One night earlier this week, my Pebble watch showed me an important Gmail message from my “VIP” label (from my mother), and let me change up tracks on some Bluetooth speakers across the room, despite my dog’s chin resting directly on my phone pocket. For about a week, I had stopped missing phone calls, started to trust the Pebble to catch the important stuff, knew when rain clouds were nearby, and actually made it to 5 p.m. without charging my Galaxy Nexus phone. If you don’t look at a phone very often, it doesn’t burn much battery.
The next morning, my Pebble wouldn’t turn on. Button combinations, “hard” resets, different charging outlets–nothing. I checked out the support forums, saw gripes about long support delays and similarly unresponsive watches, and felt a tinge of sadness. Not for my wrist, because the Pebble will somehow get replaced. It is under warranty and, after all, just a thing. I felt a pang of sympathy for the Pebble team, which is trying to sell a disruptive piece of near-future tech in an early-stage form, to customers who want both a revolution and a reliable product. It’s a tough market.
Pebble Technology CEO Eric Migicovsky told me, over email and a phone conversation, that my Pebble was seemingly one of “roughly 20-30 units” that, based on early reports, may be due to faulty charging cables or lose battery connections. Pebble’s support teams were, as admitted in a blog post, “swamped” with questions, but Pebble was bringing more support workers on-staff. And, Migicovsky wrote, “Keep in mind we’ve shipped over 30,000 Pebbles in the last month and a half and that this is our first major consumer electronic product. I think we’re still doing pretty well.”
Much has been written on this triumph of crowdfunding, viral marketing, and personal data liberation. But one week after it arrived, my Pebble watch is now a $115 rounded square of water-tight plastic, scratch-resistant glass, a blank e-paper screen, and four buttons that don’t do anything. I’ve written a few emails and waited a few days for a true response. Every product has a certain percentage of bum builds and tricky support cases. But this one is rough because, just eight hours before, the Pebble was saving my battery and changing my habits, and I felt like part of a small, clever team.
The Pebble had become an indispensable companion and assistant to a big, unwieldy technology: notifications. What the early TiVo was to cable TV watching, what the Fitbit and other body monitors are starting to be to exercise, the Pebble is aiming to be that kind of intimate assistant for all the things your phone wants to tell you (read: notifications). The Pebble had a simple but seemingly perfect pitch to nearly 70,000 Kickstarter backers who chipped in more than $10 million: a watch that can simplify and improve our lives.
Producing that simplicity would not be so simple. The Pebble was much delayed in reaching production, as the Pebble team took a crash course in custom manufacturing, but the watch did actually arrive. There are still Kickstarter backers waiting on watches, but they are coming.
There are promises of fitness apps and golf range-finders to come on the Pebble platform. But for most of us, the notifications are the important thing, because the way our phones are handling them now is driving us nuts. The Pebble can differentiate the important phone calls and text messages from the update that, hey, somebody just Like-d the comment you left on that other person’s photo you were tagged in. It also controls music playback from your phone, and can pick up alerts about the weather, your calendar appointments, and other channels you select. Getting it all hooked up and synced just so requires some up-front work, but when it’s on-task, the Pebble changes your what-was-that response from the typical pull, unlock, swipe, then check routine into a quick glance at your wrist.
The Pebble arrived at a time when smartphone accessories had reached a relatively smooth, if fast-moving, maturity, mostly through Bluetooth capabilities. Like the TiVo, there had been prior entrants in the smartwatch field, including an Android-only Sony SmartWatch and a BlackBerry-linked watch from the Pebble team itself, but none seemed to explain themselves, and their price points, very well. The Pebble also ran into tough but familiar problems in trying to work with and around the restrictions of big technology players–cable signals and tuners in TiVo’s case, iPhone data-sharing restrictions in the case of Pebble.
And then there are the smartwatches reportedly under development at Apple and Samsung, which will have the likely advantage of working seamlessly with the world’s two most popular brands of smartphones. The good news for Pebble is that it has shown that there’s a real market for a decidedly minimal black-and-white, uni-tasking watch, and it will have time to work out its issues and update before an iWatch or S-Watch arrives. The bad news is that for most people, the story of a five-person initial team working to make life easier for dedicated fans cannot spread as far as the marketing and release date messages of some of the world’s biggest tech firms.
[Base Images: Pebble]