Pebble Reminds Us That Smartwatches Are Still a Tiny Niche

The fact that a small hardware startup can get funded and grow is a wonderful thing. Just don't point to it as proof that the smartwatch business is exploding.

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Despite all the hype about smartwatches becoming the next big thing in tech, right now even the most noteworthy example barely registers as a blip.

Pebble, which became a Kickstarter phenomenon last year with more than $10 million in pledges for the then-unreleased smartwatch, now says it has taken 275,000 pre-orders. Subtract the Kickstarter backers, and that’s 190,000 reservations.

For a small startup, it’s an impressive feat. Pebble has essentially set the bar for tech companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google and Samsung, all of whom are reportedly eyeing the smartwatch business. Pebble has even struck a deal with Best Buy to sell the watch in stores–though it’s currently all sold out through the retailer. As a company, Pebble has expanded its staff and opened a new office to help grow the business even more, Bloomberg reports.

Still, let’s keep those 275,000 pre-orders in perspective. When it comes to tech products, a quarter-million is a tiny number, not a sign of a growing trend.

Compared to the leaders of other new product categories, Pebble isn’t off to as fast of a start. Apple sold its 1 millionth iPhone on September 10, 2007, 74 days after its debut. Motorola’s original Droid, which basically put Android smartphones on the map, also hit the million sales mark in about 74 days. When Apple launched the original iPad, it took 28 days to hit 1 million sales. These were all products on the verge of going mainstream, and the million sales mark was a good sign that they were onto something. Pebble, which launched its Kickstarter campaign in April 2012, isn’t anywhere close.

Granted, Pebble has a few factors working against it. As a small company, it doesn’t have a huge marketing budget to get the word out. (In addition to the $10 million in Kickstarter pledges, Pebble has raised another $15 million in venture funding. By comparison, Verizon Wireless spent quadruple that amount just to promote the first Droid.) And even if Pebble was able to take 1 million orders, the company wouldn’t be able to fulfill them all for a long time. The fact that you can’t order a Pebble right now and have it on your doorstep tomorrow is no doubt holding back sales even further.

But even if Pebble was able to market and ship more units, there doesn’t seem to be a huge demand for today’s smartwatches. Other companies with wider reach than Pebble, such as Sony and Casio, have tried to get in on the trend, but haven’t made much of a mark either.

That’s not to say people aren’t receptive to wearable tech. Just look at the success of fitness gadgets like Fitbit and Jawbone Up, which according to IHS will hit 56 million shipments this year. Or consider that in America, more than half of adults now own a smartphone, for which a wearable gadget could become an integral accessory. The potential is there; smartwatches just haven’t cracked the code yet.

That’s why I find myself nodding in agreement with my colleague Harry McCracken, who wrote that the smartwatches of today aren’t ready to become breakout hits. Battery life is too short, the designs are a little too clunky, and it’s not really clear why everyone needs a smartwatch to begin with. Pebble’s main purpose is to keep you constantly aware of incoming messages and notifications, but for a lot of people that could be more of a burden than a boon.

Pebble has proven that an interesting Kickstarter concept can blossom into a viable, small-scale business. And that’s great; the fact that a small hardware startup can get funded and grow is a wonderful thing. Just don’t point to it as proof that the smartwatch business is exploding. The concept is in its infancy, and has a lot of maturing to do before it’s ready for the masses.