Pebble CEO on life in monochrome, mistakes and why he wants your car keys

You’d be hard pushed to find a more fitting ‘face’ of Pebble than CEO Eric Migicovsky: he’s geeky, animated, fun to talk to and fascinated by what other people are building. Right now he’s showing us his new favourite Pebble watch face, a replica of the original Palm Pilot home screen detailed down to a working clock in the top left corner. “Did you know that the Pebble 2’s pixel ratio is ridiculously close to the Palm Pilot’s resolution?” he beams. Not in a million years could we imagine Tim Cook or Younghee Lee boasting about their product’s low pixel count, but then Pebble has always done things a bit differently.

A lot has changed since Pebble’s 2012 Kickstarter debut, a moment many people consider to be the starting shot for a smartwatch race that nobody’s entirely sure how to run. It’s a fledgling market, with just about every tech company you can name throwing something at the wearables wall in the hope it will stick.

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We ask Eric what has surprised him most while watching it all of this unfold. “I was surprised with Android Wear not clicking as well as it has, I guess they’re still trying to find their way,” he says. “And a little bit surprised Apple Watch sold fewer watches this year than last year. I think it’s a testament to the power of Fitbit. Fitbit is a very powerful voice in the space right now”.

Despite Pebble boasting an enormous app store of its own, Eric also adds that he doesn’t think smartwatch apps “took off the way people thought they would”.

Pebble still sees big potential in the market: it’s launching two new watches, the Pebble 2 and the Pebble Time 2, along with another connected device, the Pebble Core, next year. Pebble’s now competing more fiercely with fitness trackers too, with both of its new watches monitoring their wearer’s heart rate, activity and sleep. Fitbit has become one of the company’s “primary rivals” Eric says.

And while the company’s lifetime sales might pale next to the Apple Watch’s, the fact it shifted 350,000 units last year, with 45% of backers from its latest Kickstarter round first-time Pebble buyers, shows that there’s clearly still much love for the brand in this ever-crowding market. “Every year since we’ve launched we’ve sold progressively more.”

Rocky road

It hasn’t been smooth sailing, however. The company laid off 40 employees back in May this year, blaming a tough fundraising environment in Silicon Valley when it broke the news to Tech Insider.

“Generally we made some mistakes in late 2015 due to a combination of business factors that came into play,” he tells Wareable. “We had to make some changes to be able to get our finances back on track, we did that at the beginning of the year, we ran a successful Kickstarter, we’re hopefully barrelling towards the future.”

We ask Eric what those mistakes were. “I think we grew a bit prematurely, grew our headcount a bit prematurely, that was one of them, and we definitely overextended ourselves, we lacked a degree of focus towards the end of 2015.

“And with the renewed interest in health and fitness, and launching Pebble Core, I think we’ve regained a lot of that focus that we were lacking. Also I think we’ve been able to explain quite clearly where Pebble stands in the market and how our products sit and compete with other products people can choose, and that I don’t think we had to a large degree at the end of 2015.”

As it starts to fulfil orders for the Pebble 2, and Pebble Time 2 just around the corner, the company is in a more promising position. Pebble’s decision to go back to Kickstarter proved a little contentious, given how established the company now is, and Eric says he believes Kickstarter “may be a component” of Pebble’s strategy in the future.

Returning to the look and feel of the original watch for the Pebble 2, however, might seem an even more peculiar move for the company to make, having pursued colour screens and sleeker designs in later devices.

The Pebble 2 is for people “who want to have the Swatch of smartwatches”, says Eric. “In the past Pebble has zigged while everyone else has zagged. We have chosen time and time again to keep a couple of the core aspects of the product constant: long battery life, simplicity, working with both iOS and Android, water resistance, durable; you can treat it like a watch; you don’t have to treat it like a fancy piece of consumer electronics. I think that has drawn people towards the platform.”

He also says he enjoys the creativity that the limitations of the screen bring. “It’s fun to go back in black and white,” he says. “It’s actually a really cool constraint on designers minds. You start to see people do really interesting things.”

Moving on up

In 2015 Pebble introduced its fitness and wellbeing platform, Pebble Health, meaning the company was taking control of features previously left for third-party developers. Native step counting and sleep tracking came as a result of a partnership with Stanford University.

“They have a wearables lab where they’d been testing different devices and writing algorithms, and little did we know they’d chosen Pebble as their de facto platform,” says Eric. “So they approached us two years ago and said ‘Hey, we already built this great algorithm for step tracking and sleep tracking for the Pebble, can we talk about a partnership?’ We worked with a couple of professors and researchers, PHD students who were there. They ported their algorithm into the Pebble OS.”

More on Health: Fitness will be a massive area of focus for Pebble in 2016

Pebble is also opening up new avenues for developers with the new SDK Rocky.js, built on Javascript so people can design without knowing how to write C code.

“We think that is going to change the entire Pebble landscape for the better,” says Eric. “Think about what it would be like if any normal everyday web developer was able to build a watch face or an app for Pebble without having to learn anything customer-specific to Pebble. I mean, just a little bit, but generally it’s the same language they know.”

Core focus

What’s most exciting of all, we think, is what happens next year when Pebble launches its first product away from the watch. The Pebble Core isn’t out yet, but as soon as Eric mentions the name he pulls a prototype from his trouser pocket. The unassuming cube-like device comes with built-in GPS, 3G, WiFi, Bluetooth and a chunk of internal memory. Two buttons. No screen. It looks even more basic than the very first Pebble.

The Core is designed to act like a tiny computer that attaches to your keychain. Runners will be able to download their Spotify playlists onto it and listen to them offline without having a phone in their pocket – but there are so many potential uses beyond that.

“(Phones are) getting larger, that’s great for consuming content,” says Eric, “but is that the best for being able to hold it up to your ear and talk to it? Is it the best for when you want to go for a run? Is it the best when you’re travelling and need a better battery life?”

The idea of the Core, which had been percolating for around four to five years, says Eric, was to create something that’s always with you and would come in handy in small moment throughout the day when you don’t have your phone.

“It’s for that hour a day you go for a run. For that moment when you leave your phone charging on your desk and walk around the office. For that moment you leave your phone and run into the store to buy something. When your phone dies at 6pm and you want to go for a drink with your friends without wanting to be tethered to a large phone charger”.

“We’re not trying to say Core is going to replace the phone – we love our phones – but there are a couple of moments in your life where [Core] will be a bit more useful than the phone.”