Pebble helped in popularizing two big concepts in gadgets: Kickstarter and the smart watch. Now, the company is back with news that applies in both areas, with a brand new Pebble smartwatch called Pebble Time that’s debuting today on Kickstarter.The new hardware has a full color, always-on e-paper screen, but features a slimmer, sleeker design and maintains its week-long battery life. The software is new, too, with a focus on providing you with all the information you need at a glance in one place, both for now and for the future.
The Pebble Time smartwatch is named ‘Time’ because it uses time as its central guiding principle, eschewing individual apps in favor of a timeline that displays your most pressing notifications in terms of what you need to know for keeping up with what’s happening now, and what will be happening in the near future. Apps will still exist, and the Time can work with Pebble’s existing library of third-party software, but the focus going forward for developers will be on building extension-style software that provides info to a core shared interface.
It’s 20 percent thinner than the original Pebble, and still supports customer watch faces, but the emphasis is now on notifications and less about hunting for specific apps in a menu system that can quickly get bogged down on the original with options, even when you’re only limited to eight apps installed on the device. The Time also retains its physical buttons, with three on the right and one of the left, instead of opting for a touchscreen surface, which seems to be a popular option for Android Wear, and is also present on the upcoming Apple Watch, despite the addition of the new digital crown as a physical input method.
Pebble CEO and co-founder Eric Migicovsky says that Pebble wanted to stick with the input paradigm they introduced on the original because it makes sense for a device you wear on your wrist: The physical buttons offer solid confirmation that your input has been registered, regardless of whether you’re clicking without looking to dismiss an alarm, using it while running, or in the pool, in the rain or in the snow.
The new Pebble Time has water resistance just like the original, allowing for use during swimming and shower sessions, and it employs a Gorilla Glass face paired with a stainless steel bezel available in three colors at launch. It uses Bluetooth to connect to your device, contains sensors for tracking movement and activity, and now also includes a microphone. The color e-ink display offers gorgeous animations that work at a butter smooth 30 fps, and the hardware is also equipped with Bluetooth LE, with the ultimate goal being to see how the watch can work with BLE accessories independent of any phone.
The mic is designed primarily for quick text replies, and for a new notes function that plugs into your favorite service, like Evernote, for easy reminder dictation. It is not tied to smartwatch controls or commands in the way Android Wear uses voice input, but Migicovsky says that’s by design, since the Pebble team has observed that people generally only really tend to use voice on devices like this when they’re not able to pull out their phone to type out a longer message.
Pebble Time also now uses standard 22mm watch straps, meaning you can easily change them out with your favorites, and it ships with a strap that features quick-release pins built in, meaning you won’t need any special tools to remove the original to make way for the new. This is a welcome change from the proprietary strap used on the Pebble Steel, which limited customizability.
“We spent the vast majority of our energy and cycles just making the product that we had promised all of our Kickstarter backers,” explained Pebble CEO and founder Eric Migicovsky in an interview. But pretty soon into 2013 after we had started shipping, we shifted gears to try to tackle a bigger problem, which was ‘How were people going to be using and benefitting from smart watches in the future?'”
“Put yourself back in 2013 or 2012 – smartwatches, they showed notifications, apps were just starting to come out for Pebble, but there was still a big conversation about what the hell people would do with smartwatches anyways,” he added. “It’s still coming up now. And it’s a completely valid point.”
Migicovsky says that what Pebble originally offered, which was simplification, via notifications, music control, downloading watch faces and connecting to a handful of fitness applications, was exactly what was needed at the time. But he says that Pebble began capitalizing on its early entry into the market almost right away, to envision how people would be using their smartwatches in a couple of years’ time, quietly working on what would become the Pebble Time.
Accordingly, the new experience would require new software, which means a rebuilt Pebble OS. The main new component of the OS for end users is the Timeline interface, which presents notifications, weather, news, sports scores, reminders and more chronologically, with a press of a button scrolling to the next event in sequence, regardless of the app source. You can also scroll back in time to see what notifications you’ve missed, past sports scores or your activity summary for the previous day. The shift is away from an app-centric model, which may make sense on smartphones, but which makes less sense for an information triage device you’re wearing on your wrist.
Timeline is a new development target, but devs who have already contributed to the 6,500+ strong library of Pebble apps don’t get left behind with this update. The new OS is fully backwards compatible (older apps will run in black-and-white mode), and developers can easily tweak their existing apps to have them integrate more completely into the new Timeline interface, too. There’s also good news for older device owners, and Pebble intends to keep selling those as well, bringing their total lineup of product offerings to three models.
“We’re working to bring timeline to Pebble and Pebble Steel as well,” Migicovsky said. “We’re not ready to announce the date at which they’ll support that, but we’re very confident we’ll be able to do that. That means that for our developer base, they’ll have one target, one operating system to target, instead of two.”
For this launch, Pebble has made the somewhat curious decision to return to Kickstarter, which is unusual for an established company. Migicovsky said that Pebble owes a lot of its success to Kickstarter backers, so in part going back for the new Time product was about paying heed to that early group of supporters. It’s also, he freely admits, a bit of a stunt.
We want it to be a bit of a spectacle, a little bit of an event. Eric Migicovsky, Pebble CEO
“It also gives us a chance to talk about the product over an entire month, so we have a month of announcements that are planned with new things and new features and new stuff that’s coming out over the next 30 days, and it’s going to be pretty exciting,” he said. “We want it to be a bit of a spectacle, a little bit of an event.”
On Kickstarter, the Pebble Time is being offered for a pre-order price of $159, which is $40 less than the anticipated $199 retail pricing. It’s looking at May for a starting ship date for backers, and will then hit retail later in the year, both online and in physical stores.
Pebble Time launches to a very different smartwatch market: The Apple Watch is on the horizon, and Android Wear is already making up for lost time. Migicovsky notes that Pebble is still the leader in terms of smartwatch sales, with over 1 million devices shipped, but he also admits the market is so new that in the short term Apple will probably serve to float all boats, meaning there’s plenty of room for Pebble sales to grow, and Apple’s effect on product category awareness should help with that.
“We’re the largest smartwatch platform today,” he said. “No doubt about it, Apple is the largest company in the world, it’d be crazy to think that they’re not going to make a big splash. But we’re going toe-to-toe with them. This is incredibly important to us, we’re a small company with a laser focus on building this. We’ve had users for two years, we have a very deep understanding of the market, as well as what people actually want to accomplish on their watch, and we’re taking this fight to the street, that’s kind of why we’re going back on Kickstarter in part: That’s how small companies compete with large companies.”
Pebble does have an early head start on the smartwatch market, as well as cross-platform compatibility and years of real-world testing, and a price point that comes in below Apple’s starting price for the Apple Watch even at the high end of their range. It could definitely even become a pre-Apple Watch gateway device for price-conscious consumers, which might help Pebble succeed more than it could’ve prior to the larger company’s much-hyped category entry.