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Commentary

End of a good run for Pebble smartwatch

Time has caught up with the California company, which was acquired by Fitbit last week

I was one of the "lucky" people who pledged and received the Pebble 2 smartwatch last month, following its last Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign which concluded in June this year.

But for Pebble Devices Corp, the poster boy of smartwatch not too long ago, luck has run out.

In 2012, Pebble raised more than US$10 million (then about S$12.6 million) on Kickstarter - a record amount of money raised at that time. It probably ignited the smartwatch trend.

Last week, fitness-tracker maker Fitbit bought the smartwatch maker for around US$40 million (S$57 million).

Pebble will no longer make or sell any devices. And around 60 per cent of Pebble's employees will be out of a job.


Mr Migicovsky showing off the original Pebble smartwatch at the 2013 CES consumer tech show in Las Vegas. ST PHOTO: TREVOR TAN

The California-based company also said that Pebble products' support and functionalities may be reduced in the future, possibly via software. Existing warranties of Pebble devices will not be honoured as well.

And for those who pledged for Pebble 2, Pebble Time 2 and Pebble Core in its last Kickstarter campaign but have yet to receive the devices, a full refund will be disbursed to them by March next year.

It was a bittersweet moment when I received the Pebble 2 - now the last product shipped by the company.

I have been a backer of almost all Pebble smartwatches on Kickstarter since the first Pebble.

I remember watching Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky showcase the original Pebble during a press conference in 2013 at the CES consumer tech show in Las Vegas, and hoping the Pebble would quickly ship.

Like many, I was won over by the original Pebble's simplicity, always-on e-paper display, 50m water resistance, long battery life of five to seven days and support for both Android and iOS.

Plus, the original Pebble worked as advertised when it shipped to its backers.

Therefore, I continued to back Pebble Steel (a steel version of Pebble), Pebble Time (second-generation Pebble) and Pebble 2 (third-generation Pebble). I skipped only the Pebble Round (Pebble with a circular watch face), as it was launched too close to Pebble Steel.

As I strapped the Pebble 2 smartwatch on my wrist, I found myself wondering what went wrong with the company.

After using it for a few days, it became apparent that Pebble was miles behind the competition.

For a start, Pebble 2 is still an e-ink display with no touchscreen. It finally has a health app with fitness tracking abilities and built-in heart rate monitor (HRM).

But these are fitness features that many smartwatches like the original Apple Watch and Samsung Gear smartwatch series already have. Even many fitness trackers like Fitbit Charge HR and Garmin Vivosmart HR have built-in HRM.

I also found Pebble 2's HRM to be quite inaccurate when I compared it with the readings on my Apple Watch Nike+ or Samsung Gear S3.

Even updating the Pebble 2's firmware is a chore. I have to reset the Pebble 2 a few times before I was able to update the firmware. It is just not intuitive, and the interface feels really dated.

In short, the Pebble 2 has shown its age. It does not look as good as Apple Watch or Samsung Gear S3 - neither does it have the fitness elements found in many modern smartwatches or even fitness trackers.

Furthermore, the smartwatch market is slowing, according to a recent report by market research firm IDC.

The IDC report said that the smartwatch market took a tumble in the third quarter this year, even though the overall wearables market grew 3.1 per cent, compared with the same period last year.

However, fitness trackers accounted for 85 per cent of the wearables market with double-digit growth. And the wearables market leader is Fitbit, with a 23 per cent market share in the quarter.

During a recent interview with tech news site Backchannel, Mr Migicovsky confessed that he misjudged the importance of fitness elements in a smartwatch and cited that as one of the factors leading to the sale of Pebble.

Perhaps the union between Fitbit and Pebble was inevitable. Pebble needed a lifeline, while Fitbit wanted an operating system with a developer community that might serve it better in the long run.

So long, Pebble. It was a good run.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2016, with the headline 'End of a good run for Pebble smartwatch'. Print Edition | Subscribe