Pebble CEO hints at how next smartwatch will battle Apple, Google and others

With so many smartwatches due this year, what will Pebble do to compete? Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky discusses a "new metaphor," and on-board heart rate may not be part of the equation.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
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Scott Stein
5 min read

The Pebble Steel debuted in January 2014, but new hardware is expected this year. Sarah Tew/CNET

Pebble may be an old hand at the smartwatch game, but it still has a lot to prove.

The Pebble Steel was CNET's favorite smartwatch of 2014, but with the upcoming Apple Watch, new Android Wear watches and tons of newcomers like Swatch entering the fray, the startup will have a tougher time standing out. Those heightened competitive pressures underscore the increasingly crowded area of wearable devices -- an area that consumers have yet to warm up to.

But things may change with the Apple Watch . Katy Huberty, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, believes Apple will sell 30 million units this year. Its popularity could amp up the awareness level of wearables, which Analysis Mason sees turning into a $22.9 billion market by 2020.

Pebble, the second largest manufacturer of smartwatches behind Samsung, is off to a solid start with an established base with 1 million units shipped. So how does it build upon its early momentum? In an interview on Monday, Pebble founder and CEO Eric Migicovsky offered up some hints on what might come next.

A new type of interaction

Pebble could set itself apart by addressing the limitations of its small screen -- a criticism cast upon the entire smartwatch landscape.

"The interface on wearables has not been improved by us or by anyone else recently...no one, us included, has been talking about what you're actually going to do with the watch, and how you'll get [stuff] done on it." Migicovsky said.

He hinted at a whole new style of hardware and software, refreshing the way the whole watch works. "You'll actually interact with the watch in a completely different way than you do today," he said.

A new type of watch metaphor

Smartwatch manufacturers have adopted the same kind of app model used by smartphones and tablets, leaning on programs and icons to do things versus using a mouse and keyboard. Android Wear, for instance, has its own section in the Google Play store. Migicovsky doesn't believe that works.

"We've tried that on Pebble, and it's not the right model...what we've got on the horizon, and the vast part of the company is spending time on, is what's the new metaphor?" he said.

Migicovsky wouldn't give further clues as to how the next Pebble would work but admitted physical buttons are something many people still appreciate.

Android Wear a mixed bag, Apple Watch promising

When Pebble was just a Kickstarter project looking to break in, the start-up was blazing a trail into the wearables market. But now, it has two giants to contend with in Google and its army of Android Wear partners and Apple and its Apple Watch.

Migicovsky downplayed the threat of both.

"It's still just Google Now, the same Google Now that's on your phone, and it leads to really annoying things that feel awkward," he said of Android Wear. It's not an area he's interested in pursuing, he added.

Apple Watch, however, gets him a little more excited. "I'm looking forward to this next step in the tradeoff between how useful it is and how complicated it is to use," he said.

Pebble the hub?

Migicovsky doesn't buy the notion that his Pebble watches need every sort of sensor packed into the device. Instead, he sees Pebble as more of a hub and platform enabler than a way to do it all on your wrist.

"The wrist is not the best spot on the body to receive all those signals," Migicovsky said of fitness tracking in smartwatches. "What we think Pebble is great for, it's great for being the display for all these different sensors in your life."

Pebble's next big upcoming move later this year is to enable Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) communication on Pebbles, enabling sensors and devices to talk to Pebble via the power-efficient Bluetooth LE short-term wireless communication technology.

"Instead of having to slam a display on every single piece of clothing you have a sensor in, just pipe that information to the wrist," he said.

On heart rate monitors, Migicovsky didn't sound too bullish, admitting that heart-rate tracking on most smartwatches "sucks."

"We're going to leave it up to the experts, the people who do this best as their full-time job, and enable them to work with Pebble as best we can," he said, a sign that Pebble probably won't be trying to cram in fitness sensors like the Apple Watch, Microsoft Band and Basis Peak have done . "I don't see it all merging onto one device yet, plus that sounds really big...all those sensors, that's a lot."

Payments: QR codes rather than NFC

The next Pebble may not opt for any advanced mobile payment technology based on Near-Field Communication, the short-distance wireless technology employed by Apple Pay and Google Wallet.

Instead, Pebble may be sticking with easier-to-implement apps based on QR, or Quick Response, codes, which are randomly generated images that can be recognized by smartphone cameras.

"Just like the heart-rate monitoring thing, there's a tradeoff between how useful it is and how efficient it is, and how much it'll actually get its way into your life," Migicovsky said. "For now, I think we're focusing much more on the QR-enabled apps."

He pointed to existing third-party apps like PebbleBucks, which already work at certain stores, and said a few more QR code-based partners will come later this year.

An always-on screen, and it probably won't be round

As for the design of the next Pebble, don't expect a big, bright OLED. Migicovsky likes having an always-on display.

"It's an extremely important thing for us," he said. "I like being able to look down at my wrist and see what time it is."

That's an important difference from other high-end smartwatches that use occasionally-on color screens that work when you turn your wrist to look at them. He wouldn't admit what shape the screen might be, but said it's more about what you do with the software.

"After I give you a glimpse of what we've been working on, hopefully we'll be able to lift the conversation past that."

The next Pebble and its software will be unveiled later this year.