Jobs to be done, and the Pebble Watch

Pebble Watches

The work of Geoffrey Moore and his chasm theory is less well known now than it was a decade ago, although terms he coined or popularised like ‘early adopter’ and ‘early majority’ continue to find widespread use. But, if anything, Moore’s work is more relevant now. In the late 1980s, Moore (not to be confused with intel and Moore’s law’s Gordon Moore) focused on the uptake of technological innovation.

He observed that new technologies often have an early, meteoric rise in adoption — a phase Moore termed the ‘tornado’  — only to falter before spectacularly crashing (early Web ‘push’ technologies come to mind here), or after a period of lacklustre growth continuing on their path until eventually becoming ubiquitous. Moore described such technologies as having ‘crossed the chasm’ (hence the title of his book ‘crossing the chasm’ and the idea of ‘Chasm Theory’).

One common mistake people sometimes make when reasoning about technology adoption is to confuse technologies with a specific instances of a technology (for example social media with MySpace.) While at times entire technologies fail to cross the chasm, Moore was focusing on specific implementations of a technology (in essence, on products).

This is one way in which Chasm Theory is quite distinct from Gartner’s ‘hype cycle’, which focuses on the adoption of technologies as a whole.

All of which brings me to Pebble, the early smart watch company that closed its doors late last year. Moore’s Chasm Theory has a lot to say about why the darling of early adopters, with its hugely successful Kickstarter campaigns (plural) couldn’t turn the passion (and money) of those campaigns into a sustainable business.

Pebble is an almost text book case of Chasm Theory: the tornado of early adoption, the chasm after the initial early heady days, the chasm uncrossed.

But why?

Moore observes that, at different stages of the adoption of new technologies, different kinds of customers acquire the product for quite distinct reasons. The early adopter is an adventurer, an enthusiast, someone who despite the rough edges, perhaps even because of them, buys a Parrot drone, experiments with HTML (in the early 1990s), or buys a very expensive Apricot (or other fruit oriented PC) in the early 1980s.

Early adopters aren’t looking to solve a specific problem. They’re interested in the technology for its own sake, to see what it might do. These were Pebble’s customers.

The chasm comes when these pioneers have bought, when the excitement has somewhat worn off. That’s when the really hard work starts.

So where does that growth come from?

Moore observed the next, and much larger, category of customer — those he termed the ‘early majority’ — are pragmatic rather than idealistic. They want a product to do a job (in Clayton Christienson’s ‘Jobs Theory’ formulation). They want it to solve a specific problem, to meet a well understood need.

They are looking for a product, not a technology. It strikes me that Pebble, despite newer versions refining the physical device and addressing the technological shortcomings of the original classic early adopters’ device, never managed to become a solution to a need of a pragmatic customer.

Pebble created a great technology, not a great end product.

There’s an interesting parallel with Apple Watch. The first incarnation, despite the obviously far greater focus on refinement, finish, and design than the original Pebble, was similarly an early adopter’s product.

With the second version of the Watch, Apple now focuses on a specific ‘job to be done’– health and fitness tracking. This job, as something of an early adopter and intermittent ‘quantified self’ practitioner myself, I had originally earmarked as a reason to acquire an original Apple Watch. But its lack of waterproofing, poor heart rate detection, and sluggishness in response to user input put many like me off. It wasn’t up to the job we wanted to hire it for.

Other companies, too — both more traditional “wearables” (although we didn’t use this term until recently) manufacturers focused on athletes, like Suunto and Garmin, and more consumer level products like those from Fitbit — have, of course, clearly staked out a claim in this space.

It seems health and fitness are the only sufficiently important jobs as yet to drive etch-​like wearable adoption. Meanwhile, many general purpose wearables based on the Android platform have come and gone.

Which leads to the question: will the watch be the model for general wearable computing?

It’s widely considered that it will be. But as with many visions of the future, we’re often constrained by how we thought about the future in the past (I’ve talked about this idea of “jetpack futurism” before, in relation to Google Glass, but it is a common anti-​pattern when thinking about the future).

Why bring that up now?

Like video phone calls and voice activation (as well as jetpacks and flying cars), wristwatch computers have long been a staple of our vision of the future. But our visions of the future aren’t always how the future arrives.

After initially being very skeptical of Apples’ delayed but now shipping Airpod wireless in-​ear speakers, my instinct is perhaps the next wave of computing after mobile may not be onto our wrists (after all ownership of watches has fallen significantly from an almost mandatory item of apparel a generation ago to, at best, a signifier of status) but into our ears.

I also think mobile may be more difficult to displace from the primary job of personal computing devices for many people these days – killing time – than some might believe.

Initially in quite obvious ways, but through inexorable miniaturisation, and the increase in battery life brought about by Moore’s (Gordon not Geoffrey) and Koomey’s laws, increasingly unobtrusively until we all have Daredevil–like super powers of hearing.

But what do such auditory interfaces ‘look’ like?

Don’t say ‘Siri’.

It seems to me this is a field ripe for exploration and opportunity.

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