The Verge reported on some ominous news from Pebble today; they’re apparently laying off 25% of their staff. Combine that with a competitive wearables market, and it doesn’t look great for Kickstarter’s biggest success story.
I loved my original Pebble, but drifted away from using a smart watch at all in the last few months. But I really wanted to see Pebble succeed, because they were cross-platform, dead simple to use, and ran for days on one charge. Unfortunately, Pebble suffered from a severe marketing problem, in that anyone not knee-deep in technology news probably didn’t know they existed. I was asked several times if my homely original Pebble was an Apple Watch. Rather than suggest the person inquiring get glasses immediately, I would politely explain how it was a Pebble, worked on Android and iOS, was cheaper and did much of the same functions as an Apple Watch or Android Wear. Usually once I was past “No, this is a Pebble and…” the other person’s eyes glazed over. No one cared.
Pebble also mis-stepped with the Pebble Time. It was cute, but it was way too expensive to simply be cute. At $199 it was up against the prior generation Moto 360 and the Asus ZenWatch 2, and the more attractive Pebble Time Steel was directly against newer, shinier Android Wear watches. My guess, though, is that the sales run by Best Buy, Target, and other retailers that slashed the Apple Watch to $299 during the holidays probably killed any momentum Pebble had. Once their primary competition was within $100 of them, it cut back deeply on any value perception they offered.
Worst of all, though, was the Pebble Time Round. In theory it was a great idea; it was smaller, looked more like a real watch, and came in fashionable designs. The problem with it was that it was expensive (starting at $249), had less battery life than the rest of the Pebble line (from 5-7 days to 2-3 days) and wasn’t waterproof. Basically, the big things that made the Pebble stand out were stripped from the Time Round, and while Pebble doesn’t share specific sales numbers, it isn’t hard to guess that the Time Round missed the mark.
Then again, maybe this 25% layoff is just cost-cutting, and Pebble will be fine. If they’re not, though, it’s hard to see a potential merger or acquisition in their future. Google doesn’t need them, nor does Apple, and Microsoft’s wearables seem to be far more fitness oriented than fashion focused. I could see Fitbit acquiring them purely to shore up weakness in the “Smart watch” side of their business; just about every review of the Fitbit Blaze knocks it for being not quite a smart watch, so Pebble would be a chance to course correct that. Jawbone is struggling to keep up with Fitbit, so I can’t see them bringing another struggling company on board. The only other outlier I could see sniffing around is Fossil Group. They already snagged Misfit for tracking, and if Fossil isn’t happy with how their Android Wear attempts are going, they could roll Pebble’s software into much nicer hardware. Fitbit and Fossil both have their own headwinds in the wearables space, so it’s tough to say with any certainty that either of them would take the risk on acquiring Pebble.
The wearables market right now is like a game of musical chairs; with the tightening of venture capital funding, the music stopped, and it looks like Pebble might have been left without a seat!