Tech + Health

03.21.13

The Smartwatch Revolution, or How the Pebble Changed My Life

The Pebble has arrived! Brian Ries on what it’s like to wear the next big thing in tech on his wrist—and why he never needs to reach into his pocket to read a text message again.

Sitting in a booth at the pub last night, I was eating dinner when my wrist buzzed with an alert. “Hey. There. Guy,” read the screen, which was peeking over the crusted bun of my cheeseburger just inches from my face. It was a text message from a friend—which I had goaded him into sending from across the table purely to delight and amaze. I clicked a button to accept the alert and make it go away. My iPhone never left the pocket of my jeans.

The friend was impressed. The others at the table were too.

This is life with the next big thing in tech strapped to your wrist.

My piece of technological wonderment is small and black and helps tell time like a watch. That’s because it technically is a watch, in principle, but it’s not like any you’ve ever seen. And it’s a whole lot more than just that.

Meet the Pebble, a piece of wearable tech that is part of an ever-expanding yet-to-be-released line of products lumped into the 21st-century category of “smartwatch.” The term implies, of course, that all other watches that came before are technophobic Neanderthals, capable only of ticking away the seconds toward their eventual irrelevance.

Want one?

Too bad—for now.

The Pebble is currently available only to the 68,929 “backers” who pledged anywhere from $1 to $10,000 to see this thing to fruition. You can preorder one for $150, but there’s no word on when it will officially ship to the general tech-toy-hungry public.

I’m in this lucky bunch because a little less than a year ago I was one of those backers. I gave $115 to a 25-year-old engineering grad named Eric who promised to build me a customizable watch that worked perfectly with iPhone and Android smartphones.

He pitched us this dream using a website called Kickstarter that lets anyone launch grassroots funding campaigns for creative projects.

For the most part these projects are movies or music releases. But Eric Migicovsky was having trouble finding venture capital to take his smartwatch past the conceptual phase, so he took his pitch to the people—on the advice of San Francisco startup accelerator Y Combinator's co-founder Paul Graham—and asked for a mere $100,000.

In two weeks he had $7 million.

Eventually Team Pebble would collect $10,266,845 for its project. In the months that followed, it would keep the backers posted with a series of emailed updates—I’ve gotten 34 so far—detailing every step of the smartwatch’s production process. (A popular recent update: "Without any further ado, the moment you have all been waiting for has arrived—we’re thrilled to announce that we’ll begin shipping Pebble on January 23rd.”)

The crowdfunding, the authenticity—it all makes you feel a part of something special, a rare feeling in the faceless labyrinth of the consumer-tech production circus.

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Eric Migicovsky, the CEO of Pebble, displays his company’s smartwatch in February in Palo Alto, California. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

I know, for instance, that on May 12, 2012, the Pebble creators were leaving San Francisco for Hong Kong, en route to the Dongguan area of China to check in with the factories that were being tasked with bringing the smartwatch to life. I also know that during the Chinese New Year, production had to shut down while those assembling the product took off for the holiday, leading to a minor delay in shipping the final product.

It was all worth the wait.

The watch I now wear on my wrist not only tells me the time on a handful of digital watch faces—ranging from the digital and the analog to the binary and the weird, including one that keeps time to a never-ending game of tic-tac-toe—but displays text messages and caller ID, controls music, and, for now, plays the retro 1970s game Snake. It seamlessly syncs with my iPhone using Bluetooth (same deal for Android users) and simply displays the phone’s notifications as they appear on the locked screen.

In the next few weeks, its creators will release its SDK (software development kit) to developers, which will lead to all sorts of applications and custom watch faces already being brainstormed by its small and devoted community of programmers.

The move will firmly place this minicomputer smack on the crest of a swelling wave in tech called “wearables” (see: Google Glass, Fitbit, Jawbone Up Band). There’s word that Pebble will work with the RunKeeper running app for iPhone and Android, too.

Soon these little things will be everywhere. Both Apple and Samsung are reported to be working on their own mass-market smartwatches.

Soon these little things will be everywhere. Both Apple and Samsung are reported to be working on their own mass-market smartwatches, to hit the market later this year, and Pebble’s CEO has been mum when asked if Apple’s CEO has approached him about an acquisition. But for now, just 40,000 Pebbles have been produced, a limited run that means I’ve yet to see another Pebbler in the wild.

That loneliness is dashed on the Web, however, where 2,788 fellow Pebblers share feedback, advice, and camaraderie in a Pebble community on Reddit.com. The Pebble team makes announcements or dashes rumors there, too—Migicovsky (a.k.a. "erOhead") is a member, as are Pebble lead engineer Andrew Witte, fellow engineer Matt Zulak, head of operations Rahul Bhagat, and Joseph Kristoffer, as community manager posting under “TeamPebble.”

Search the hashtag #Pebble on Instagram, and you’ll see an endless stream of new Pebblers unboxing their long-awaited watches. Check @Pebble’s at-replies on Twitter and see a flood of compliments, “can’t waits,” and exciting exclamations. And on Pebble’s forums, users discuss everything from first impressions in the media to technical support, including a remembrance thread for “dead Pebbles,” may they rest in peace.

The device itself is a fascinating, mind-opening extension of the smartphone. You wouldn’t know the inconvenience of reading your text messages on the phone retrieved from your pocket until they pop up seamlessly on the device sitting coolly on your wrist. But you wouldn’t know you had a dumbwatch until a guy on the Internet asks for some money to create something smarter, either.