Ben Bajarin wrote a nice piece last week entitled “The Challenge of Wearable Computing”, where he talks about the challenges of wearables and offers some suggestions to developers to improve their chances for success. In this column, I want to share with you my early, personal and specific Pebble watch experience and extrapolate some of thoughts to the general consumer market. Let’s start with a little background on Pebble.
The Pebble watch started as a Kickstarter project that exceeded their $100K funding goal by over $10M over a year ago in May, 2012. The watch is currently shipping directly from Pebble and you can also buy it at Best Buy for $149.99. Pebble supports basic peer-to-peer functionality for Android and iOS phones and sports a low res e-ink style display. Built into the core Pebble OS, it supports notifications for calls, texts, calendar events, email, Google Talk, and Facebook notifications. So basically, whenever your phone gets a notification, Pebble gets one. Through 3rd party apps I installed, I could control my phone’s music player, extend RunKeeper, see Twitter and Facebook feeds, see the weather, view photos, view calendar, page my phone, and respond to texts. Sounds robust and valuable, right? Well, not really. The best way to go through the experience is discuss highs and lows.
- Battery life: I have had Pebble for over a week, use every notification and the backlight but only have had to charge once.
- Reliability when connected: When the watch is connected to a phone, the apps are super-consistent. This must be partly because they do one single task, like alert you of an email or text.
- Notifications with phone tucked away: There are times when having a phone out isn’t socially accepted or inconvenient, like during dinner or when in the airport line. With Pebble, I can get nearly all my notifications and it was sometimes reassuring that I wouldn’t miss something.
- Display: When you hear of a 144×168 black and white resolution in a world of Retina displays, most would laugh it off as a joke. I was very surprised just how quickly I got accustomed to the backlit, e-ink like display. I rarely had an issue in full sunlight and literally a flick of the wrist, the backlight turns on.
- Exercise: While the RunKeeper integration is extremely limited, it does provide the basic information like pace, distance, and time run eliminating the need to look at my phone.
- Limited utility via limited apps: Pebble is severely limited by a very low number of apps that support the platform. Does “mobile device lacking apps therefore delivering low value” sound familiar? It’s the issue for Windows RT, Windows Phone, BB10 and was one of the death blows for HP’s webOS. Sure it’s early, only a year into development, but getting notifications, having a second screen for a few apps, and controlling a few things on the smartphone just isn’t enough.
- No App Store: There currently isn’t an official app store for Pebble, making finding apps a chore. Users can either search the Android store for “Pebble” or go to the many non-Pebble supported websites via Google search.
- Unreliable BT connection: Bluetooth inherently is unreliable, as we have all experienced at one time or another. This is a real back breaker because Pebble is limited without the phone connection. To make matters worse, Pebble doesn’t have a visual indicator that it is successfully connected, so you are left wondering if you were missing notifications. To add insult to injury, my phone often said Pebble was connected when it really wasn’t
- Nerdy: My wife nailed it when she saw me with Pebble and asked, “so is that the nerd watch”? As I recovered from the “nerd slap”, I thought about it, and the watch really isn’t very stylish. In fact, it’s nerdy. It is shiny and feels cheap and plasticky, like a watch you can win as a prize in a machine in an arcade. At the end of the week, I missed some of my watches. I’m no watch collector, but I have some that are a few hundred bucks and a few that are a few thousand dollars.
Pebble right now is a classic “tweener”. Let’s look at fitness devices as an example. Pebble is not like a FitBit One, FitBit Flex or Jawbone UP that tracks sleep, movement, calories yet inexpensive, stylish or easy to hide. Nor is it like the $249 MotoActv that has a color display, heart rate monitor, embedded GPS tracker and built-in music player. Pebble is smack dab in the middle of the devices while trying to get developers to do more. A tweener is never a good place to stay for long as it usually ends in death.
Pebble needs to be more “general purpose” like a phone, tablet, PC or more “focused” like a sports watch or game console. To do this, I believe Pebble will need to change dramatically. To go more “general purpose”, Pebble needs a complete overhaul in UI that would enable a lot more input functionality via, let’s say, voice. Even with added features, it would take a lot to get over the “nerd factor”. I could see non-nerds getting comfortable with Pebble functionality if it somehow embedded into their favorite Omega, Breitling, TAG Heuer, Citizen, or Burberry watches.
To get more “focused” Pebble needs to identify a unique problem for a unique audience that only it can solve…. and then go solve it. I could see a customized “Pebble-like” device solving some very unique living room gaming challenges with a multi-axis (more than 3) accelerometer. I could see specialty watches for firefighters and policemen, too. The list goes on and on, but unfortunately, this is just not what Pebble is.
Until Pebble and other devices like Pebble are semi-concealable or get more focused on solving focused problems, it will remain the nerd’s watch. The world needs and loves nerds, but I don’t think it’s a very large market in the near future.