There’s nothing about the success of the new Pebble Steel smartwatch that you couldn’t have predicted by studying tech history.
Over and over again, gadgets become insanely successful when they do a few things very well. (See: PalmPilot, iPod, iPad.) And over and over again, gadgets flop when they are freighted with the wrong collection of features in a hopeless mass (Zune, ultramobile PCs and the Nokia N-Gage — a combination game console/cellphone).
Which brings us to smartwatches. A smartwatch, of course, is a wristwatch that connects wirelessly with the phone in your pocket. It can display incoming text messages right on your wrist. It can vibrate to let you know when a call comes in, even when you wouldn’t have heard your phone. It can pass along alerts — new email, Facebook messages, stock-market crashes — right to your wrist.
There are some advantages to having this information close at hand. It’s a lot less tacky to glance at your wrist during a meeting than to pull out your phone. When you’re riding a bike, it’s safer to get your next-turn GPS instructions by glancing at your wrist than it is to fumble for your phone. When your arms are full of packages or groceries … well, you get the idea.
There are lots of smartwatches available, but you probably have very few friends who own one. That’s because they’re all pretty terrible (the watches, not your friends).
The best-known one, the Samsung Gear watch, costs $300, works with only three Samsung phone models, has a camera on the watchband, lets you make phone calls by holding the watch up to your head — and looks like an HDTV strapped to your arm.
The people who made the Pebble watch (originally a Kickstarter project) have chosen to occupy a different spot on the Great Complexity/Size Spectrum. The Pebble has black-and-white screen — no color. (But it’s a razor-sharp e-paper screen — reminiscent of the black-and-white technology that you find on the Amazon Kindle ebook readers. The watch’s backlight comes on if you wriggle your wrist.)
So: No color. No speaker. No microphone. No touchscreen.
So how could it be any good?
Because it’s small. It’s thin. It runs a very long time on each battery charge (about a week, compared with two days on the Samsung). It has only four buttons: Up, Down, Select and Back. You can’t get lost.
And it’s waterproof. Not splashproof, not drizzleproof. We’re talking showers, swimming, scuba diving (down to 165 feet). You wouldn’t dare attempt that with most smartwatches, and it makes a huge, huge difference.
Despite those virtues, the original Pebble, clad in fine Corinthian plastic, wasn’t exactly a fashion statement. It’s still available (for $150). But for $100 more, you can now get the Pebble Steel, which has a stainless-steel case, comes with both leather and metal bands and is so good-looking, you’ll keep hitching up your sleeve to make sure people can see it.
Simple is smart
The Pebble does only a few things. But it does them incredibly well:
Thing One: It vibrates to alert you. About incoming texts, emails, Facebook messages, What’s App calls and phone calls. If it’s a text message or a Facebook message, you see the full text, right on the screen.
If it’s anything else, you see the name or number of the person trying to reach you; you can accept or decline the call using the Up and Down buttons.
Also, at your option, the watch can notify you about anything else that your phone would. For example, on the iPhone, you use your existing Notifications Settings screen to specify which things are allowed to get your attention on the watch. Your turn in Words with Friends? Incoming Voxer voice text? Reminder to feed the cats? Whatever. It’s up to you.
On an Android phone, the Pebble vibrates automatically when you get a text, call, Facebook message, What’s App call, or Gmail message. For anything else, you have to install a free app called Pebble Notifier; it gives you a complete list of on/off switches for apps and features that can buzz the watch.
Thing Two: The Pebble controls the music playback of your phone wirelessly. It shows the name of the song, and the three buttons on the right edge represent Previous Song, Next Song and Pause/Play.
That’s right: Now you can control your music without even having to reach for your phone. It won’t be long until we all look like the fat atrophied people-blobs in WALL-E.
Thing Three: The Pebble runs apps.
With the Pebble Steel, the company introduced a new operating system (2.0) and an actual app store for the Pebble — both the plastic and the steel models. The store is already stocked with 1,000 apps. All of them are free.
