Mar 10, 2014 · 3 minutes

Pebble today announced an online hackathon that will reward app developers with $5,000 or the latest version of its smartwatch. The hackathon will run until March 23, and will operate like a tournament where registered Pebble owners can vote to determine the winning app.

The hackathon follows the Android release of Pebble's app marketplace and the release of Pebble Steel, a new smartwatch that replaces the original's rubberized band with a steel one. All together, the last few months have been the busiest Pebble has seen since May 2012, when it became the most well-funded project in Kickstarter's history. (It still holds that title today.)

Offering prizes to encourage app development isn't new. Microsoft offered developers $100 to port their apps to its Windows Phone operating system; BlackBerry did the same when it tried to encourage adoption of its BlackBerry 10 platform. But Pebble isn't trying to compete in an established market -- it's trying to prove that its products, and smartwatches in general, can become more than semi-fashionable accessories that vibrate when someone calls or texts.

Allowing its users to vote on their favorite app might allow the company to do just that. These are the people who decided to spend a few hundred dollars on unproven products in a nascent product segment. If they're going to lead the wrist-borne computing revolution, they're going to want a sizable software marketplace that allows them to convince their friends that they aren't crazy for wearing a miniature computer on their forearm. Giving developers a chance to win $5,000 could help Pebble deliver that software and please those users.

Reactions from around the Web

TechCrunch notes that a hackathon won't solve Pebble developer woes:

An online dev competition can raise the profile of Pebble’s SDK and reward hobbyists, but the startup needs to work out a clear path to profitability for potential dev partners, and really demonstrate that building wearable smartphone has definite business benefits before things will really take off, in my opinion.
The New York Times reviews the Pebble Steel smartwatch and finds it wanting:
As smartwatches proliferate and mature, the Pebble is in danger of being lapped by more feature-rich watches like the Samsung Galaxy Gear 2, which includes fitness-tracking capabilities and a camera (as long as you are using one of the Samsung phones it supports). The next Pebble should focus as much on features as on looks, and there is room for improvement with both.

The Pebble Steel is definitely an aesthetic improvement over the original Pebble, but its features are not all that different, and that means it is not quite keeping up with the competition. ReadWrite thinks that Pebble's growing apps marketplace is becoming respectable:

Though some of these apps have a limited audience, they speak to the expanding features and usability of Pebble, in particular, and perhaps smartwatches in general— suggesting that the next great mobile revolution really might be within arm's reach.
Pando weighs in

I argued last March that Pebble should sell itself to a larger company:

Pebble is a sound idea that has been remarkably poorly executed. Despite the rise of hardware startups and their popularity on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms, keeping up with demand and scaling to support many customers requires experience and connections within the industry that many startups simply don’t have. It would likely be better for Pebble’s customers, both those who have received defective devices and those who have yet to unbox their own devices, if a larger company were to throw its weight behind the project.
Carmel DeAmicis reported in November that many wearable devices, especially those that track their owner's health and fitness, aren't advertised properly:
Wearable companies should be advertising in the AARP and partnering with doctors, medical organizations, and insurance companies to get the devices in the hands of more people with chronic conditions. After all, this is the group that will benefit the most from reliably tracking their physical data. And if wearable devices become status quo for those suffering chronic conditions, money from helping such patients could flood the coffers of said companies.
James Robinson described the wearable market's primary problem earlier this week:

Either way, the next hurdle for wearable technology to clear now the money is flowing the right way is create something past an activity tracker that proves itself indispensable, that makes sense in a deeply organic way and can show off wearables to be more than very clever technology that no one actually needs.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]