There are certain technologies that have been around for ages which with people consistently and cyclically fall in and out of love. When 3D came out in the early 1950’s audiences were enthusiastic and entertained, but then people stopped caring and complained that untrained film operators made it “hard on the eyes.” 3D didn’t end there of course. There was another revival in the 1960’s, the 1980’s and in the past 5 years when studios released a whole slew of movies purposely filmed for 3D, the most prominent being the colorful blue-cat epic, Avatar. But now, like in the past, audiences for 3D films are in decline.
Other technologies also seem to follow this same trajectory. The idea of the flying car has been around longer than anyone has been alive yet every decade or so there’s a resurgence of interest with promises of progress. The more it’s discussed however, the more it goes from dreams of bypassing gridlock singing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to outright pessimism over the mountain of safety, logistical, and cost issues involved in actually pursuing it. Subliminal advertising also comes around every couple of decades to capture the imagination yet inevitably goes away when scientists remind everyone that it’s not real (that hasn’t stopped people proposing laws against it). And now we have the idea of the Pebble, an incredibly successful Kickstarter project that’s thriving off this cyclical interest.
The Pebble is a smartwatch, designed to sync-up with smartphones, deliver e-mail, and capable of running a bunch of simple apps. It’s generated quite a bit of publicity by becoming the highest-grossing project on the fundraising website Kickstarter, raising close to $11 million. That sounds like a phenomenally good start, and it certainly is, but interest generated in a couple weeks online doesn’t exactly translate to sustainable interest in real world marketplaces. In fact there’s a really good reason to think that there won’t be long-term interest, as the Pebble, like 3D, has been around in some form or another for decades. If you’re wondering why you hadn’t heard of any other watches like it then you might begin to see why hopes for the Pebble should also be dismal.
While the history of watches goes back nearly 500 years, people really only started wearing wristwatches after WWI. Before the war pocketwatches were all the rage, often being paired with things like monocles, tophats, canes, and mustache cream. There were some wristwatches around then, but they existed solely as a novelty and were considered feminine. When war came people suddenly realized that wristwatches were actually more useful and thereby more life-saving than a pocketwatch and so as soldiers took their wristwatches home, the novelty became standard fashion. The classic mechanical watch is still the favorite, yet electronic digital watches are widely used, especially for sports. In the 1980’s several companies began marketing watches that could do basic computer functions like storing data. The most famous and perhaps most successful of these was the Casio calculator watch which gained a reputation for its association with nerd culture.
In the 90’s the first modern smartwatches premiered and that’s when real trouble began. The Timex Datalink series of watches debuted to enthusiasm, heralded as the future and even promoted by astronauts. This watch could link up to your computer to download information and even could act as pager in case the astronauts needed to make a delivery of space heroin. It certainly sounds like it was cutting edge technology that people would flock to, but that didn’t stop it from earning a (dis)honorable mention in PC World’s “25 Worst Tech Products of All Time.”
Fast forward ten years and Microsoft introduced their much-anticipated SPOT watch product – a watch that could communicate with objects in your home and receive information through FM radio waves. This watch also failed spectacularly, probably because, when it was launched in 2004, smartphones were just a few years away and people recognized SPOT technology, even if it was a good idea, as too little, too late to the tech game. It’s no surprise then that SPOT watches have also landed on C-NET’s list of “30 Biggest Tech Flops of the Decade.”
Ok, so the Pebble isn’t exactly the same technology as its predecessors, or at least it doesn’t use the same technology to deliver its service. But it does fit the same technological niche filled by watches decades before it and unfortunately that niche is novelty. It seems like a cool idea, smartwatches were often held as the promise of the future whether it be used as a communication device like in Knight Rider or as a last-ditch act of vengence against a mud-covered Schwarzenegger. Yet as much as these types of watches might be “geek-chic,” they don’t really compete with regular watches. Watches used to be a necessity, freeing people from the shackles of the town clock and getting them on schedule. Now, watches are fashion over functionality and have much more to do with status than anything else.
Over at Slate, Farhod Manjoo sees some prospects for the Pebble. He thinks that the watch could become a nice middle-ground for people buried in their smartphones, yet even with his prospects, he comes off as completely disappointed by the product. In all, his hope for the watch is borne more out of optimism for less smartphone-saturated social interaction and less about how the watch could actually facilitate such change. It probably won’t, and people who buy the Pebble will most likely use it as a redundant technological novelty than actually come to rely on it as a means of going about their day.
However, it’s not all bad for the Pebble. Novelty and niche markets don’t necessarily lead to failure, it just means it won’t become a trendsetter nor stick around for years to come. The company might turn a profit, might find new ways to better their product, and might branch off to greater successes elsewhere, it just won’t be with this watch. Moreover, the technology and engineering used to make the product will undoubtedly find uses elsewhere and can serve to further integration and linking up smart technologies. In other words, it’s a technologically good idea even if it will fail in the marketplace.
The larger lesson from this, if the Pebble does fail, will be about Kickstarter. Watches like the Pebble will consistently emerge regardless of a fundraising website, but the hype generated from it should certainly be an issue of conversation. Crowd-sourcing for investors is not the same as generating financial backing for a product or company. Both are based on interest, but one’s personal and the other’s financial. Kickstarter-funded projects are people essentially saying they’re willing to buy the product, even if it’s just an idea. Traditionally-funded projects are people saying that they have faith that people are willing to buy that product. Often the two will align quite nicely, but sometimes they just don’t.
Of course, if the Pebble turns out to be a massive success and starts a smartwatch trend then I’ll unhappily admit I was totally wrong. Given history I just don’t see that happening – it might be cool for a while, but the novelty will soon wear off (pun shamefully intended). Although if we do get involved in another massive war, who knows, the Pebble might be standard flair for centuries to come.
9/4/13 Update: Everything in this post also applies to Samsung’s Galaxy Gear Watch which was unveiled in Berlin today.