When it launched via an epically popular Kickstarter four years ago, Pebble became the first must-have smartwatch — at least inasmuch as such a thing exists. But in ensuing years, others have eclipsed it. So now it's trying to get back in the game with a pair of watches that can track heart rate — a first for the company. It is also gearing up to release its first non-watch gadget: a small, wireless-enabled, cube-shaped accessory that lets people on the move easily access watch features without carrying their phones (like runners who want to listen to music).
Oh, and there's a new Kickstarter, too.
Pebble is getting ready to launch these devices at a time when the wearables market is otherwise consolidating. Other independent startups, like Misfit, Withings, and Runkeeper, have been snapped up by companies in the apparel and tech worlds, while wealthy tech giants like Apple and Google are now pushing their own smartwatches. Pebble also laid off about 45 people earlier this year, reducing its head count to 125. To date, it has sold only 1.8 million Pebbles and is not yet profitable.
Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky said the layoffs were intended to let Pebble’s staff focus on creating the devices that customers most want. “We look at making a great watch first, and adding smart functionality on top of that,” he told BuzzFeed News. “We’re not looking to bring everything your phone does directly to the wrist.”
Pebble decided to double down on health tracking in the wake of the Pebble Health app, which, among other things, creates exercise and sleep goals for individuals based on their previous activity data, instead of setting a generic goal of 10,000 steps. Six months after it was released late last year, it’s the second-most-used feature, Migicovsky said. “We had a feeling it would click, but we had no idea.”
Some of Pebble’s existing watches — the Pebble Classic, Time, and Time Steel — will eventually be phased out and replaced by the Pebble 2 ($129, $99 on Kickstarter) and the Pebble Time 2 ($199, $169 on Kickstarter), which will be available in September and November, respectively.
The Time 2’s screen will be larger and in color, rather than black and white, but both devices will share the same functionalities. That includes microphones, water resistance, and weeklong battery life. They also come with new software that aims to simplify watch navigation. For example, they will draw on your GPS location when you summon an Uber, and automatically plug in the person you most often text when you compose a message on your wrist. (These suggestions are editable.)
Both new watches will also come with heart rate sensors on the back, which will record your resting heart rate every 10 minutes. For now, Pebble doesn’t plan to crunch this particular data set into personalized insights, but will use it initially to learn more about highly active exercise periods and come up with better calories-burned goals, Migicovsky said.
It's the Pebble Core ($70), available in January 2017, that marks Pebble’s biggest departure. Described by Migicovsky as a “tiny computer that lives on your keychain,” it’s a cube-shaped accessory that comes with GPS, 3G and Wi-Fi capability, memory, and Bluetooth. Able to clip onto a shirt collar or waistband, it’s meant for runners who want to leave their phones at home. They can download a Spotify playlist onto the Core, plug in their headphones, and listen to the songs — much like with an iPod Shuffle. The Core lasts for about 10 hours on a charge, and it comes with two big buttons, which people could program to do things like call an Uber or make an emergency call.
All these products can be backed on Kickstarter starting today. Pebble has come a long way from its first campaign, and it has almost $26 million in outside funding. So why turn to crowdfunding yet again? It makes people feel involved from the get-go, Migicovsky says, and creates a publicity push that has worked — so far. Last year, a Kickstarter for the Pebble Time handily surpassed the initial goal of $500,000 and raised a whopping $20 million. Now Pebble is hoping to once again capture some of that homegrown magic.
“We built an amazing community by being open and transparent and by sharing our products with people who can appreciate them,” Migicovsky said.
Stephanie M. Lee is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Stephanie M. Lee at email@example.com.
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