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.