Killring Rick Dillon's Weblog

Less is More: Why Pebble Rocks

Pebble is notable for being the smartwatch that started the trend. Lots of news outlets are happy to report that the trend will only grow in 2014, and the new smart watches will be better in every way. It's fairly certain that many major technology companies, including Google, Samsung, Apple and Qualcomm are already working on the next generation of smart watch-like devices. Many folks think the era of the watch is over, and wonder what the appeal of a smartwatch is, while others think the idea is nice, but wonder how anyone could find something as simple as the Pebble useful enough to bother with.

Back in October, Slashdot posted the latest in a series of questions over the last few months posing exactly that question.

I'd like to hear from more people with smart watches who are happy with them, to better understand the appeal.

Hopefully, I can help answer it.

Pocket Computing

Cell phones used to be just that, phones. When smartphones were released, certain demographics (like myself), realized that 'phones' could be less about talking to others, and more about having a programmable, always-connected, touch-centric computer in your pocket. With technologies like instant messaging, SMS and push notifications for email, smartphones are wearable computers that recieve, filter and alert based on realtime information gathered from around the globe. In short: the first step to becoming a cyborg.

Social standards evolve too, but never quite as quickly as technology. On my phone, for example, I get notifications for email from two personal accounts as well as a business account, two instant messaging accounts, text messages, and breaking news alerts. I throttle notifications for each of these by time of day and day of week, but the problem is clear. As the volume of data flowing through my phone increases, so does the cost of accessing it. In short, every time a notification comes in, I have two choices.

I can pull my phone from my pocket, unlock it, pull down the notifications drawer and check to see what came in, perhaps tapping through to the corresponding application for more detail. This is cumbersome and error prone for a number of reasons. If I'm in public (say, on a train), it means I'm constantly pulling out my phone and unlocking it. It's not only sometimes awkward, but also presents something of a security risk, since it reveals my screen lock code to anyone who happens to glance in my direction. In a more private setting, it might just be annoying. If I'm in a conversation, or perhaps a meeting, pulling out my phone to unlock it and check it is often rude, and really does pull my attention away from something I should probably be paying attention to.

My other option is to silence or ignore alerts that come in. This is what most people do. You check the phone when you check it, and if notifications come in, they can wait. This approach is reasonable, but also somewhat retro; it contradicts the flow of technology. I carry multi-gigahertz devices in my pocket, and I'd like to use that power to collect information from the internet, filter it, and feed it directly into my brain as it becomes relevant. That's sort of the ideal. Simply deciding to only check email every 30 minutes provides a solution to information overload, but it's not much better than the late 1990's solution of polling for email in Eudora. I think we can do better.

Updates on Your Face

One solution that has everyone excited is the idea of putting information directly on your face. Specifically, Google Glass. I think Google Glass is a compelling idea, but is probably 10 years too early. The current implementation only amplifies all of the social issues of smart phones, and doesn't provide enough enhanced benefit to justify the price. While the camera functionality is interesting, the main feature of Glass is the ability to get information pushed into your field of vision in a timely fashion.

Smart watches are a cheaper, more socially acceptable way to do just that.

Does that mean the Google Glass idea is fatally flawed? Hardly. The idea is actually great. Ideally, you'd see it take the form of a contact lens, or even direct optical nerve stimulation. Those approaches are at least a decade off, however, and a watch is probably a better approach today than a headmounted display, at least for the average consumer. It's less invasive, easier technologically, cheaper, and socially well-understood, since it reuses a technology that's been around for around 100 years: the wristwatch.

The Security Problem

I mentioned this earlier, but it bears more discussion. Since so much data is flowing to and from my smartphone, and since it is almost always with me, it presents a particularly large security risk. Losing my phone or having it stolen would be a Big Deal.

The security problem is an issue with any device, usually proportional to:

  1. How connected that device is to all your online accounts, and
  2. How much data it stores on it, and
  3. How often you have it with you.

According to these criteria, laptops and smartphones present the largest security risk, and smart watches appear to be poised to join them. How can we mitigate this?

The approach Pebble adopts is to attack (1) and (2). The whole point of a smartwatch is to always be with you, right there on your wrist. So (3) is hard to address. But if the smart watch is only connected to your phone, then it need carry no special account credentials. If it is stolen, your accounts aren't compromised.

