One week with Pebble Time

Pebble TimeTwo and a half years ago (wow – really that long?!) I wrote a post on my impressions of the Pebble watch, one of the very first projects I backed on Kickstarter. At the time, I was pretty unimpressed by the product as a whole package – while the hardware was impressive (at the time), the software really let the watch down, and sadly never saw a terrific improvement. The SDK alluded to in the original release did eventually turn up, and was followed by swathes of watchfaces and apps to run on your wrist, but none of these really captured my imagination, the watch remained a second-screen for my wrist on which I could view notifications.

Given my nonplussed attitude towards the product, I was surprised when I found myself throwing money at the new Pebble Time Kickstarter. The videos of the new watch grabbed me in a way that the original product had failed to – colour, animations, design, apps – this iteration seemed to correct everything that the original lacked. So, I waited patiently for the watch to arrive (they definitely improved their logistics since their first attempt), and have now had a week to play. So I repeat the question I answered last time – have I fallen in love with this watch?

The answer – slightly more than last time! The watch is definitely a much better designed product, it looks and feels a lot better on my wrist, as the original was starting to look very dated in this Apple Watch/Android Wear golden era of wearable technology. The menus flow an awful lot better with some slick animation, and even though I find the screen a little harder to read, the colours really do improve the display. It feels like much more of a product, rather than a proof-of-concept piece of hardware with some poorly thought out software thrown on top. Integration with my phone is much more seamless as well, the new Pebble Time app has replaced the need to have separate applications installed for receiving third-party notifications, and the watchface/app store seems better integrated.

So what’s putting me off? To me, it still seems like a convenient device to view notifications on, and not a lot more. It’s missing a few “killer apps” like the Android Wear integration with Maps, or gestures on the Apple Watch. While the Pebble Time may be a much more desirable piece of hardware, and streets ahead of the original edition, I feel the software has fallen short of the mark yet again.

That said, I won’t be rushing out to buy the Apple or Android equivalent – the price points, battery life and physically large size of the alternatives have put me off for the time being, so the Pebble Time does have a place on my wrist for the foreseeable future.

Kano: ICT education, easy as Pi!

I stumbled across the Kano Kickstarter project this evening, and felt compelled to take to this blog in order to say what an excellent idea this really is!

There has been a lot of negative media coverage over the state of ICT education in the UK, and from my perspective this seems fairly justified. As far as I can remember, none of my ICT teachers in high school actually had any qualification in the field, and only one or two had any relevant experience to bring to the classroom. The majority were almost completely unaware of anything other than the allocated syllabus, but it only took one particular teacher (who has influenced my career path much more than anyone will ever realise!) with a passion for programming and the subject in general to get me hooked. It’s worth noting that this inspiration didn’t come from the taught subject matter itself, it was extra-curricular activities that really got me started in the field. ICT will continue to be a niche subject until the curriculum is updated to actively engage kids, rather than subjecting them to endless lessons on dry subjects on network architectures and database schemas. I may be biased as a kinaesthetic learner, but I think that the best way to get kids to engage with and learn this subject is by getting hands on.

The Raspberry Pi foundation have done a fantastic job bringing a cheap (£30) computer in reach of everyone. I own a couple myself for general tinkering and hacking about, and can honestly say it’s the main reason why I started playing with electronics, and gave me the confidence to start on a whole raft of new projects (such as this) which I never would have considered before. However, selling the raw pieces as they do, this machine seems weird and scary, outside the reach of the majority of educators and parents. While this is not a failing of the foundation itself (as I think they’ve been slightly overwhelmed by demand from the hobbyist sector), it’s crying out for someone to take this excellent system and package it in a more friendly way. Enter Kano.

Kano appears on the face of things to be a very simple project – they’re packaging up the Pi with the majority of peripherals needed to run it, and crucially they’re including kid-friendly instructions on how to get the whole thing working. Their use of the phrase “Simple as Lego” really struck a chord with me – that’s exactly the right way to approach this kind of teaching, by letting the kids play, hack around and figure it out themselves.

I really hope that the guys behind Kano take some of the money they’ve made from this project (it’s already 3 times over their target as I write this, with another 27 days left to run!) and take these kits into schools at a lower per-unit cost for education uses, just to make them a truly irresistible purchase for any ICT department. I genuinely believe that giving kids access to this kind of kit as part of their curriculum will not only educate them, but it’ll help inspire a future generation of hacker nerds – and that’s no bad thing in my view!

Kickstarting: You’re doing it wrong

Anyone who follows me on Twitter may have seen my various rantings last night about the OUYA console that I backed on Kickstarter in early July last year.

I know for a fact I’m not alone in my frustration – a recent Ask Me Anything thread on Reddit is filled with comments from irritated backers about the lack of communication from the OUYA team about shipping dates, and the absence of any transparency over what’s going on within the company right now. Even more concerning is their promise to release the OUYA for general sale through the likes of Amazon on the 4th of June. That’s a month away, and in that time they have to ship to 50% of their Kickstarter backers (according to their latest update – you will need to be a backer in order to view), and to the thousands that have pre-ordered after the Kickstarter campaign ended. In this update, they also said that…

“We successfully eclipsed 50 percent of units shipped and remain ahead of schedule to complete all shipments by the end of May”

Well… duh. Not a great achievement. If not everyone has received their pre-ordered consoles by the time retail units ship, something has gone very wrong with their production process. What is the point in supporting a project, if you get little (if any) advantage over general market customers? In my opinion, this is an extremely poor way to treat your early investors. It’s fantastic that the OUYA console will be reaching even more people through general release – but this should have been a secondary concern to fulfilling the existing delivery promises to backers, rather than compromising your delivery schedule. Delaying general release would also give more time for bug-fixing in the software/hardware – as it stands, they’ve lost the ability to use early backers as a beta-test, as there’s little to no distinction between the two tranches of consoles. Development and shipping logistics are difficult, and the majority of Kickstarter projects are run by individuals rather than businesses – take the time to get it right, rather than diving in head-first.

