Essays on Technology and Culture

Pebble Time and the Role of the Smartwatch

Today, Pebble announced Pebble Time, a $199, color e-ink smartwatch, and an associated Kickstarter, that earned over $5 million within the first six hours. Pebble Time looks like a nice piece of kit, but what really intrigues me about the new Pebble is the UI. Instead on focusing on notifications, Pebble is focusing on a timeline, with the ability to scroll ahead to what’s coming up, or scroll back to see what you may have missed. As The Verge describes it:

Move down the timeline, and you might see an upcoming calendar appointment or flight information. Move back, and the timeline can show how many steps you took yesterday or the score of last nightís playoff game. The “present” or default setting of the timeline displays things like stock information, current weather, and, of course, the current time.

It’s a clever rethinking of what a smartwatch can be. Supposedly the timeline UI will be coming to the older Pebbles, but there’s no timeframe. Suffice it to say, whatever my decision is about keeping or dropping Pebble after a month, I’ll be keeping the device around so I can try the new interface when it’s available. There’s value of in providing context-sensitive and time-sensitive information, and a smartwatch is a platform well suited for that. Having your wrist buzz instead of your phone beeping with every notification you get, not so much.

The three main smartwatch platforms are differentiating themselves on the roles a smartwatch could, potentially, play in out lives. Android Wear is focused around notifications, especially ones from Google Now. I’ve had bad luck with Google Now, but Andy Ihnatko, whose judgement I trust, swears by it and his Moto 360. Apple Watch is positioning itself as a communications and lifestyle device. Over on Twitter, Zac Cichy, and @OhmDee seem convinced that Apple Watch will usher in a new era of voice messaging to replace SMS and other forms of text chat. [1] It’s too early to tell, and we might get a bigger, clearer picture whenever Apple holds their Watch event.

Pebble’s timeline interface a very compelling alternative to both of these concepts. I’ve long maintained that context awareness is the future of computing. Rethinking the notification-based, interruption-based paradigm of smartwatch—and smartphone—interaction as a temporal stream is a sound one. My hope is that they’ll be able to execute on it, and have the third-party developer support needed to get the right data in there at the right time…

..And that they can make it work with iOS, which may be the biggest hurdle.

  1. Frankly, the idea of ubiquitous voice messaging seems like my idea of hell. How quickly we forget the days of obnoxious jerks using push-to-talk all the time.  ↩