I was an original backer of the Kickstarter for the Pebble smartwatch and have been wearing it on my wrist for more than two years, so you’d think I’d be one of the tens of thousands of people rushing to Kickstart the new Pebble Time. But I’m not.
It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed my two years with the Pebble. It’s not that I dislike the new interface on the Pebble Time – in fact, I think it looks pretty cool. No, I’m not buying in to Pebble Time because I’m an iPhone user.
Unlike all the Android Wear watches out there, Pebble’s watches have always claimed iOS compatibility. That’s true of the Pebble Time, too. But in the past two years as a Pebble user, one thing has been abundantly clear: My Pebble’s relationship with iOS has been fraught with difficulty. I had to fiddle endlessly with Notification Center settings to get alerts to properly display on my watch, and since the release of iOS 8 I’ve found that more often than not my Pebble has just silently lost its connection to my iPhone – or the Pebble app says it is connected, but it doesn’t actually send any notifications. Except when it does.
Meanwhile, Pebble keeps announcing new features that work pretty well with Android. The Pebble Time has a microphone you can use on Android – or a single app on iOS. It’s not hard to see which way the wind is blowing. Google, the owner of the Android platform, is working to enable features that support smartwatches from various vendors. Meanwhile, on iOS, what smartwatch strategy do you think the platform owner is focused on?
I’m sure Pebble Time will work, more or less, with iPhones. But it’ll be second-rate functionality compared to Pebble for Android. Meanwhile, here comes the Apple Watch: A product designed to work seamlessly with iOS. Which is going to offer a better experience?
Sure, Pebble Time might be Apple Watch’s biggest competition on iOS, but that’s only because there’s no real competition. I love that Pebble is building a relatively cheap smartwatch with long battery life. It’s a niche that needs to be filled. If you simply don’t want to drop US$349 for an Apple Watch, the Pebble Time is going to be available for a much more reasonable price – but it’ll do a whole lot less, too.
If Pebble has another thing going for it against the Apple Watch, it’s restraint. As I wrote a year ago, “What I want in a smartwatch is a smart watch, not a little phone that’s strapped to my wrist. One of the things I love about the Pebble is that it’s not a phone and doesn’t try to be one.” As interesting as the Apple Watch is, I want it to be glanceable. I don’t want to spend minutes holding my left arm up, tapping on my watch with my right hand. Smartwatches should be for quick interactions, for glances and deferrals and the like. I hope Apple gets that right with the Apple Watch.
In the end, though, if I’m going to invest in a new smartwatch, and I’m an iPhone user, my money has to go to the Apple Watch. It’s being crafted to work seamlessly with iOS. If it’s not more reliable than the Pebble at relaying notifications to my wrist, I’ll eat my hat. Third-party app developers are rushing to embrace WatchKit, and I’d wager that on day one there will be vastly better third-party app support for Apple Watch than could have possibly existed for Pebble.
It’s not Pebble’s fault that Apple has focused on its own smartwatch while letting the connectivity between iOS and Pebble remain buggy. But this is life in Apple’s ecosystem: If the big dog wants to enter a category, it’s going to give itself every advantage it can. Apple’s not doing this to crush Pebble – it’s doing it to create a great product. The Apple Watch will be better because it’s been tailored to work with iOS, and iOS has been tailored to work with it. Pebble compatibility being left by the side of the road is just a side effect.
And even if Pebble did work seamlessly with the iPhone, I don’t think I would rush into buying a Pebble Time. The Pebble has always felt like a forerunner product. It augurs a new wearable revolution, but is clearly just a rudimentary first step. When I look at the Apple Watch, with its retina touchscreen, I see the future. When I look at the Pebble’s low-resolution E-Paper screen and suite of buttons, I see the past.