To me, all of this is a perfect demonstration of how Kickstarter should not be used. When you post a project, people are pledging money to support you, often paying over-the-odds to help an idea they think deserves to be brought to market. Kickstarter provides a less risky way for your average consumer to provide angel investments, and gives potential upstarts a platform to reach a massive audience of potential investors – a win/win scenario. By putting a project on Kickstarter, you are not offering it for sale, you are asking for people to come on board and be involved in the process of bringing your project to life – personally I find this very exciting! When I back a successful project, I expect regular updates on how things are progressing, as well as access to things like burn-down charts, details of early prototypes, voting on project direction and suchlike. While I realise this isn’t what everyone is after when backing a project, I think it’s a matter of courtesy to your backers to make this information available – treat these people as your investors, not future customers. You already have their money, so let them enjoy the ride with you, rather than keeping them in the dark. In the case of the OUYA, I’m almost insulted by the way I’ve been treated as a backer.

Sadly, the OUYA team are not alone in handling public relations in this way – almost every hardware project I’ve backed seems to be plagued by a lack of updates. Even something simple like the Twyst Winder (a project created by a group of high-school students near where I used to live in London) has only posted a single update since the project was successfully funded, and that was nearly a month ago. The Pebble Watch also seemed to become “too popular”, leading to (understandable) shipping delays, but the entire process was kept shielded from backers by a lack of communication.

However, the few software projects I’ve backed don’t seem to have this problem. Project Godus, for example, have video-streamed several of their internal meetings, published regular updates on how the game is progressing (including early gameplay videos), and shown off concept artwork and the like. While I’ll admit to not diligently following everything they do, I love having that kind of access to the project I’ve supported – I think this nicely captures exactly what Kickstarter should be, but sadly is not.

One week with Pebble

Holy crap. It finally arrived.

The first ever thing I backed on Kickstarter actually showed up! This thing sat on my wrist is one of the original batch of Pebbles created for all backers of this project, for which I have waited patiently since last May, having joined the hoards of people throwing their money at the hapless creators who had no kind of a clue what a viral phenomenon they were creating. The Pebble has now been sat on my wrist for 7 days, and in fitting with the rest of the internet, I’ve decided to take to this blog to share my feelings.

So – have I fallen in love with this cutting edge wearable technology? Short answer – no.

Don’t get me wrong, the actual technology here is fantastic – I have longed for a device that can show me incoming SMS, phone calls and push notifications for a long time. Just so happens that’s the same length of time that I’ve known that the Pebble exists. The actual hardware is difficult to fault, they’ve managed to create a very nice screen and easy-to-use buttons, and cram it into a very neat package, and also make the battery last for 7+ days (I’m yet to charge mine up). The integration with Android is pretty seamless, once you’ve dodged your way around accessibility settings the phone/SMS/email notifications just work, and with a little help from Pebble Notifier, notifications from the rest of my application collection weren’t far behind. Shame the native software and companion applications really let the side down.

For a start, the menu structure on the watch itself is pretty nonsensical. This will probably mean very little to people who haven’t had a play with the Pebble, but I would expect the default state to be showing a watch face – not an unreasonable assumption for a wrist-based time-divulging device. However, the way the watch OS attempts to handle different faces is to treat them as separate “apps” on the device, so you enter into a watchface to use it, and then exit out when you want to use the menu. Surely it would make more sense to have a settings menu to preview and select your default watchface, and then revert back to this once the device hasn’t been used for a couple of minutes? Additionally, treating the standard and user-installed faces separately on the selection list (one at the top, the other at the bottom) just seems wrong. Watch faces aren’t an application – they’re one of the main reasons you’re wearing this thing on your wrist in the first place.

Speaking of applications – where the hell are they? One of the main selling points of the Pebble for me was the inclusion of a Software Development Kit so enthusiastic hackers such as myself could mess about and throw new and exciting creations onto our wrists. This SDK is nowhere to be seen now the thing has shipped, and from what I can gather is still months away. Now – I appreciate that they only have one shot to get the hardware right, and software can be incrementally developed – but they kept this lack of functionality very quiet, so much so that it took a fair amount of Google-fu to find out what had happened. For me, one of the big attraction of Kickstarter is being involved in the entire project development cycle, keeping backers in the dark like this just doesn’t seem right somehow.

The companion application for Android also seems pretty weak right now. For a start, it seems that you need to run the application manually after each phone restart, rather than running at some kind of service. Now, I’m not an expert on the Android SDK, but other applications quite happily auto-start and run as services, so why not this? Secondly, the “Watch Apps” (not actual apps, just more watch faces) page seems very poorly thought through. Why can’t I see a live view of what the timepiece will look like, without actually installing it? I’m sure my Galaxy Nexus has enough processing power to display something that an e-paper watch can. The fact that installed faces still appear on the “Get Watch Apps” page just seems a bit short-sighted as well. Finally – why doesn’t the app show the current battery level from the watch? I have no idea how quickly or slowly the battery is draining away, and fear I won’t know until the thing suddenly dies one day.

This is turning into a bit of a negative rant, so I’m going to quickly move on. While I may be a bit disappointed with the product as it ticks away now, I’m not writing it off completely. There’s immense potential in this watch, and given the SDK I can’t wait to see what the community creates. However, I fear the Pebble ecosystem has lost a lot of momentum in their shipping delays (originally scheduled for September shipping) and now this SDK vapour-ware. I really hope that, combined with the Apple iWatch rumours, don’t spell the end of time for this watch.