To browse the catalog, you use the Pebble app on your phone. (It’s available for iPhone now; the Android version is in final beta testing.)
I spent a lot of time downloading and testing apps. There is an awful lot of crud on that app store.
But there are also some great gems. Some of my favorites:
– Wristronome. For musicians. A metronome on your wrist. The genius here is that it doesn’t beep, like most metronomes; instead, it vibrates, silently, at the correct rate. Your audience will never even know that you’re getting tempo assistance.
– Pebble Snap. Operates your phone’s camera by remote control. Perch the phone up high, for example, to get a magnificent view of yourself and your buddies; trigger the shutter by pressing the Pebble’s middle button.
Like many of the coolest apps, this one requires a companion app on your phone — and sometimes, those companion apps cost money. Pebble Snap for the iPhone costs $3.
– Leaf. If you have a Nest (a popular Internet-connected thermostat) — wow, are you in heaven. This free app lets you adjust the temperature of your house, from thousands of miles away, by hitting the Up or Down buttons on your watch.
– WristVision. Turns your phone into a remote spy camera. On the watch, you see whatever the phone sees. Considering that it’s made of black-and-white dots, the “video” is surprisingly clean.
– PebbleGPS. It’s GPS navigation on your wrist. The companion app is a fairly crude, limited maps app, especially compared with Google Maps. What it does do, however, is display huge arrows on the watch, indicating your next turn. “400 feet. Turn right on Elm Street,” it might say. Fantastic if you’re walking or riding a bike, scooter or unicycle; you don’t want to be clutching your phone in those circumstances.
– Slides. A remote control for the slideshow on your phone (presumably projected on a TV). So much less obtrusive than wielding a clunky physical remote in your hand when you’re giving a talk or a slideshow. (There are also apps that control the slideshow playing on your computer — PowerPoint, Keynote, iPhoto, or what have you.)
– Twebble. A surprisingly good Twitter app for your watch. Each tweet fits neatly on one screenful. Believe it or not, you can even reply, painstakingly clicking a tiny alphabet on the screen. OK, maybe if you’re pinned under a boulder.
And, of course, there are hundreds of games, stock trackers, fitness trackers, calculators, and on and on.
Here’s the thing: In order to keep the watch simple and responsive, the makers limit you to eight apps installed at a time. And that includes watch faces.
Oh, yes — there are hundreds of watch-face designs: digital, analog, written-out, classy, grungy, fun. In fact, at this site, you can even design your own watch face, incorporating any photo you choose to upload.
But again, each watch face occupies one of the eight precious spots in the watch’s memory.
On your phone, the Pebble app is your loading dock for apps. It shows the icons of the apps you’ve installed already and lets you “unload” them from the watch. That app also includes a “locker” of all other apps you’ve downloaded, making it fairly easy to exchange apps on the fly. (It takes about six seconds to load or unload an app.)
I do have some gripes about the Pebble. All of them have to do with the connection between the watch and the phone.
First, you get no manual whatsoever with the watch. You’re expected to find online instructions, but they’re not very good and not well organized. And if you Google, for example, “remove Pebble app,” you’re sent to outdated instructions for the 1.0 software.
Second, the Bluetooth wireless signals that keep the watch connected to your phone eat up 5 to 10 percent of each phone battery charge.
Third, the watch sometimes loses the connection to the phone. You have to “re-pair” the two, which is sometimes quick but confusing and sometimes a migraine. (Why does the pairing dialog box appear twice, showing your watch with a different name each time? Fix that.)
But, overall, the Pebble Steel is a delight. We’ll have to see what Apple has up its sleeve, of course, and maybe Samsung will do a Gear 2.0 watch that’s not such a train wreck. Until then, the Pebble is the best smartwatch yet made. I’m thinking of buying one for my birthday.
Meanwhile, the Pebble Steel adds another chapter to the Great Book of Simple, Elegant, Limited, Focused Tech Products That Triumphed Over Bloated Ones That Had Lots More Features.