If you were to place bets on which companies will win the smartwatch wars, the safe choices would be Apple, Google, and Samsung. They've got massive marketing budgets, large-scale manufacturing resources, and billions of dollars to invest in research and development. Just as importantly, their success in smartphones gives them built-in armies of third-party app developers to work with.
But for now, the watch that's winning—at least in terms of developer support—is Pebble. The Palo Alto-based company, which employs roughly 130 people, now has more than 5,500 apps and watch faces for its $100 smartwatch. (The split is 1,100 native apps, 4,300 watch faces, and 100 apps that rely on a companion iOS or Android app, CEO Eric Migicovsky tells Fast Company.) And while most of those apps come from small, independent developers, Pebble has also enlisted some big names along the way, including ESPN, Yelp, Paypal, Pandora, and Domino's Pizza.
Pebble's 5,500 app count is peanuts compared to the more than 1 million phone and tablet apps available for iOS and Android, but it gives Pebble a healthy lead among smartwatch platforms. Samsung celebrated its 1,000-app milestone in August, and the Android Wear section of Google's app store lists just 193 regular apps and 29 watch face apps. (Update: Google points out that its store listings are hand-picked favorites, and that tens of thousands of Android apps have been "enhanced" for Android Wear. These aren't all full-blown smartwatch apps, but they include Wear-specific notification features like additional text or bundled cards.) Apple won't even enter the race until the Apple Watch launches early next year.
How did Pebble pull it off? The company likes to boast about its openness, and its support for both iOS and Android. But the overarching factor is the enthusiasm that Pebble has cultivated after its initial Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than $10 million in 2012. Since then, Pebble has found ways to keep banking on the goodwill of developers—both independent and at large tech firms—who backed the project and continue to write new apps.
Pebble's big challenge, then, will be to sustain that enthusiasm for the long haul. As the competition gets increasingly serious, and operates on a larger scale, Pebble will need more than just good vibes to keep the pace.
Migicovsky is clearly conscious about how Pebble looks to developers, peppering the words "hack" (in the benevolent coding sense) and "open" throughout our conversation. They're buzzwords that are sometimes abused by larger companies—and to be clear, Pebble's operating system is not open-source—but Migicovsky is trying to be genuine, and believes the company's openness brings actual benefits.
He points out, for instance, that Pebble's software developer kit was far from perfect when it launched in beta last year. An outside developer, Katharine Berry, came up with a better, web-based tool called CloudPebble, and Pebble responded by hiring Berry and maintaining CloudPebble as an open-source project. "If you hack on Pebble and create something that's that instrumental and useful to the community, we will go out of our way to support you and support the product that you've made," Migicovsky says.
Another example: Long before Pebble got around to adding full support for 80 languages last month, a group called PebbleBits was providing its own language support through alternative firmware. The group still supports languages that Pebble doesn't, and Pebble isn't stopping them from continuing development.
"We've done everything we could to help these guys continue hacking"—there's that word again—"and customizing and building and extending the firmware for Pebble," Migicovsky says. "So, we're putting our money where our mouth is and saying, 'It's not just about us. It's not just about what we think Pebble is. It's much more about the community.'"
Of course, Pebble does more traditional outreach as well. The company has four business development people that "beat the way up and down the Valley," Migicovsky says, and it has pushed Pebble app development in dozens of hackathons. When larger companies show interest, Pebble will even contribute design work or build the tools they need to make their apps work.
Still, Thomas Sarlandie, Pebble's lead developer evangelist, argues that community tools such as CloudPebble, Watchface Generator and HTTPebble have been essential to Pebble's growth.
"Those are all tools that are started from the community…and those tools have gotten pretty good," Sarlandie says. "I think that's been a major aspect of why we have more apps and why the apps are such a strong part of Pebble today."
That grassroots focus seems to be paying off, and attracting companies like Jawbone to the platform. Jawbone released a step-counting app and watch face for Pebble in September, but even before the company officially dove in, it was using Pebble to create software prototypes for its own UP3 fitness band, says Jeremiah Robison, Jawbone's vice president of software.
Robison and Migicovsky hit it off when they were introduced through friends last spring, and the timing of Jawbone opening up to other companies' hardware was fortuitous. But Jawbone was also impressed with the level of activity in Pebble's forums, and how eager users were to give feedback to developers.
"There's great alignment between the two companies, and a great deal of respect from both sides around our focus on developer community." Robison says.
Talk to enough Pebble developers, and a pattern starts to emerge: They're not so much motivated by financial gain as they are by intellectual curiosity. They want to play around with wearable apps, and Pebble provides an easy way to experiment.
"It's kind of like why we started Pebble in the first place," Migicovsky says. "I really just wanted to be able to see text messages and calls on my wrist. That was the original motivating factor for actually building this thing." It's natural, Migicovsky says, for developers to have the same attitude toward building apps.
This mentality has given Pebble's relatively small platform some allies at large companies such as Domino's, which recently released an app to track the status of deliveries and pick-up orders.
Domino's wanted to do something in wearables, and as a franchise-based company, the pizza chain appreciated Pebble's modest origins on Kickstarter. It helped that Dennis Maloney, the company's head of digital marketing was an early Pebble backer.
