Pebble Watch: Behind The Smartwatch Sensation

PHOTO: Pebble Watch
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It's 8 a.m. and Eric Migicovsky opens the door to his condo-turned-home-office in downtown Palo Alto, Calif. He looks a lot like many of entrepreneurs in their twenties or thirties walking around Palo Alto or sitting around its coffee shops -- shorts, sandals, and a MacBook Pro are all part of the uniform.

But Migicovsky has become something of a Silicon Valley sensation over the last few months. He is the mastermind behind the Pebble Watch, the smart watch that got more than $10.2 million in backing on Kickstarter.com after private investors and venture capital firms decided not to back it. The digital watch pairs with Android phones and the iPhone and runs apps.

Eric had hoped just to raise $100,000 to make 1,000 watches on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding site that allows anyone to buy a product before it is made. And, well, that turned out to be chump change. Within 37 days, Pebble raised $10 million and over 85,000 watch orders.

WATCH: Pebble Smartwatch: Behind The Scenes

On an early June morning I'm getting a behind-the-scenes look at just what is so special about this record-breaking smart watch. But before I do that Migicovsky and his roommates -- one works for Pebble and another works at another start-up -- have to get ready for work.

They take turns getting in the shower while chatting about what they did last night. They make eggs and coffee in their small kitchen. A Silicon Valley frat house might be the best way to describe it.

But there is much more than chatter about beer and babes going on in this condo. By 9 a.m. four Pebble employees are in the downstairs office. One of them, Matt Zulak, replaces the empty beer bottle on his desk with coffee, and puts his head down to write software for the watch. Andrew Witte sits at his desk and begins tinkering with some hardware and the MakerBot 3D printer, which we have had to move out of the center of the office to make room for our camera. Pebble now has nine employees; six of them were hired since the Kickstarter campaign.

And those nine employees are all helping build what Migicovsky calls "one of the best watches in the world." He says he is confident of that, not only because of the reaction from early backers but because he has had experience building a watch before.

"We actually launched our first smart watch a year and a half ago, which worked primarily with BlackBerry smartphones," he tells me as he starts to show me the prototype watch next to the previous InPulse version. "We had built a watch that was primarily an email device, but we started learning what people wanted out of a smarter watch."

They wanted better battery life and one that worked better outside, which is how the Pebble's defining feature -- its e-paper screen -- came to be incorporated. The black and white screen is crisp, readable outdoors, and doesn't use as much power as the LCD screen on the original watch. Even with the sun shining right on the screen I was able to see the time on the prototype.

The watch has some other key features: it has four buttons, rather than a touchscreen, it's smaller than the InPulse and competing products from Sony and WIMM, and it is the first smart watch to work with the iPhone. The watch will also work with Android phones, but there are other Android smartphone watches. The watch pairs with the phones using Bluetooth.

But the iPhone part is crucial to the Pebble's success says the team. No smart watch has yet worked with Apple's popular phone. When the watch is paired with it or Android phones you will be able to send apps to the watch and customize the watch with different faces. You will also be able to have text messages or email alerts sent to the watch.

For now, Pebble is working with Runkeeper on an integrated app that will record your runs, including speed and distance. Pebble will also release a software developer kit (or SDK) for its hardware later this year, which will allow other software developers to make apps for the watch.

Software development is one focus of the Pebble team; the other is the hardware and getting the 85,000 watches built before the fall deadline that they set for the Kickstarter customers.

Kickstarter supporters were able to buy the watch for $115 during the campaign period in April. The watch will ship to them first and Pebble plans to bring the watch to the general market in early 2013 through retailers and its own website.

"The watch will be ready for Kickstarter backers in the fall," Migicovsky assures me as I ask him if they will make the deadline -- considering that as of my visit all he had to show was a prototype that was running an automated set of screens. You couldn't change the time on it and had to adjust it with an external remote control.

Pebble has secured a factory in China to build the watch, and as of today, I am told they now have working prototypes in the office. The company still plans to meet the deadline and will start production in the fall as well. But Migicovsky admits there have been more challenges in building the Pebble than the InPulse, which was manufactured in San Jose. "Lead times, language barriers, time zones," he tells me, are some of the ongoing obstacles.

Costs have also been an issue. While the cost to build the watch has gone up, the retail price will remain the same so that people will buy it.

"There are not too many in the world yet, but come this fall there will be a whole bunch more," Migicovsky assures me one again. They've promised 85,000, of course, but that all depends on how much work they can get done in that condo.

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