Smartwatch pioneer Pebble is hoping to make its platform accessible to more people with a permanent price drop of $50 and $30 for both the original Pebble and the Pebble Steel, putting them at $99 and $199 respectively. Pebble is also further iterating on its platform, with new added activity and sleep tracking features, both of which can run in the background, albeit at a slight cost to battery life.
The price drop can’t help but be viewed in light of growing competition: Google announced its Android Wear platform at I/O this year, and already many major Android smartphone OEMs have produced smartwatches using its new software. Those have yet to really take off with consumers, but Apple has also tipped its hand, revealing the Apple Watch, a wearable computer for the wrist with a fashion-focused design that should arrive sometime early next year.
Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky maintains that Pebble’s strategy is still its own, and not a direct response to any activity on behalf of potential competitors. In fact, he says it’s a “relief” that all the cards are now on the table, meaning Pebble can now see clearly the competition arrayed against them, which makes it easier for them to carve out their own spot in the nascent market.
“There’s Pebble, there’s Apple and there’s Google, and what’s interesting is which each taken quite a distinct path to explaining the product,” he said. “Where Apple is more of a luxury, high-end using gold and expensive materials, that’s a very different experience they’re putting forward. It’s quite different from us – it’s not better, it’s just different. Android over the last six months has been very clear about what they’re making; they’re making a miniature smartphone, on your wrist that just displays Google now stuff.”
Migicovsky says that Google’s approach is a “very narrow interpretation of what a watch can do,” and points out that they’ve chosen to use smartphone-style microprocessor architecture, while Pebble is tackling it from a very different angle. Pebble, he says, is a watch first with water resistance and an easy-reading face, but with smart features that they’ve derived from researching what users actually want on their wrist.
That now includes background sleep and activity tracking, features which make it possible for partners like Misfit, Jawbone and Swim.com to use the app as a replacement for dedicated wearables. Migicovsky says the Pebble is already designed for all-day wearability, so introducing these features should be fine for existing hardware owners, stretching all the way back to the original Kickstarter backers.
He also says there was a lot of engineering work put into making sure the new background tasks didn’t destroy Pebble’s long-lasting battery life, and notes it should drop the expected range by only about half a day if used consistently. Background apps will store tracked data on the watch itself when not in Bluetooth range of a device, which is great for the gym or pool, and then sync up with companion apps when back in range.
Pebble is also expanding its retail strategy, with availability in more stores around the world including Sam’s Club, Fry’s Electronics, Sprint and Dixons to name just a few. Migicovsky says providing a hands-on experience to customers is important, so many of these will offer end-cap displays where potential buyers can try the watch out with live software before making a purchase decision. Experiential sales pushes like this will help it stand up to Apple, which will obviously have a huge in-person retail push when it does launch its device.
I asked Migicovsky directly if Apple’s Watch announcement had directly affected their product or go-to-market strategy in any way, and his answer acknowledged Apple’s influence while maintaining that a plan was already largely in place.
“We’ve been planning this price drop for the last couple months now, so we haven’t adjusted strategy crazily or anything like that,” he said. “But obviously we’re not ignoring the fact that the largest consumer electronics company has just come into our market. I think it’s an incredible validation of the space.”
Competing with Apple, even if you’re taking a very different approach and pricing your device much lower, is a constant reality of consumer tech these days. Gadget buyers now expect a certain level of quality, regardless of who’s making their device, and anything less than that standard will strike them as disappointing. Migicovsky concedes that even with a different angle, Pebble and others have to compete with the ‘idea’ of Apple, and explains why he thinks his company is succeeding in doing so.
“We’ve gotten to the point where our devices and the things that we use on a regular basis are part of our habits,” he said. “A watch is kind of the epitome of that, it’s something that’s physically on your body, and that oftentimes is 24/7 on your body, and we take very good care to make sure we honor that position that a customer has given to us. One of the things that they I love is that when I go out and see someone using Pebble, I know that they like the product, because it’s so easy to take it off your wrist.”
While the price drop today definitely indicates that Pebble is interested in exploring a more entry-level position relative to Apple’s and other wearables, it isn’t necessarily the beginning of a race to the bottom. Migicovsky says his original inspiration for building the inPulse, his first foray into smartwatches, was seeing one of the original Sony versions and wishing he could have something more affordable, so that partly informed his goals in building Pebble, too. He demurred when asked if we might ever see a $50 Pebble, however, but the price and feature changes today might give the startup a way to ride the awareness wave for smartwatches begun by Apple, with an option that won’t break the bank for newly curious customers.