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The Most Exciting Thing About Pebble’s New Smartwatch Isn’t The Color Screen

In a category that is still seeking a definitive approach to software, the Pebble Time’s timeline is a clever new twist.

Smartwatch pioneer Pebble–which did as much as anybody to create the category with its original Kickstarter-funded model back in 2012–is announcing a model with a color screen. That doesn’t come as a huge shock. For one thing, 9to5Mac‘s Mark Gurman, who spends most of his time disclosing Apple news before Apple does, had the scoop on Friday.

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And really, it was obvious all along that color was in the Pebble’s future. The one question was: Would its makers sacrifice the watch’s up-to-a-week battery life to get it?

Apparently not. The $199 Pebble Time uses power-efficient e-paper technology, just like the original Pebble and last year’s Pebble Steel, both of which will stay on the market. This time, however, the technology is in a form that is capable of displaying 64 colors. The company says that the battery life will stay the same, putting it well ahead of rivals with LCD and OLED screens that conk out after a day or two.

The Pebble Time still has the same buttons–and continues to lack a touch screen–but otherwise, the industrial design is pretty much all-new. It will be 20% thinner than the first Pebble, with a steel bezel, protective Gorilla Glass over the screen, and a port on the back that will let third-party developers create add-ons such as additional sensors. It will also be the first Pebble with a microphone, which will be used at first to permit spoken responses to notifications, such as dictated text messages. It has new lugs which will let you attach any standard 22-mm watchband in a few seconds. And it remains water-resistant.

I’m reserving judgment on the aesthetics of the Pebble Time hardware and the quality of its display until I’ve seen them in person. Feature-wise, though, the new watch sticks to Pebble’s original minimalist personality rather than rushing in the same direction as the Apple Watch, Android Wear watches, and Samsung’s Gear S. And the biggest development is that it will run a radically reworked version of Pebble’s operating system, which will also come to the existing models.

The Timeline As Interface

The name Pebble Time gives a clue about the software’s new direction. “The best interaction model for a watch is actually time,” says Eric Migicovsky, Pebble’s CEO. “That’s what it’s been like forever, for a century. If I gave you a watch from the 1940s, you’d immediately know how to use it. We want to bring that to smartwatches.”

What does that mean? Basically, the watch’s interface is expressed as a timeline, which you can move through with buttons on the side of the case. Going backwards in time lets you see notifications–text messages, sports scores, whatever–in the order they arrived. Moving forwards shows you stuff like upcoming appointments. Items that aren’t strictly time-based appear in a section called “Present.”

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The launcher for third-party apps, which used to be a mundane list of their names, now shows widgets that can level up the most important information: a stock app could show current ticker info in its widget, for example. Pebble is also removing the previous limitation that prevented you from loading more than eight apps at a time.

Existing apps can be updated to support the new interface (and color). It will also be possible to write new apps that live on the web rather than on the watch or a smartphone, and which push information onto the watch on the fly.

Try, Try Again

Migicovsky chatted with me about the Pebble Time via a video call and shared a brief walk-through of the new interface. Even more than with hardware, it’s always hazardous to come to firm conclusions about software based on such a demo. Still, the timeline, which reminds me of “smart calendar” apps such as Microsoft’s new acquisition Sunrise, is conceptually clever. Nobody’s nailed how a smartwatch should work yet, so it makes sense for companies such as Pebble to keep trying.

Oh yes, one other notable thing about the new Pebble. Repeating the strategy it used for the first Pebble, the company is launching it with a Kickstarter campaign. Backers will get first dibs on Pebble Time, and will be able to buy one for $159 instead of the $199 that it will cost when it arrives at retail stores later in the year.

“It’s a bit of a throwback to our original campaign three years ago,” explains Migicovsky. “We wanted to work directly with our community–the people who got us here. They went out on a limb for us. We want to do right by them.”

Migicovsky says that the company plans to ship the first Pebble Time watches to Kickstarter backers in May. That’s the month after the Apple Watch arrives, and it’s conceivable that Apple’s timepiece will suck all the oxygen out of the smartwatch category, much as the iPod once snuffed out most existing MP3 players.

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Then again, Pebble’s new watch will cost far less than the cheapest Apple Watch. It will work with both iPhones and Android phones. It will apparently beat Apple’s battery life by days. And the new interface doesn’t lack for ambition and originality. It would be nice to think that Pebble Time might be able to carve off a healthy niche for itself–no matter what happens to other smartwatches in the impending Apple Watch era.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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