Pebble, a watch made for iPhone/Android

26 February 2013

I ran across this interesting gadget while stumbling upon a favorable review of it on another blog.

It’s a watch with an e-Ink display that is meant to be tethered via Bluetooth to an iPhone. Besides displaying the time, which it can obviously do in just about any format (analog/digital/words), it will discreetly display texts, caller ID data, and other alerts from your phone. When the phone is playing music, it can control playback.

Watches seem to currently occupy a tenuous and nostalgic place in our digital lives—unless you are wearing them for show, sport, or jewelry, a brick phone from 2001, functionally speaking, can outdo a Swiss chronometer in every regard except size. Sadly, that includes displaying an accurate time for the local timezone: GSM time has always been more consistent than whatever my radio-synchronized watch showed, and it required zero fiddling. Having been wristwatch-less for a while now, I’ve only missed it in two scenarios: 1) when, in the middle of a conversation, I needed to check the time and pulling out a phone seemed faux pas; and 2) trying to time something while my hands are occupied, e.g. taking a pulse or respiratory rate (who took all the clocks out of hospital exam rooms?)

So, the smart move by watchmakers is to have them piggyback off of a phone’s capabilities. However, the established brands have mostly ignored this potential, with only two lackluster products that I can find: Sony’s is only Android compatible, and G-Shock is still using the same LCD screens as ten years ago. Even car manufacturers like GM are ahead of the game on this one, dropping CD players from cars marketed to younger drivers and prioritizing smartphone integration. Because seriously, besides an FM radio, what can a car audio system offer that a phone with an iTunes library, Pandora, and Spotify couldn’t outdo?

Thankfully, it appears that Kickstarter projects have stepped in to fill the void. The Pebble makes a case for being permanently clasped to your wrist by offering a second interface to your phone during those times when yanking out the phone seems rude, inconvenient, or both. And when it’s not doing that, it is probably pretty good at telling the time, since it pulls that from your phone too. Unlike most geeky watches, it looks more nondescript than ridiculous, and the e-Ink display can display information all day long without sucking down battery life.

Particularly cool for the programming crowd is that they will release an SDK. Surely, hackers will find interesting uses for a 10k-pixel wrist display with a 4G data connection.

I can’t justify buying it yet, but I’ll be curious enough to follow this product type and see if it catches on. Other comparable items in this space from no-name brands have been cheap and trashy so far; by creating something that looks like a watch, designing it around seamless integration with popular smartphones, and promoting a dev environment for the geeks that might want to make apps, Pebble and its self-funded design team could win big.