"I think on some level, we just really related to Pebble being this entrepreneurial start-up kind of thing as opposed to the more established names in the wearable space, so we approached them," Domino's CIO Kevin Vasconi says.
Pandora tells a similar story. After the Kickstarter campaign, Carl Edwards, Pandora's director of device engineering, reached out to Pebble's business development team and bought a few of the watches. He handed them out to his team, and within a few days they had a basic "now playing" screen for Pandora's music service up and running.
Over the next year, Pandora and Pebble worked closely on a finished version of the app, which launched last May, and Pandora CTO Chris Martin said it was a great learning experience for both companies. "Those types of opportunities, when they're trying to learn, and we're trying to learn, can be pretty productive," Martin said.
The enthusiasm remained even after Pandora launched its app. One project manager has since created a watch face for his favorite baseball team, and Edwards—whose wife is a nurse—built an app for monitoring patients' vital signs. Martin said that app, called Vitals, has attracted surprisingly high levels of interest on its own.
While Pebble's feel-good approach to developer support has given it an early lead, it does have some limitations. Inevitably, some developers will be drawn to Google and Apple for their size and scale, and for what they've been able to pull off with their technology.
"Wearables are the future, but they need a strong driving force to reach critical mass," says Gonçalo Silva, the lead Android developer for task-management service Todoist, which added Android Wear support to its app last week. "Google, together with their hardware partners, is undoubtedly one of the few companies that can successfully pull this off, given their resources and worldwide reach."
Silva wouldn't rule out a Pebble app, but says Todoist needs to "prioritize the projects with the most potential and ensure they live up to our highest standards." To that end, Pebble's low-power monochrome display would be a problem for Todoist, even though it allows the screen to remain on for days on a charge.
"Todoist frequently takes advantage of colors, be it in projects and labels, task priorities, or even collaborator avatars," Silva says. "I’m sure we could overcome this or any other limitation, but it’s nontrivial given where our interface is and where it’s headed."
EAT24 had similar reasons for passing over Pebble. The company was one of the first to support Android Wear, and was featured at the keynote of Google's I/O conference in June. "We've looked at competitive wearables, but the feature set isn't rich enough to properly enhance our product at the moment," EAT24 said in a statement. (The app's hallmark feature is the ability to place a favorite delivery order by voice, but Pebble doesn't even have a microphone.)
For Hotels.com, going with Android Wear first was a matter of betting on what it thought was a promising platform. "We really believe in Android based on their market share dominance out there, especially in the U.S., so we think that's a good place to start," says Steven Quach, the company's director of online marketing. (Hotels.com also plans to offer an Apple Watch app when the device launches next year.)
Still, Pebble has been scheming ways to keep up with the competition. Last week, the company added actionable notification support for Android users, hooking into the same system that Android Wear uses. Quach pointed out that even if Hotels.com doesn't build a native Pebble app, users can get many of the same Android Wear features through Pebble, including a notification that gives the address of the hotel where the user is staying.
"Pebble has a great name for itself, it has more of a cult following out there," Quach said. "They're definitely competitive now that they're compatible with Android Wear."
Jawbone's Robison says it's a forward-thinking approach that Pebble's competitors will eventually have to copy, and it prepares Pebble for a time when more smartwatches will have their own built-in Internet connections.
Developers can even avoid building a custom Pebble app completely. Instead, Pebble can connect to an online service like PayPal through the Pebble phone application, and dynamically generate the watch app based on what PayPal sends over its servers.
"In the case of [Samsung's] Gear and Android Wear, their model was, 'Hey PayPal, you go build an app,'" says Joel Yarbrough, PayPal's senior director of global solutions. "What Pebble has gone ahead done is built a cloud framework…To us, that's really, really scalable for Pebble and for others."
Although Pebble won't reveal current sales figures, the company says that it's profitable, and previously told Fortune that it shipped 400,000 watches in 2013. One of Pebble's investors also expects revenues to double this year. But even if Pebble pushes past 1 million units, that's a negligible fraction of the nearly 1 billion smartphones sold per year. The reality for Pebble is that it will struggle to match the scale of the larger tech companies on its own.
The next step, then, may be to partner with other hardware makers to give Pebble's software a wider reach. Migicovsky hinted at those plans in September, when he told The Globe and Mail that more wearable devices in the future will be "either Pebble-made or Pebble-powered."
When I asked Migicovsky if that meant Pebble would allow other companies to use its software, he responded in the affirmative. While he wouldn't say exactly how partnerships might work, he noted that controlling the hardware and opening up the software don't have to be mutually exclusive.
"I won't be able to share too much about what our plans are in that regard, but it's partially about getting more units out the door," Migicovsky says. "We want to spread Pebble onto wrists around the world. It's one of the reasons we priced Pebble at $99 and $199."
The strategy is easy enough to understand: For other wearable makers that want to support both iOS and Android, their only option right now is to create their own platform and build a developer community from scratch. Just to speculate, one could imagine Pebble offering a ready-made alternative with a sizeable app and watchface selection, and letting hardware makers come up with their own designs.
Migicovsky said it was hard to sell its ambitions when the company was just three guys in a living room. But things have changed.
"Now that we have hundreds of thousands of users, we have thousands of apps, and tens of thousands of developers, we're emerging as the only people that can rise up and beat Android and Apple," Migicovsky said, "so I think there's a lot more opportunity for us than ever before."