The other problem is that all the updates that are pushed to the watch could be stored there, readily accessible. Call logs, chats, and email all flow through the device. Pebble made the bold decision to store nothing; once an alert is shown and dismissed, there is no mechanism to retrieve it.

The upshot of Pebble's approach is that if you lose the Pebble, or it is stolen, security is simply a non-issue.

The temptation for a watch to do so much more is there, of course, and we'll discuss that in a bit.

Updates on Your Wrist

If you can address the security scalability that goes along with having a proliferation of mobile devices, prehaps the appeal of a smartwatch becomes more clear: instantly accessible alerts. But how valuable are such alerts? They matter enough to me that they changed the way I think about alerts.

One key aspect of the pebble is that it is silent. Always. Because it is strapped to my wrist, I always leave notifications 'on', that is, the watch vibrates when a new notification comes in from one of the apps that I've whitelisted. At that point, I can make a decision about whether or not I want to look at the alert. The message will remain on the Pebble's screen for a while. Maybe 60 seconds. So even if that particular moment isn't ideal, I can glance at my watch anytime in the next 60 seconds and find out what the alert was.

Since checking is so low friction, I get updates in a much more timely fashion. Whether I'm at dinner, in a meeting, on a train or walking down the sidewalk, my phone stays in my pocket, but I can triage incoming messages in around one second, often without stopping whatever I'm doing. The end result is that I have my phone out much less that most folks walking down the street, in meetings or on trains.

One of the upshots of these low-friction updates is that I'm more tolerant of them, because they don't cost me much. Suddenly, apps like the New York Times and Breaking News were hugely useful, allowing my Pebble to intercept top headlines in real time and push them to my wrist. Whether it's the latest information about the government shutdown, the NSA surveillance, a major acquisition or a product release, I know about it without having to check news sources.

The Pebble also simplifies management of my phone's state. Since I get notified of everything via Pebble, my phone is in a perpetual silent-no-vibrate state, so I don't have to worry about silencing it during various events in my day, like meetings. If I want to tune out the net, I just take off my watch and put it on my desk, and suddenly I'm disconnected. When I want to reconnect, I put my watch back on, and I'm back in the game. The entire system is incredibly simple and low-maintenance.

Less is More (Battery Life)

One concern with yet-another-device is battery life. Another thing to charge and/or sync is a big tax, so it's important that each additional device be simple to maintain.

The Pebble requires no syncing, and does remarkable well on battery life, especially when compared with other devices in its class. Google Glass has a notoriously short battery life that tops out around 12 hours. The Galaxy Gear, Samsung's smartwatch offering, is reported to have a battery with similar limitations, with numbers reported ranging from 10 to 24 hours. The Pebble, in contrast, lasts anywhere from 6 to 8 days. Not having another thing to worry about charging each night in addition to my phone and tablet makes the offering much more attractive.

But how does Pebble achieve such long life? The team building Pebble were intensly focused on delivering just one feature: updates on your wrist. They had the discipline to say "no" to dozens of features that would dilute the utility of the device. While porting Android or iOS to a watch might seems like an obvious move for Google, Samsung and Apple, the Pebble team used a much simpler embedded operating system. Rather than soup up the watch with dozens of sensors, they gave it just three buttons and an accelerometer. No altimeter. No compass. No wifi. No NFC. An argument could be made for each of these features, but the right answer is to just deliver messages reliably to your wrist. If you want all those other things, you've got a phone.

Enlightenment Through Minimalism

From the moment I backed the Pebble team on Kickstarter, I did so beause I was impressed with both their experience and dedication in the development of viable prototypes, and their intense focus on delivering the core aspects of the smartwatch vision they'd refined over years of testing. They had thought about all the problems with a smartwatch, and rather than trying to stick every bell and whistle on the device to add another bullet point to the feature list, they developed a vision for what a smartwatch should be.

The discipline the team demonstrated in sticking to the vision is admirable. And the results equally so. So when you ask yourself why you'd get a Pebble instead of some other smartwatch, look at all the bullets that aren't on the Pebble's feature list. That's how you can tell they did it right.