How an old smartwatch found new life when the hackers that loved it, decided not to let it die
Two weeks ago I spent 40 dollars on a 5-year-old smartwatch from a now-defunct company with no active webservers to provide service to it. All that aside, I think it's actually one of my best eBay finds. I’ve always been a collector and avid wearer of watches. When I buy a watch, how it looks and what people may think when they see it are of little concern to me. I prefer instead to collect watches that I find interesting, most often due to the role they played in history or the story and values of the company that made them. This is why I was so drawn to the story of Pebble. As a tech enthusiast, I am naturally interested in the concept of smartwatches; However, more often than not, they don’t capture my fancy. Most smartwatches are desperate cash-grabs from big companies like Apple and Samsung to capitalize on the emerging market of wearable tech. They are capable — sure — but feel un-inspired. I am a huge advocate of the FOSS (Free & Open Source Software) movement and a big believer in the power of community development. For this reason, the failure and re-birth of the Pebble smartwatches resonated with beliefs I hold dear and spoke to the hacker inside me. To fully understand why, we need to take a step back and examine the story of Pebble.
The Watch That We Deserve
Today, the tech market is flooded with hundreds of smartwatches spanning a wide variety of price ranges offering all the features of gimmicks you could ever desire, but this wasn't the case in 2012. For decades prior people had longed for the promises of Dick Tracy and the wristwatch that could do anything. Many attempts had been made over the years from the 1985 Sinclair FM radio wristwatch to the 1998 IBM Linux wristwatch. 2012 was a unique year. Silicon processing chips had finally hit the sweet spot of being small, efficient on power usage, light, and most importantly cheap enough to finally bring this dream to life. Being faced with the challenge of making the world's first true smartwatches, the tech industry was left with the daunting challenge of figuring out how to build a smartwatch that wasn’t just cool, but functional. The first implementation of this wearable tech was found in fitness trackers like the Nike+ Fuelband.
Later Sony introduces their first wearable known only as the “Sony Smartwatch” (model MN2SW). Bringing the first true color display to a wearable, this watch made many important innovations and drummed up some press but ultimately wasn’t well-received after its launch.
Then came Pebble. In April of 2012, a Kickstarter campaign was launched by the very new Pebble Technology Corporation for an affordable and versatile smartwatch that acts as an extension of your phone rather than trying to replace it. This smartwatch, called Pebble, seemed to be the first wearable that could live up to the hype… and people were excited. So excited in fact that the original Kickstarter funding goal of just 100,000 dollars was obliterated when they raised over 10.3 million dollars in a single month, instantly becoming (at the time) the most successful funding of a project in Kickstarter history. The people had decided that Pebble wasn’t just the watch that we wanted, it's the watch that we deserved.
First Impressions Are Important
Pebble began shipping the first units to Kickstarter backers in January of 2013. It was time to see if Pebble could live up to what they had promised. The original Pebble watch wasn’t winning any awards from fashion magazines, with a blocky plastic exterior that was more reminiscent of a child's toy than a high-end wristwatch. But what was inside that plastic shell more than made up for its lackluster exterior.
The first strong point for Pebble was their clever decision to use a pixel Sharp Memory transflective LCD display instead of a full-color display like Sony. This display technology is more commonly referred to as “e-paper”, not to be confused with the e-ink displays that can be found inside e-readers like the original amazon kindle or the Nook. Pebble’s e-paper display functions much like a normal LCD screen, but with two major improvements that make it perfectly suited for a smartwatch. Firstly, it's transflective which means the display can either emit light internally using a backlight like a more traditional LCD or reflect external light through the pixel array for display purposes. This allows the screen to remain easily readable outside, including in bright and direct sunlight where other watches struggle. When inside or in darker environments the backlight kicks on and the display continues to be easy to see. Secondly, when normal LCD displays update they have to redraw all the pixels every frame. Pebble’s e-paper display has a memory function which means when they display updates, they only need to re-draw the pixels that change. This provided two main benefits which are a lack of ghosting (blur) and more importantly significantly less power needed to update the display every cycle. By using this Technology as opposed to AMOLED or traditional LCD’s the Pebble doesn't need to power a backlight constantly or waste time updating pixels that didn’t change. The end result was that Pebble’s battery life destroyed the competition, needing on average only one charge every 5–7 days as compared to even modern smartwatches which struggle to achieve 24-hour operation. In addition to this, it was entirely compatible with both IOS and Android. It performed fitness tracking through its 3-axis accelerometer with some help from your phone's GPS. and It also did all the typical smartwatch features you would expect like showing your notifications, letting you see/answer calls, and controlling your music from any app via Bluetooth. King of all things that made the Pebble great was the fact that at launch, Pebble released a completely open SDK (Software Development Kit) that allowed any third-party developer to easily build and deploy apps to extend the watch’s functionality. Because of the ease of development and Pebble’s quick mass adoption, big companies like Uber, TripAdvisor, and Runfit quickly developed apps for Pebble, which lent a lot of legitimacy to the watch and its software platform. The thing Pebble really got right was striking the proper balance of utility and fun. It didn't try to replace your phone, it just gave you a lot fewer reasons to reach for it throughout the day.
