In April 2012, a team of engineers posted a Kickstarter fundraising pitch for Pebble, an intelligent wristwatch that would connect to your smartphone and alert you to calls, emails, text messages, and other bits of digital ephemera. The Pebble was far from the most beautiful watch you’d ever seen, but for what was essentially a tiny computer on your wrist, it looked surprisingly unnerdy—almost normal. It had some cool tech in it, too. With an E Ink screen, the Pebble’s display could be read in bright sunlight. It was also an app platform—third-party developers could create all kinds of cool add-ons for the watch, so that eventually you could use it to track your running, cycling, golf game, and maybe even the time of day. Just kidding—the watch did that, too!
Pebble’s Kickstarter campaign met its initial fundraising goal of $100,000 within a couple hours of its launch, and when the campaign closed a month later, Pebble had raised more than $10 million, making it the most-successful pitch in Kickstarter’s history. This mega-popularity overwhelmed the Pebble team; several months of manufacturing delays followed the pitch, and watches that people were expecting in 2012 eventually began shipping in the spring of this year.
I got a Pebble a couple weeks ago. It wasn’t worth the wait. The watch is bulkier than I expected, it isn’t as useful as I’d hoped, and it’s more than a little buggy. At $150, the Pebble is not very expensive for a wristwatch, but for the same money you could get a smaller, more stylish dumbwatch, and you’d likely be happier with it.
And yet: I’m intrigued by the Pebble. When it worked as it should, which was less than half the time, the Pebble felt like the best solution to a coming global social catastrophe—the crisis of smartphone-abetted rudeness. Smartphones are often more entertaining than the people around us. We don’t like to admit this because we have a bias toward social activity, a bias that is probably good for the survival of the species. If we totally ignored the people around us in favor of the digital world, we’d get run over by busses and would neglect raising our children and would forget to go to work. That would be bad.
So, as a society, we’ve developed ways to constrain our digital behavior. There are debates about the best ways to accomplish this, with some people favoring complete abstinence and others preferring some mixture of education and treatment. And finally there’s harm reduction—if we recognize that abstinence and treatment aren’t completely effective and that some people are going to keep on using extremely addictive substances, at least we should come up with ways of making their behavior less physically and socially harmful.
That’s what the Pebble watch is, or what it or some other smartwatch could be one day: harm reduction for the worst ills caused by smartphones. At its best, a smartwatch solves the smartphone notification problem. When your phone rings or vibrates in your pocket, you usually have to fish it out to determine what it wants from you. This doesn’t take much time—three seconds, five max—but it’s just enough of a distraction to break the flow of whatever else you’re doing. If you’re talking to someone, the conversation stops. If you’re walking or driving, you risk death. Really, don’t do this.
The Pebble makes this process much faster. When you get a message on your phone, your watch vibrates on your wrist. A précis of the message—sender and subject line—is displayed on the watch face. With a quick glance, you can figure out whether the message is important. Usually it isn’t, and you can go about your business as if nothing happened. The process takes less than a second. True, looking at your watch can be a freighted, awkward gesture—ask George H.W. Bush—but it is an incredibly classy move compared with looking at your phone. According to one (possibly dubious but plausible-sounding) study, smartphone owners look at their phones about 150 times a day. If everyone had a smartwatch, the world would be a much better place: We’d all be constantly glancing at our wrists, but that’d be an improvement over the mess we’re in today.
The problem with the Pebble is that its notifications are hit or miss. Sometimes, you’ll get an email and it won’t alert you. Sometimes it will alert you late—your watch vibrates minutes after the message comes in. Other times it will inundate you with messages. I get hundreds of emails a day, and I don’t want my watch to vibrate on every one of them. Instead I want some kind of intelligence built into the alerts—I want it to know which ones rise to the level of a wrist ping and which don’t. The Pebble has no obvious way to add such filters. Indeed, nothing is really obvious about it. There are minimal instructions in the app and on its website—there’s enough to set it up, but you’ll need to visit its user forums to figure out some of its deeper functions and quirks.
Even worse, if you use it with an iPhone, the Pebble can only alert you to Gmail, text messages, and phone calls. It’s more useful with an Android device, which adds notifications for a few more apps, including calendar entries and Facebook. But it’s still not useful enough. Unless it’s close to perfect—alerting you to everything you want to know and nothing you don’t—you’re still going to be looking at your phone pretty often. In which case the Pebble is not worth it.
For much of the past year the tech world has been obsessed by the possibility that Apple would soon release a smartwatch of its own—the iWatch, as everyone is already calling it. Before I used the Pebble I wasn’t all that excited about such a device. It’s been years since I’ve worn a wristwatch, and I didn’t much see the point in having one connected to my phone.
But I found the Pebble just good enough to whet my appetite for something better. In that way the Pebble is kind of like the Creative Nomad Jukebox, the best MP3 player on the market before the iPod was launched. Some people swore by the Nomad. It was a glimpse of the future—a way to enjoy practically any song you owned, anywhere you went. Sure, it had problems: It was heavy, it was big, its software wasn’t great. As an idea, though, it was perfect, something that everyone should have wanted—which is exactly what Apple’s success with the iPod eventually proved.
That’s where Pebble stands. Great idea, middling execution. Apple—or even Google—could really clean up with a great watch. I hope we won’t have to wait too long.
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