Get ready for a whole lot more Pebble. The smartwatch company just announced several software enhancements for the Pebble and a $15M Series A led by Charles River Ventures. Pebble is not going to sit around, scared of iWatch rumors. They’re plowing forward on their own accord and committed to providing the best platform possible for developers and consumers.
“We are pledging to support the developers hacking on Pebble,” stated Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky told me in an interview. “We want to make the Pebble the go-to place for developers.” And with that the company released its first SDK last month and is following it up today with several big improvements.
The cash injection will be used to increase the company’s software engineering team’s headcount and allow the company to scale to meet still-growing customer demand. CVS’ Partner George Zachery is joining Pebble’s board of directors, a move that excites Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky.
“George is the one that shared our vision of wearable computing,” Eric told me in a chat this morning. Several angels also participated in the round, but Eric indicated that Charles River Ventures funded the majority of the Series A. This round of funding joins the $375k the company previously received from four angel investors, including Paul Buchheit, a partner at Y Combinator, and Tim Draper of venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. And don’t forget about the $10.3M Pebble raised on Kickstarter.
“The tremendous response we received from Kickstarter backers validated our belief in the value of a smartwatch as a wearable computer, but also in the value an open platform brings to truly personalizing the watch to their daily activities”, said Migicovsky, Pebble’s founder in a released statement today. “This new investment will help us build out the Pebble development ecosystem and deliver on Pebble’s extraordinary potential.”
Pebble is still working on fulfilling the 85,000 orders placed on Kickstater. To date 70,000 have reached early supporters. “It’s pretty crazy thinking there are 70,000 Pebbles out there,” Eric told me proudly. “Tens of thousands” of additional orders have been placed, Eric said.
The company is aiming for retail availability in four to six months.
Pebble also announced several software enhancements for its smartwatch today. The SDK, which the company appropriately calls the PebbleKit, enables third party apps to send and receive data from the smartwatch.
This two-way communication is a huge step forward for the smartwatch, allowing the watch to display a large variety of information including weather and sports scores or even act as a remote control for the phone itself. Until now, apps were limited to basic functions like just display a watch face or displaying a simple game of snake.
Pebble also released the Pebble Sports API, enabling developers to build GPS-enabled smartwatch apps similar to the RunKeeper app announced a couple of weeks back.
Since releasing its initial SDK back in April, Pebble states the kit was downloaded over 8,000 times, resulting in over 5,000 unique watchapps with 300,000 installs during the last month. Owners are clearly hungry for more Pebble features.
The Pebble was supposed to usher in a new era of productivity by strapping a communication device to our wrist, but the initial feature set was limited even with the first SDK release. However, Pebble is keeping at it and today’s funding announcement and software development release should result in a big harvest of fresh apps.
“Everyone is talking about wearable devices,” Eric explained. “We’re very happy that Pebble is a platform people can build on today.”
Wearables is the next big thing. There’s no denying that. Even if Apple skips the iWatch device, Google Glass and others are pushing forward the thought of wearable computing. But the Pebble is here today and developers have latched onto the platform, outing custom watch faces, games, and apps. With the Pebble, the future is here now.
To use text messaging and navigation on Google Glass, users currently have to pair it with an Android phone and install the Glass companion app on their phones. This will change very soon, however, one of the Google representatives in its New York office told me when I picked up my own unit yesterday afternoon. Glass, the Google employee told me, will soon be able to handle these features independent of the device the user has paired it to (and maybe even independent of the Glass companion app).
While Glass will happily work with any iPhone over Bluetooth or use any Wi-Fi connection to get online, iPhone users are currently unable to get turn-by-turn directions through Glass – one of its killer features. Those direction are pretty useful while you are navigating a new city and they do show off the power of location-based apps on Glass, but the software will currently balk if you ask it to give you directions while it’s connected to an iPhone.
In this context, it’s worth noting that one of the myths surrounding Glass is that it is independently connected to the Internet. That’s not true, however. Instead, Glass users need to have a tethering plan for their phones to connect Glass to the Internet. In the eyes of your wireless provider, Glass is just another device that uses your phone’s personal hotspot feature. This means Glass shouldn’t have to depend on any application that runs on your phone, so the original restriction of making navigation and SMS dependent on the companion app was always a bit odd.
While Glass has a built-in compass, it doesn’t have its own GPS receiver and depends on the phone to provide it with location data. It looks like this was just a function of the beta state of Glass, however, and that we can expect it to soon be fully functional, no matter the device it uses to connect to the Internet.
After 24 hours of staring at their screens, the teams that participated in our Disrupt NY 2013 Hackathon have now finished their projects and are currently presenting them onstage. With more than 160 hacks, there are far too many cool ones to write about, but one that stood out to me was NewsRel, an iPad-based news app that uses machine-learning techniques to understand how news stories relate to one other. The app uses Google Maps as its main interface and automatically decides which location is most appropriate for any given story.
