Essays on Technology and Culture

Pebble: Straddling the Line Between Convenient and Annoying

I’m a week or so into my Great Smartwatch Experiment of 2015. The initial novelty’s worn off, and I’m getting used to having a vibrating alert machine on my wrist. There’s moments in using a Pebble where I’m really glad to have it. Among them, the gentle reminders when something comes due in, being able to see the upcoming due items from OmniFocus in my calendar at a glance, and triaging messages when I’m out and about in the cold weather. [1] It’s made me rethink strategies around notifications, and made my phone a quieter, calmer thing to keep in my pocket.

And yet, this thing is annoying as hell. I’ve had moments where it’s vibrating and twitching so much that I want to throw it across the room. Part of these are OS-level issues. There’s no way to not get a notification on my Pebble if I’m actively using the phone, so when a message from my girlfriend comes in while I’m scrolling Twitter on the subway, I’ll see it on my screen, and feel it on my wrist two seconds later. iOS 8 also hasn’t exposed APIs for interactive notifications to Pebble, so when an alarm rings in Due, I’ve got to find my phone to mark the item done, or postpone it. I hope that iOS 8.2, will expose these features to watches other than Apple Watch, but that hope is toothpick slim.

Stephen Hackett noticed the same thing in his Pebble experiement, suggesting that “he Pebble may have to shift to being more Android-centric, where it can compete better against more integrated devices.” Pebble’s CEO promises a new interface, and new hardware soon, making this an interesting time to try one of these things out. I like the idea of the Pebble as a “hub,” and not a computing device all to itself…

…Not for the least of reasons because the Pebble app ecosystem is miserable. I’m not going to lie. Most of the apps on the Pebble, at least the ones that work with iOS, feel half-, if not quarter-baked. There are ones that work super well, but these are often the most basic apps: timers, remotes, and the like. The Evernote app is a little finicky, but it works well enough. I just don’t have much need to look at Evernote notes on my wrist. There seems to be precious little curation and testing for Pebble apps, which may be why they want to get out of the app game.

But the biggest issue, so far, remains the inability to do much on my phone with the Pebble but dismiss notifications. If I could interact more with the Pebble, and not dig my phone out of my pocket—or swipe at it in its dock on my desk—I’d be much less annoyed with it. Yet, there’s some huge conveniences with the Pebble, and I’m not entirely sure I want to give it up for the annoyances. It’s walking a tight line between convenient and annoying, and right now the balance is at the point where I can’t decide which way to go.

  1. I can’t stress enough how much of a pain in the ass it is to use a smartphone in the cold, even with touchscreen gloves.  ↩