A year with Pebble: What I've learned from the smartwatch
Jason Snell has spent the last year with a Pebble strapped on his wrist
As it turns out, 2013 probably wasn't the Year of the Smartwatch, given that none of the wearable tech released last year set the world on fire. But 2013 was the year I got my first smartwatch, as the Pebble shipped in January, and, as one of the device's Kickstarter backers, I received mine a month later.
Pebble was back at CES this year, showing off new hardware (the metallic Pebble Steel), along with some welcome improvements to the watch's biggest weakness: its software.
Who knows if 2014 will really be the Year of the Smartwatch. Apple has yet to release a wearable, and if we've learned anything from the past decade, it's that Apple often sweeps in and redefines entire categories. (Remember a few years back when all those tablets were suddenly calling themselves slates because of a rumor that the iPad was going to be called the iSlate?) Maybe by the end of the year, smartwatches won't even be a thing, because the hardware we currently think of as smartwatches will be redefined into something totally different. Or maybe not.
Regardless of what Apple might do, I've been wearing a Pebble on my wrist for the last year. I think it's given me a better idea of where wearable tech comes in handy, and where it comes up short. Here's what I've learned.
It tells the time
When people see me wearing my Pebble, the first thing they inevitably ask is, "What does it do?" And when I first got the watch, I had one truthful answer: "It tells the time." It's a ridiculous statement, and yet if a watch fails to function like a traditional timepiece--if, for example, you have to press a button to wake it up to show you what time it is--it's not a watch.
If all the Pebble did was tell the time, it would be a fine (if overpriced) watch. The look is unobtrusive--I have the black model, and swapped out the awful stock vinyl band for a nice leather one--and some of the custom watch faces are fun. The battery lasts a week.
This seems like basic stuff, and indeed it is, but people forgive technology for faults they just tolerate in other product categories. A watch that requires a bit of fumbling just to see the time? So steampunk. A watch you have to plug in every day or two? No good. And that watch better look good, or at least not embarrassing.
For me, the Pebble passed these tests. Yes, I switch to the Rolex I inherited from my dad for special occasions, and I keep meaning to replace the band on my old steady Swiss Army watch. But I still use the Pebble most days, and I didn't really expect that to happen.
Glancing is good
So, the Pebble tells time. So what? What makes it smart? Well, it's the integration with my iPhone, of course. But when the Pebble first shipped, it wasn't very smart. It didn't integrate well with iOS notifications, and had extremely limited app support. I could see when someone called or texted me, but that was about it.
Pebble has come a long way in a year. iOS notifications now work consistently. The RunKeeper integration is great, and its new background functionality means that watch faces can download and display from the Internet without any weird hacks.
And with the launch of the new Pebble appstore this week, things are looking up. Not only are watchfaces getting smarter by being able to connect to Internet data sources--displaying the current weather, for example--but new apps allow a level of basic interactivity that's welcome.
But for me, it all comes back to the notifications. It seems like such a small thing, to be able to see notifications on your wrist instead of on your phone screen. And if you're someone who never wears a watch because you can always look at your phone to see the time, then maybe you don't need a smartwatch. But me? I'm lazy. I'm with those first clever people who realized that a clock you strap to your wrist is much more convenient than a clock that sits inside your vest pocket, and has to be extracted and then opened up to see the time.
Glanceable information is good. With the Pebble, I don't need to pull my phone out of my pocket every time it vibrates or chimes. Some text messages need responses, and others don't. I realize that not everyone is quite this lazy, but I love not having to reach into my pocket and pull out my phone just to find out that AT&T has sent me a free text message regarding my phone bill.
Simple interactivity is good
One thing the Pebble doesn't do well is communicate back to the phone. Just as it's convenient to read information coming from my phone without taking it out of my pocket, it would be convenient to use my watch to take basic actions without having to dip into the complexity of my phone. (Yes, I just called a phone "complex." Compared to a smartwatch, a phone is more like a computer: overkill.)
When I get a text in a meeting, I should be able to glance at my wrist, see the content of the text, and push a couple of buttons to reply with a pre-written message like, "I'm in a meeting, will reply when I can" or a very direct "Yes" or "No." (The new Pebble appstore seems to have enabled some degree of interactivity on the device at last, though quick-replying to texts appears to be impossible for iPhone users.)
I don't want to type things on my watch. Phones and tablets are great for that. I'm not sure I want to take pictures with my watch, either. But basic interaction that lets me very quickly move on with my life without unlocking my phone and opening an app? Yes, please.
Simplicity is everything
After a year, I've learned that there are really only two ways I interact with my Pebble on a regular basis. By far the most common is the glance: I look at my wrist to see what time it is, or to read an incoming notification. In second place is the single button press, to dismiss a notification.
This is good. What I want in a smartwatch is a smart watch, not a little phone that's strapped to my wrist. One of the things I love about the Pebble is that it's not a phone and doesn't try to be one. Wearable devices like this should be simple, and interacting with them should be effortless. If I need complexity, I've got that phone in my pocket, packed full of apps.
And that brings it back to my original point, my favorite feature of the Pebble: It tells the time. That's a simple task, one that saves me a few seconds every time I glance at it. It's easy to dismiss such a simple task as being trivial or unimportant, but if the Pebble failed at it, I wouldn't still be wearing one.
Wearable devices that add too much complexity are missing the point. If 2014 is to be the Year of the Smartwatch, simplicity needs to be the name of the game.