Up, Up, and away!
The Verdict was in, people loved Pebble. After the wave of support they received by releasing the original Pebble watch, the company grew and continued to innovate. Over the next 4 years, they began releasing new and improved models. The main complaint about the first-gen Pebble was the somewhat ugly plastic exterior. Because of this, the next model they released was the Pebble Steel. The same watch you know and love, but upgraded with a sleek stainless steel chassis and metal clasp band.
Okay, that's all well and good, but what about color and smoother animations? No problem, Pebble responded, while announcing the Pebble Time on Kickstarter. This Model had the massive improvement of an e-paper display with 64 colors as well as a re-designed OS with nice animations and their new timeline feature, which provided an easy way for you to keep track of your notifications and upcoming events. They also added some more minor features like adding a microphone for text-dictation. Through all these updates Pebble made sure to stay true to their roots as a battery beast, meaning the Pebble Time, even with its many upgrades, could still go 5-7 days between charges. When the Kickstarter for the Pebble Time went live, they hit their funding goal of $500,000 in just 17 minutes, raised over 1 million dollars in the first hour, and ended up with over 20.3 million by the end of March. This broke their own Kickstarter record and to date, is the most successful funding of a campaign to ever take place on Kickstarter’s platform.
In the years that followed, Pebble continued to announce and release several more models but eventually ran into some trouble.
The year is now 2016, and the landscape of wearable tech is now lush and vibrant. Thanks in large part to Pebble’s early success, bigger companies soon followed the scent of money to the smartwatch market. In a product space now filled with offerings from goliaths like Samsung, Motorola, and Apple, Pebble’s market share soon began to fall. After the victory of the Pebble Time, subsequent models failed to achieve the same level of success and over time users began turning to other players in the smartwatch field. This created money problems for Pebble and unfortunately marked the beginning of the end for the wunderkind brand. On December 7th, 2016 FitBit, a company that makes popular wrist mount fitness trackers, completed their purchase of Pebble for a mere 23 million dollars. Fitbit absorbed some of Pebble’s valuable intellectual property as well as some key staff before eventually shutting the company down. When this acquisition was announced, they claimed that Pebble watches wouldn’t experience any immediate changes but ominously mentioned that “Pebble functionality or service quality may be reduced in the future”. When Fitbit completed their absorption of anything valuable from Pebble, they powered down the servers that run the Pebble app and watch face marketplace as well as the servers that provided the watches with the weather and other useful API data. This meant that anyone who had a Pebble lost significant functionality overnight and many took their watches off for the last time.
Rebble With A Cause
When Pebble shut down there was still a large and passionate group of hackers, tinkerers, developers, and general tech enthusiasts that loved their quirky little smartwatches. Pebble always had a core base of power users who liked the watch for its geek aesthetic and “hackability”. Unwilling to let their favorite watch dissolve into the void of the forgotten tech from yesteryear they banded together into a ragtag coalition united under the singular mission of saving pebble smartwatches. This new alliance called themselves Rebble, a play on words rhyming with the watch's original name Pebble. Chief among the original developers of Rebble was Katharine Berry, a former employee of Pebble and a true believer in the technology they had developed. Fearing the day Fitbit would flip the kill switch, Kathrine worked tirelessly to archive and document whatever she could of the Pebble watches firmware and the company’s original development assets. By collaborating with a community eager to help as well as several current and former employees of Pebble and Fitbit, the race was on to build a set of web services that would allow Pebble users to continue full use of their watches after the original server get switched off. For two straight weeks, they tinkered away in a hackathon that ultimately ended in having successfully built a completely free alternative to Pebble’s original web services. This meant that with minimal effort a user could switch their pebble watch to using Rebble services and continue to use it for as long as they like. Rebble even offers additional Weather and Dictation services for a small fee (as running these services costs them a lot of money) so the power users can get extra features while supporting the alliance.
I received my Pebble time from eBay and after just 10 minutes had it set up and running on Rebbles services. I could install lovely user-made watch faces, use apps, play games, respond to texts, and more. I like wearing it because at least for me, the Pebble has become a symbol of something greater. That fact that companies can’t always just kill something off because it's not profitable anymore. The idea that a volunteer group of hackers and hobbyists can get together and through sheer willpower and skill un-cancel a product is something I find myself inspired by. When I wear this watch I'm reminded of the power of a Rebble.