Last week, one of the biggest smart wearable companies, Fitbit, got acquired by Google. It made us think back to just three years ago when Fitbit was the one that was doing the acquiring. In December 2016, it was revealed that Fitbit had bought the assets to Pebble.
It’s easy to forget that Pebble helped to lead the current smartwatch trend in the early part of this decade. Before the big players like Google, Samsung, Fitbit, and especially the Apple Watch, there was the scrappy Pebble team. Its smartwatches were affordable and achieved a cult following of fans. In the end, it wasn’t enough to keep the company afloat.
The historic Pebble launch on Kickstarter
In April 2012, the Pebble team launched its Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the smartwatch. To the amazement of everyone, the campaign achieved its $100,000 goal in just a couple of hours. It quickly broke Kickstarter’s fundraising record, and the campaign ended with well over $10 million.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see why. The price for that first smartwatch was very low via Kickstarter ($99 for the first 200 orders, and $115 for everyone else). You could link the Pebble to your smartphone to receive alerts, notifications, and even text messages. It also had its own store for downloading apps, custom watch interfaces, and much more. The black-and-white e-paper screen was easy to read, and its battery life was made to last up to seven days. The team even added water resistance to the watch after a request from its fans.
Pebble started shipping its first smartwatch units to its Kickstarter backers in early 2013. In 2014, it launched a variant called the Pebble Steel. It added a stainless steel body and a Gorilla Glass display. In March 2014, the company announced it had sold 400,000 smartwatches since the launch of the original version. In February 2015, it announced that the number had increased to over 1 million units sold.
The next generation
In early 2015, Pebble launched another Kickstarter campaign for its next-generation smartwatch. The Pebble Time introduced a color display for the first time, along with a new design that was a bit more symmetrical. It was still compatible with all of the thousands of Pebble apps. It could even take voice dictation with its microphone and software.
Before the Kickstarter campaign ended, the team announced the Pebble Time Steel. It not only offered a stainless steel body but also a bigger battery that could last up to 10 days. The campaign ended with over $20 million, which set yet another record for the site at that time.
In September 2015, the company announced its first circular display smartwatch, the Pebble Time Round. While it definitely looked cool, the price was higher than the normal Pebble Time at $249. Its battery life was also poor at just two days on one charge.
The Pebble 2 and the end of the line
By 2016, the smartwatches no longer stood out as more and larger companies launched their own devices. That included Apple with the launch of the Apple Watch in April 2015. In May 2016, the company launched a Kickstarter campaign for its third-gen smartwatch, which was oddly called the Pebble 2. It finally added a long-requested feature, a heart rate monitor. It also went back to the rectangular design of the first Pebble.
The company also introduced the Pebble Time 2. It had a stainless steel body combined with the newer square body.
The Kickstarter campaign raised over $12 million, but that wasn’t enough, apparently. In December 2016, just a few months after the smartwatches began shipping, the company announced it had been bought by Fitbit. While the price was never officially disclosed, it was estimated that Pebble was acquired for between $30-$40 million. Some Pebble 2 Kickstarter backers who had not received their smartwatches got a refund.
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The company started out strong, and its first smartwatch appealed to a lot of people for a number of reasons. Besides being affordable, it included some nice features for people who didn’t want to constantly look at their smartphones. It also had a small but strong app development community. In many ways, it seemed like a device that came from the future.
In the end, Pebble’s team simply could not get big enough to compete with the larger tech companies. Samsung, Fitbit, and Apple had more people and resources to devote to making their own wearable devices, and they used it. Ironically, Google’s recent acquisition of Fitbit means that there could be tiny bits of the Pebble inside Google’s future smartwatches.
In the meantime, there remains a small but highly loyal number of Pebble owners. While Fitbit ended official support for Pebble devices in June 2018, a group calling itself Rebble said it would provide unofficial support for owners of those smartwatches. That support includes a paid subscription that allows those devices to continue using dictation and weather features.