same functionality as the most recent iOS update, and he said: "We're a small company. We decided to put most of our effort into the framework and underlying structure that'll let other people build apps on top of it. Obviously, it's easier to do this on the Android platform than on iOS. It's not inconceivable on Android to do first-party stuff, it's just not as high priority."

But eager developers will still have plenty to work on thanks to Pebble's new SDK 2.0. It introduces a ton of new tools, plus it finally enables access to the accelerometer on the Pebble. "There's a really intelligent accelerometer API that conserves the battery in the phone," he said, pointing out the new fitness-tracking possibilities. Additionally, a JavaScript API will let developers create apps that will work on both iOS and Android.

It's only been around 72 hours since the SDK 2.0 was announced, and Migicovsky said there are already "tons of apps" on their way. As for new hardware, he reiterates that the company can only focus on one thing at a time. "Right now we're focusing on the platform that's already on 190,000 wrists around the world. The hardware's already there, and has a lot of hidden functionalities that we haven't even unlocked yet."

[Image credit: Craig Barritt/Getty Images]