In the 2013 film, “The Internship”, two salesmen played by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, are salesmen of luxury watches, who are given the boot, unable to cope in an increasingly online-driven retail world; and bereft of options, they go on to try their luck out as 30-something interns at Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG) in the hope of landing a lucrative job at the coveted firm. With the ushering of wearable technology at increasingly affordable price points, one would think that peddlers of conventional watches need to look out, or do they?
Inexpensive, yet reliable quartz and digital watches has been with our generation, as long as we can remember. However with the advent of the modern digital Cellphones , the whole idea of wearing a separate accessory just to tell the time, seems rather redundant, unless of course the watch in question is a luxury swiss timepiece that has more to do with exhibiting affluence rather than the utility. However, with the advent of the smartwatch on the scene, things are poised for a change.
The screens on modern smartphones (especially Phablets) has been getting bigger and bigger every year, leading to desktop grade screen resolutions and screen real estate. This might be a catalyst for the connected mobile paradigm, where the relevance of stationary desktop or relatively cumbersome laptops gets questioned, but one thing is is definitely true. It’s not always convenient to flash out a device the size of a man’s wallet or larger just to tell the time or even to check a message, when sitting down in a crowded bus.
Someone obviously recognized the potential and thus the idea of the bluetooth-linked smartwatch was born. Some people might think the Galaxy Gear or the crowd funded Pebble was the first of their kind, but it’s not the case. The first smartwatch came into existence back in 2001 with the IBM Watchpad, which was a behemoth of a watch. Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT), Sony Ericsson all dabbled in the tech, but they were noble efforts well ahead of their time. The modern smartphone in the form of iPhones and Androids along with the cloud services that we are so used to now wasn’t in the scene, so the watches had just the very basic functionalities, usually dealing with notifications. They were also niche products, which meant they were expensive and most of them had atrocious battery life owing to the absence of today’s low power bluetooth capabilities. Both LG and Samsung tried to squeeze the entire phone into a watch format and failed miserably.
A Kickstarter campaign in 2013 changed all that. The Pebble smartwatch was launched into the world, was promptly sold out and set the ball rolling for wearables age. One of the main reasons for it’s resounding success is that it prized quite reasonably at $150. I have personally used one for the last 5 months or so, and I can definitely see the appeal. I’m not going to do a review on the watch per se, but on the functionality and the experience of using a networked wearable device.
The first generation Pebble is an unassuming almost ugly plastic watch, with questionable build quality and its acrylic front face attracts scratches like maggots to a rotting corpse. If you can live with its bad aesthetics, the functionality will make it worth the while. Once linked to an iPhone or a supported Android phone, the pebble becomes a seamless extension of the phone, and all incoming phone calls, messages, reminders etc, are registered on the wearer’s wrist with a strong vibration. This means that no matter however noisy and chaotic the environment maybe, the wearer never really misses a phone call or a notification. More than missing the calls, the fact you can use the watch to accept or deny calls is great for blocking out known tele callers. In certain situations that can be extremely useful, as the vibrations of modern flat smartphones aren’t quite as effective in the loose pants of the wearer walking about in a noisy environment. A curious thing about it is that you really can’t adjust the date/time without it being tethered to a phone. Once pairing is done, the time / date values are automatically synchronized, with the smartphone, which in turn is usually synced to the Network time of the provider. Do you realize the implication of this? It means that your watch time is perfectly synced to the most accurate sources of time, and you don’t really have to worry about adjusting the time manually every time the smartwatch goes dead due to an exhausted battery.
This brings me to the next major consideration, which is battery time. Most people including myself have grown used to the fact, that watches usually need a battery change once in a year or two. The Pebble smartwatch, or for that matter an exercise monitor (like the fitbit) needs a charge once a week. This figure for the Pebble is due to the fact it uses a low power “reflective” grayscale LCD panel with a backlight (Flicking the wrist illuminates the screen in pitch dark and that’s really cool). Watches such as Samsung’s Galaxy Gear or Sony’s upcoming watch use power hungry color AMOLED/LCD, which means they have to be charged nearly on a daily basis just like their companions devices. In the case of the Pebble, the earlier versions of the firmware, wouldn’t even give a low battery indicator , and so it was really infuriating when the watch would just switch off unceremoniously without a goodbye. The updates have rectified this problem, but still charging the watch for an hour whenever the 20% battery left message appears can be mildly irritating since the availability of the proprietary charging cable with magnetic contacts is very rare, and has to be preserved well. I hope that future smartwatches will incorporate wireless charging, and considering they’re the devices that gets to see the most sun, I envisage that we will have them equipped with tiny-high density solar panels in the not-so-distant future that will constantly charge their batteries.
On the software front, Pebble runs PebbleOS which is a modified Linux microkernel that boots up in 2 seconds. It requires the use of a program manager that lets the user allocate apps which are usually extensions of other apps along with watchfaces to one of the 8 memory slots. The real power of the pebble and most modern smartwatches lies in their accelerometers and sensors. The way apps use these hardware extension can be quite exciting. For example, the Runkeeper extension, displays the speed, calories burnt and other fitness relevant info in realtime. If you’re navigating using Maps, and you deviate from the planned route, the pebble vibrates, before you get lost. Other apps make use of the hardware switches such as the remote camera controller. Since the SDK is also provided, app developers are coming with more innovative use of the pebble.
Pebble is still very small company even though they’ve managed to sell 400k watches in 2013 which is no small feat. However now that they’re established the market, other players are beginning to snap at their heals. Samsung is coming up with the Gear 2, a much improved followup to the original Gear debacle along with LG, Motorola and Sony.
Google has finally waken and warmed up to the wearable’s space with the Android Wear. What Pebble managed to do is create an ecosystem for it’s product outside the purview of Google. By standardizing and enhancing the framework and the hardware API platforms in addition to it’s integrated and widely used Play ecosystem and Cloud apps, Google now has the power of transforming the watch industry, the way it did for mass market cell phones.
The Pebble Steel, the $250 successor to the original pebble is also an indicator of things to come on the materials end. The garish plastic body is now replaced with brushed stainless steel adorned by Gorilla glass, with steel or leather bands. It’s only a matter of time, when actual watchmakers like Swatch, Seiko or Tissot announce their smart watch lineup.