The app currently uses Reuters‘ RSS feed and analyzes the stories, looking for clusters of related stories and then puts them on the map. Say you are looking at a story about the Boston Marathon bombings. The app, of course, will show you a number of news stories about it clustered around Boston, then maybe something about the president’s comments about it from Washington and another article that relates it to the massacre during the Munich Olympics in 1972.
As you scroll through the stories, the app always recalculates the related stories on the fly, too, which makes for a pretty interesting news-reading experience. Besides the map, the team also decided to develop the user interface around gestures, so you swipe down to read the full story on the news service’s webpage and you can swipe left and right to scroll from one story to the next
The team members have a background in machine learning and iOS engineering. They met during their undergrad studies a few years ago and decided to team up for the hackathon. They told me that they plan to keep working on the app and release it in the near future.
Backlift, a Y Combinator-backed startup that’s launching today, describes itself as a back-end service for front-end developers. The service takes all of the work of setting up a server environment out of the equation and just lets front-end developers focus on their work. All a user needs is a Dropbox account – Backlift uses Dropbox as a file syncing service – and a text editor. With Backlift, a developer doesn’t need to know how to set up Rails, Django or node.js to get started.
As Backlift founder Cole Krumbholz told me last week, the idea behind the service is to allow developers to jump right into working on their front-end code. For many people, he said, front-end tools can be a bit daunting and he wants Backlift to be a great learning tool, but he also aims to make it a platform for prototyping and, soon, a platform for hosting applications.
To get started, users simply sign in with their Dropbox account, create a new app from based on a number of templates, including numerous backbone.js sample apps, a Google Maps API-based site, and basic Bootstrap-based sites. You can also use other popular technologies like AngularJS, CoffeeScript and Handlebars. Backlift then creates a new folder in your Dropbox account (and hence on your desktop, too) and you can start editing it with your favorite text editor. Every time you save an edit, Dropbox will sync with Backlift and you can immediately see the changes on your site (syncing starts less than a second after your changes are uploaded to Dropbox).
Given that most applications need to work with at least some data, Backlift also offers a basic API for working with data, as well as an admin dashboard for adding users and browsing, importing and exporting the data in your database.
One of the companies that has been using Backlift extensively during the beta phase is Automatic.com – the YC-backed company that recently launched its hardware for turning any car into a connected car. “We have our own Amazon S3 servers, however Backlift is a much easier, faster, and secure way of working on the site as we got it ready for launch and showed investors,” Automatic.com’s visual and interactive designer Gabriel Valdivia told me.
The service, Krumbholz told me, will evolve constantly and the team plans to launch quite a few new features in the near future – though he wasn’t quite ready to share the team’s plans just yet.
For now, Backlift is completely free to use. The team will likely add some premium features, though the details are still up in the air.
Krumbholz, by the way, is one of the few solo founders who have made it into Y Combinator. After he left the Navy, he previously worked on air traffic control interfaces and then started making mobile games for iOS.
I reported on Friday that Thomas (who’s an old boss of mine — he was executive editor at VentureBeat back when I was the assistant editor) was in talks for the position, though all that Say representatives would tell me at the time was that they were talking to a number of candidates.
Formerly called ReadWriteWeb, the blog was founded by Richard MacManus back in 2003, and over the past decade it has been home to a number of great tech writers (including Frederic Lardinois, Sarah Perez and Alex Williams, who are all currently writing for TechCrunch). Last fall, the company announced the new name, a new design, and the hiring of Dan Lyons as editor. Lyons left last month to take a position at marketing software company HubSpot.
In some ways, Thomas and Lyons are similar choices: They have lots of media experience (yes, Owen, that’s my polite way of saying that you’re old), but they can also be snarky and controversial.
“Owen is a brilliant writer with great experience covering every aspect of the technology industry,” said Say SVP and Editorial Director Kate Lewis in a press release. “He has a distinct point-of-view and a cleverness that makes his work resonate both inside and outside of his community.”
ReadWrite has also published its own blog post announcing the move, in which Owen is described as “a shockingly nice fellow.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but he is actually pretty nice, and that does surprise some people, especially since he used to be the editor of Valleywag.
“One thing we’re definitely going to do is go back to our roots,” Thomas told me. In other words, he wants to explore the idea embedded in the company’s name — what it means now that “everyone is a participant, everyone’s a builder today.”
When Lyons joined as editor, he told us that he wanted to make ReadWrite more fun. I pointed out that people are probably expecting that from Thomas too, but he said, “I have my serious side, Anthony.” He added that he definitely wants to make sure the site has a sense of humor, and that sometimes being funny or snarky is the most appropriate response to tech news: “You have to laugh so you don’t cry.”