October 25, 2016

Picking Up The Pebbles

How Pebble’s feature additions have strengthened my desire for the Apple Watch.

I have discussed smartwatches in all the ways I possibly can, I think: their physical manifestations, their daily use cases, their UI, their growth in both software feature set and general public interest level. Pebble and Apple have been at the heart of that discussion for me, mainly due to fact that I have now owned two Pebble devices and am personally and professionally interested in all things Apple. Lexi’s birthday gift this year was an Apple Watch Series 2, which caused me to think through why I started with Pebble in the first place and what if anything has kept me using their products. Unfortunately for Pebble, I came to the conclusion that what they offer is no longer what I need or want.

It is not as though the Pebble’s limitations weren’t well documented, but those limitations were seen as the expected outcome of an uphill battle against the likes of Apple and Google. For the majority of its existence, Pebble was an underdog with great ideas. And though I think the company continues to provide on its promise of affordable wearables with a unique feature set, their drive to match the features of Apple’s watchOS or Android Wear has led to a less compelling product overall. The limitations as they appear now come across less as a company struggling with lack of access to software APIs and more a company unable to focus and innovate on what it was originally good at: simplicity in an increasingly complex smartwatch category.

When I purchased the original Pebble, it was a means of testing the waters of smart wearables. As chronicled perviously, I formerly wore a Misfit Shine, which is a fine fitness tracker, but in no way smart by today’s standards. The Pebble was a screen with the time on it; always on with an eInk display and a backlight for dark rooms, not to mention seven days of battery life. The device could retrieve and receive certain types of data from your phone: notifications, currently playing music, alarms, weather, etc. Again, limitations, but limitations that exist within the framework of simplicity with the watch in smartwatch at the forefront of the user interface.

The Pebble App Store allowed third party developers to create new and interesting watch faces and applications. The original device had little on-board storage, so there was a finite number of faces/apps the device could hold. However, with applications like Nest, ESPN, Uber, and more, the Pebble felt like a bourgeoning platform getting its legs under it. There were third-party fitness tracking applications and third party watch faces with complications, as well.

When a few of the admitted deficiencies were corrected, the platform flourished. Color screens, unlimited app installations, the timeline interface. Pebble gained the functional high ground in the smartwatch category. They had created a simple, yet powerful user interaction paradigm that allowed for tremendous flexibility and extensibility. The Apple Watch didn’t have anything like it at the time and it led me to purchase my second Pebble device, the Pebble Time Round.

The Time Round is still the thinnest smartwatch around and it is the only smartwatch with a screen that doesn’t look like a smartwatch in passing, perhaps to its marketing detriment. One of my colleagues guessed that it was going to usher in a world of round smartwatches in general and while that has been true in the Android world, not so much in the Apple one. The Pebble Time Round, along with the other Time series Pebble devices, added hardware features that came with their own set of complexities: a microphone for audio capture, test features like text and email replies, and built-in fitness tracking, among others. While I was excited about these additions at the outset, the complexity of these features, especially without the first-party accesses to the iOS software stack, indicated that deficiencies still existed and were more pronounced than ever.

At some point in the race to have feature parity with Apple’s first-party smartwatch solution, Pebble’s third-party solution lost its way. By continuing to add complexity without the functional high ground of simple yet powerful user interaction, the Pebble software has started to feel like a muddled mess. The microphone on my device is never used and rarely am I happy when the device tries to force me to use it. Text replies using carrier-direct SMS was a great workaround, but the trade-offs mean that I have no conversation history after the fact. The advent of third-party watch faces has meant that Pebble’s own built-in watch faces are wallowing in disuse and with no updates in recent memory. Similarly, the majority of Pebble’s first-party apps are lackluster at best and in need of attention. The Time Round, far from starting the round smart watch revolution, has instead started to lack the features of its square brethren, including the headlining Quick Views functionality of Pebble Firmware 4.0.

This is all to say that as the experience became more compelling for the standard fare of smartwatch buyers, it became less compelling for those looking for a powerful yet simple smart wearable with all the other things Pebble has in its favor: an always-on screen with impressive battery life. As Pebble continues to update its devices and software, it is possible that these discontented items will be accounted for, but I will not be using a Pebble device at that time.

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