How Pebble Became a Smartwatch Phenomenon Overnight

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Even before it’s finished, the Pebble smartwatch has achieved enough to make any of its rivals jealous. Pebble is only a prototype at the moment, yet eager consumers have pledged more than $3.8 million dollars on Kickstarter to bring a commercial product to life. No Kickstarter project has ever raised that much money before.

Pebble is not a unique idea. Smartwatches, which can sync with users’ smartphones to check messages, display app information or monitor incoming calls, have been around for years. Some of them have better specs than Pebble, including color displays, touch screens, inductive chargers, microphones and audio speakers. Allerta, the company behind Pebble, isn’t even new to the game, having created the InPulse watch for Android and Blackberry phones.

(MORE: ‘Pebble’ Watch Touts E-Paper Screen, Bluetooth, Apps and High Demand)

So why is Pebble suddenly the smartwatch to beat? The answer is likely a combination of many things, rather than one killer feature:

Low Price

On Kickstarter, you can pre-order a Pebble watch for $115 in jet black, or $125 for other colors. Even after the price rises to $150 at launch, Pebble will be one of the cheapest smartwatches. By comparison, Sony’s yet-to-launch SmartWatch will also cost $150, the WIMM One costs $200 and the high end I’m Watch ranges from $469 to $2,299. The only cheaper smartwatch I found? Allerta’s own InPulse, which starts at $99.

iPhone Support

Apple has sold nearly 200 million iPhones to date, yet no other smartwatch I’ve seen offers iPhone support. Pebble’s promise to sync with iPhones is a huge competitive advantage, even though it’s capability is slightly crippled: Android users will be able to read text messages on their Pebble watches, but Apple doesn’t allow that information to be exposed.

Less Is More

What might seem like disadvantages for Pebble could actually be its greatest strengths. The E-Ink display is only grayscale, but as with e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle, Pebble is easy to read in sunlight, and it runs up to seven days on a charge. Pebble has no touch screen, but when you’re using a tiny display, physical buttons are often easier to deal with. They’re more accurate to press, and they don’t get in the way of the screen.

Kickstarter Buzz

Kickstarter has been around since 2008, but lately the crowd funding site has taken off, thanks in part to some high profile projects. Until this year, no project had cracked the $1 million funding mark. So far this year, four projects have done so, including Pebble. The heightened attention around Kickstarter surely helped fuel Pebble’s success. (Related: The fifth most funded Kickstarter project was TikTok and LunaTik, a watch attachment for Apple’s iPod Nano that raised $942,578 in December 2010.)

Smart Timing

Watches are a classic, but wearable technology is starting to get big. Nike’s Fuelband, a wristband that sends physical activity info to iPhones and iPods, sold out in minutes last February. It has competition in the Jawbone Up and Motorola’s MotoActiv, which doubles as a music player. Google is experimenting with its own wearable technology with Project Glass, a set of augmented reality glasses that’s currently in prototype stages. And as I said before, there are plenty of other smartwatches that set the stage for Pebble’s arrival.

Pebble isn’t the fanciest, most advanced smartwatch, but that doesn’t matter. With a strong pitch, an interesting product and fortunate timing, it’s become one of this year’s best tech success stories.

(MORE: With an App Store, WIMM’s Android Watch Gets a Little More Practical)