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Pebble shares its perspective on smartwatch opportunities for app developers

After opening up its own app store and updating its SDK, the firm says it's ready to take on any competitor--including Samsung or Apple
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The world is still waiting to see if Apple makes an iWatch, and Samsung's plans for Galaxy Gear are still in the early days, which means Pebble still has a window of opportunity to dominate the market for wearable computing apps. 

Pebble is trying to make it easier to create apps for its smartwatch.

Following up on promises made at CES 2014 in Las Vegas, Pebble recently opened up its own app store, which can be accessed through its iOS app; it offers categories such as Sports & Fitness, Daily, Remotes, Games, Notifications and Tools & Utilities for consumers to add to its flagship smartwatch. The company also released version 2.0 of its SDK, which included access to four major new APIs such as Javascript, the accelerometer, data logging and persistent storage. 

According to Thomas Sarlandie, developer evangelist with Palo Alto, Calif.-based Pebble, developers can download the SDK in the traditional way and then write and compile apps, or via cloudpebble.net, its hosted online service. 

"Our feedback on that in hackathons is that it's really an amazing way for developers to get started," he told FierceDeveloper. "Then some of them want to stick with the more traditional way."

Sarlandie described Pebble as a very specific platform, where by definition they will have a smaller, more constrained space in which to offer an app experience. This means design is more important than ever before, and that developers may have to make some difficult choices. 

"Developers are now going through the same things that we went through when iOS and Android first came out. There were lots of ideas, lots of features we all wanted to see," he said. "They need to try things out and let the most important [features] bubble up to the surface."

Sarlandie

Although some developers may be initially scared or put off at the thought of designing for the wearable computing market, Sarlandie said they shouldn't be. 

"Once they've built their first app, they realize it's quite simple. I would say in terms of development it's very similar to the iOS framework," he said. "A lot of developers started using Pebble just because they wanted to give something more to their users."

For example, Sarlandie points to niches like golfing, where apps have been available on smartphones for some time but where a Pebble app can add greater accessibility and convenience as a sort of companion experience.

App store adds connection points
One of the early examples of a more standalone Pebble apps is PebbleGPS, which offers maps and directions for smartwatch users. Nathan Oates, who developed PebbleGPS, said the opening of the app store is a huge opportunity because it allows developers to reach all Pebble owners, not just those who are actively engaged on the Pebble forums, third-party sites such as Mypebblefaces.com or the Reddit group, which were the main contact points before.

PebbleGPS displays maps and directions.

"I also think improving the contact points between the developer and people with issues is a big benefit," he said. "On the iTunes App Store, occasionally users will review an app poorly, but the developer has no way to contact them to help sort out the problem." The Pebble app store, however, has an "email developer for support" link on the app's main page, so it is easy to get support, Oates added.

Prior to Pebble's app store, some other sources for discovering wearable apps for the smartwatch were already on the market, such as allPebble.com. Its owner, Johan Mommens, has no plans to shut it down now that Pebble has launched an official store of its own. 

"To be honest, I like the fact there is an official and unofficial Pebble app store. It gives people a choice and keeps Pebble on their toes," he said. "The big difference with allPebble.com and the official Pebble app store is that you can actually sell your Pebble apps. We don't take a cut from the developers, we simply make our money by placing ads on the site and will continue to do so in the future."

Sarlandie said that while the company is not supporting paid apps at the moment, the company is considering its long-term options. "What people are doing to monetize are charging for the iOS version of their app and having their Pebble app be one of the features. I see that as a perfectly valid business model," he said. "We're working on donations and are getting ready for the day where there are payments."

More competion looms
The biggest threat to Pebble, of course, is whether Apple and Samsung can extend their dominance of the smartphone space into the wearable segment. Myriam Joire, a product evangelist at Pebble, isn't worried. 

"[Samsung is] basically taking Android and scaling it down to the wrist. They're still making a companion device. We don't look at it as a competitor," Joire said. 

Not everyone sees Samsung's Gear as competition for Pebble.

"Apple is going to make a fantastic watch I'm sure, if they make a watch, but a lot of people are talking about wearables and how to use them, and what the experience should be. There's a lot of talk, but the only company doing action on that ... is Pebble."

Oates agrees, calling Pebble the most active smartwatch/wearable platform at the moment in terms of developer interest. "So far it has mainly been individual developers like myself, but now we have larger companies like Yelp and foursquare writing their own watch apps, and I think that's really exciting," he said. "Samsung tried to make a big launch with the Galaxy Gear, but it hasn't really resonated. If Apple does launch an iWatch, it will really change the landscape though. Whether an iWatch would hurt Pebble by stealing all their interest, or help them by growing the wearable market overall and making it more mainstream, I'm not sure yet."

Joire said Pebble's current SDK and app store give it a significant head start, as does its focus on the wearable segment. 

"We're taking the device that you know--one that tells time, is waterproof, has really good battery life--and bringing it kicking and screaming to the 21st century by adding apps," she said. "We're offering a micro-transaction experience and having it on your wrist. I don't have a feeling that's what [Apple or Samsung] is trying to do. We feel that we own this market."