Earlier this month, Pebble’s smartwatch underdog story reached a tragic conclusion: Under a crushing mound of debt and with no clear path to profitability, the startup sold its software assets to Fitbit, canceled all hardware in development, discontinued active support for existing watches, and ceased daily operations.
From a business standpoint, Pebble has little to celebrate. Although it was first to the modern smartwatch market in 2013, the company only sold 2 million watches in three years. In contrast, analysts estimate 12 million Apple Watch sales in their first year alone. Smartwatches in general still haven’t proved their worthiness to the masses, and Pebble never became more than a niche player in what is already a niche market.
But as a company, Pebble’s principles were praiseworthy. At a time when rival smartwatch makers were trying to make devices that do everything, Pebble produced products that were refreshingly low-maintenance, which is why I always drifted back to Pebble smartwatches after owning and reviewing many others. Even if Pebble didn’t produce mass-market hits, its attitude toward wearables deserves to live on, whether it’s through Fitbit or any other company that happens to be watching.
Wearing a smartwatch can be a big commitment. Most require a nightly recharge, and even the smallest ones, like the 38mm Apple Watch, are chunky enough that they look like statement pieces rather than subtle accessories.
While most of Pebble’s watches were of similar heft, they mitigated the battery problem by using e-paper display technology, rather than full-color LCD or OLED displays. The main Pebble and Pebble Time watches lasted roughly one week per charge.
But Pebble’s power efficiency had another advantage: It allowed for much smaller designs with comparable battery life to other smartwatches. We saw an example of this with last year’s Pebble Time Round, whose battery only lasted a couple days on a charge, but was 33% thinner than an Apple Watch.
Part of me wishes Pebble had pushed the slimmer design from the start, and iterated on it sooner. Anecdotally, people around me usually seemed more curious about the Time Round than any other Pebble, including women who felt like their tastes were being ignored by the rest of the smartwatch industry. Although the e-paper technology had faults—it was tough to read without ample lighting, and could only display limited colors—it enabled hardware designs that were impossible for other smartwatches.
While other smartwatch makers futzed around with digital crowns, twistable bezels, and touch screens, Pebble never strayed from physical buttons as the sole input method. The company understood that with smartwatches, any action that takes more than a few seconds wasn’t worth doing, and the advantage of buttons was that you could execute those actions—deleting an email, skipping through music tracks, starting a timer—without even looking at the screen.
Pebble’s four-button setup was especially conducive to these lightweight interactions. Each button could be mapped to a specific action by pressing and holding it down. That made it possible to have a button just for sending a text message, or one that launches an app whose sole purpose is dictating Wunderlist items by voice. What the buttons lacked in elegance, they made up for with muscle memory, and every other watch seems needlessly slow by comparison.
Every smartwatch today relies to some extent on a connection to your smartphone, but Pebble was the only one that didn’t care whose smartphone you used. That freedom is liberating.
At the outset, the Pebble experience was roughly the same for iPhone and Android users. And while the Android version eventually became more useful with actionable notifications, over time Pebble tried to re-level the playing field. Support for text messages—with voice dictation, canned response, and emoji—arrived for iPhone users over the last year, as did Gmail actions and replies. As of October, Pebble was still working on iOS actionable notifications for other services.
With all other smartwatches, your options are severely limited by the phone in your pocket. The Apple Watch only works with iPhones. Early Samsung watches only worked with Samsung Galaxy phones, and newer models still require an Android phone. Some watches that run Google’s Android Wear support the iPhone, but third-party apps, offline music, and actionable notifications (for all services except Gmail) don’t work.
Granted, most people aren’t switching between smartphone platforms on a regular basis, but a platform-agnostic smartwatch is one less thing to worry about if you do want to switch, and it’s easier to recommend to others since you don’t have to worry about what phone they use. Maybe this is part of what interested Fitbit in Pebble’s software assets to begin with.
The overarching theme here is that Pebble didn’t ask much of its users. They didn’t have to think much about battery life, or having an oversized lump on their wrists, or fiddling with a tiny touch screen, or pairing their watch to a particular phone.
Pebble’s watches weren’t perfect, and they never really shed the geeky aesthetic that might have held them back from broader acceptance, but I like to think that, with more time, the company’s low-maintenance approach toward wearables could have paid off. Unfortunately for Pebble, the hype around wearables collapsed just as the company’s products were hitting their stride, and the funding to keep Pebble going just wasn’t there. Maybe it could have survived as a small niche company funded only by Kickstarter campaigns and sales. But I think they were expecting things to get bigger, and took on a lot of outside funding that quickly became a liability.
Reports suggest that Fitbit bought Pebble’s assets for less than $40 million, far less than Pebble had been seeking from potential buyers. What’s unclear now is what Fitbit intends to do with the acquisition, aside from keeping existing watches alive through 2017. We can only hope Fitbit sees the good in what Pebble created, and doesn’t squander it.