The idea of a smartwatch appears to have the same level of appeal to those of Generation X as the jetpack does. Both devices come from science fiction, and while technology has touched upon both, neither device has really entered consumer reality yet, though both have often been promised.
The Pebble e-paper watch comes closest to realizing the smartwatch as we’ve yet seen. If you haven’t already heard of the Pebble, it’s a Kickstarter project whose funding has already surpassed eight million dollars, so it’s pretty clear the project is popular, and is currently Kickstarter’s most-funded project ever.
The Pebble is designed to work with iOS and Android devices, using Bluetooth to speak with a smartphone. Chiefly, the Pebble aims to serve as a remote notification center, so you don’t need to look at your phone whenever a notification comes in. The Pebble provides notification for the following:
- Incoming Caller ID
- Email (Gmail or any IMAP email account)
- Calendar Alerts
- Facebook Messages
- Weather Alerts
- Silent vibrating alarm and timer
The Pebble also touts interoperability with certain smartphone apps, so it can control your smartphone’s music, access GPS data for cycling/running, etc. Out-of-box, the Pebble will presumably work with a couple key apps, but will primarily serve as a notification center until you grab third-party apps from the Pebble online store.
Your notifications sent to your watch may be cool, but we see this as more of a novelty than a truly useful feature; the Pebble simply doesn’t offer any features that a smartphone by itself doesn’t. Yes, it puts notifications on your wrist, but for how many niche cases is that truly an improvement over just looking at your phone? Given the short range of Bluetooth, you have to have your phone near the Pebble anyway, so is saving you from pulling your phone from your pocket really worth $115? If a notification is important enough to respond to, you’ll have to pull your phone out anyway. If you’re not expecting an important notification, you can probably go without checking your wrist until you’re in a place you can use your phone.1
It’s not that we can’t think of ways to use the Pebble, it’s simply that we’re not convinced the Pebble is going to make anyone’s mobile computing life better. Sure, that’s subjective, but in terms of efficiency, all the Pebble is doing is adding another layer of technology between you and your smartphone, and when is that a good thing? Again, outside of extremely specific use cases, the Pebble is a great novelty item, but little more.
Outside of the Pebble being a neat gadget, there’s the form factor to consider. Some people wear the iPod Nano as a watch because they love the digital watch-faces but the Nano is a really big watch. For those with smaller wrists, the Nano just looks silly, and the Pebble is similarly big. Pebble’s main Kickstarter page doesn’t include dimensions,2 but looking into it further, we found that the Pebble’s body is roughly 5cm x 3cm. Compare this to the iPod Nano’s 3.75cm x 4.09cm dimension body, and you can see that the Pebble is no small beast. We wonder how many backers didn’t even consider this when pledging.
The size is also a concern because it means the Pebble pretty much needs to replace a watch. Whereas other wrist gadgets can sit alongside a watch, the Pebble really can’t, and wearing it on the wrist opposite your watch just looks like you’re wearing two watches. That may not be a concern for everyone, but we wonder how more versatile the Pebble would be if it had a thinner display that wrapped around more of the wrist, and scrolled notifications accordingly.
Another design concern we have is the plastic screen (as opposed to the crystal many watches sport), as plastic scratches much easier than glass. Yet, the biggest problem with the Pebble is that it’s limited to existing APIs, as well as the hardware it doesn’t have. There’s no line-out for plugging headphones in, for example, so you can’t entirely stash your phone for when you plan to take the Pebble on a run.3 In many cases, you’ll still be using an armband to exercise with the iPhone, because the Pebble doesn’t offer a way around this.
On the iPhone, the Pebble also can’t read text messages, which limits what it can do with notifications.
Hope is in the SDK.
While the core functionality of the Pebble puts a purchase to question, the device’s saving grace may very well be its intended third-party support. The Pebble will have an SDK available before release, so third-party developers could have iPhone apps working with the Pebble as soon as the watch is released. The most high-profile iPhone app to have announced Pebble support thus far is RunKeeper, so we wouldn’t be surprised to see others take the plunge. A companion app for Zombies, Run!, for example, would be quite cool.
One area we’re looking forward to is activity-monitoring. The Pebble includes a gyroscope and vibration motor, so it has all the hardware necessary to compete against the Jawbone UP and Nike FuelBand. While no activity-and-sleep-monitoring apps have yet been announced for the Pebble, the potential is there, and we hope to see someone tackle this. At present, the Jawbone UP is the only wrist-wearable gadget that does full-on sleep and motion tracking, and there are still concerns over Jawbone’s quality control with the UP. As the Nike Fuelband doesn’t track sleep or provide activity alarms, the market is ripe for the Pebble to fill this void.
We see buying a Pebble as an investment in potential functionality. Today, the developers announced a production cap of 75,000 Pebble watches for the initial Kickstarter drive, so there are roughly 10,000 watches left for reserve. We decided to back the project, figuring the worst case scenario is that we don’t see an activity/sleep-moniting app in the Pebble’s future, or the watch is simply too big for our wrists, and we sell the watch online. Given the demand for it, backers shouldn’t have a problem reselling their wares if they need to, and may even be able to make a couple dollars on it; if you’re on the fence, you probably won’t lose money on the Pebble.
Best case scenario for us is a proper activity/sleep-monitor app being released shortly after the Pebble store goes live. In this case, our worst decision will be deciding to forego a nice watch and instead wear the Pebble nearly full-time.
At the very least, the Pebble is a cool experiment in whether this market is capable of flourishing, let alone existing. There’s also the potential we’ll see a really killer app for the Pebble that no one’s thought of yet, so lurking Pebble’s developer forum should prove interesting in the days ahead. The Pebble’s estimated ship date is September, so there’s plenty of time for new app ideas to be thrown around and worked on. So while the Pebble’s basic functions don’t excite us, we’re looking forward to what developers come up with in the days ahead.
And in what situation is this even plausible? A formal business meeting where you don’t want to be caught looking at your phone, yet where looking at your smartwatch is somehow more acceptable? ↩
It’s a bit telling that the Pebble’s watch-related specs are missing from the page; it paints a picture that the Pebble is a remote notification center first, and a watch second. ↩
Unless you don’t care about listening to music while running, of course. ↩