Pebble on the Shore

Many people get buyer's remorse. It is a noted psychological phenomenon for no small reason. I feel it's worth noting, though, that I get it in reverse.

I will sweat over the purchase of an application whose cost I could recoup by searching street gutters for an hour or two; I will hem and haw over a song download that is, monetarily speaking, worth 15% of a nice, informative book. Yet I will happily drop twenty or thirty dollars on an Amazon purchase--I picked those things out! They're cool! No worries. It might be a defense mechanism. If you don't look down you can't see the depth of the chasm over which you just jumped.

So, at the end of October, I happily shelled out $200 (a monumental sum on my budget) for a smartwatch at which I'd been looking for a while: a Pebble Steel. I love the idea of a smartwatch, and the Pebble appealed to me more than the specialized Android Wear options. The Apple Watch announcement tipped me over the edge, and I ordered one.

First impression: Wow, it's weird to wear a watch again. Having relied on my phone for years it was a strange sensation to have a functional weight on my wrist. Taking a few links out of the band and waiting a few days was all it took to warm up to the feeling, though. My second impression was the sudden realization of why people wear and have worn watches in the first place. I'm putting myself up for ridicule here, but it is impressively convenient to have the time on your arm whenever you need it. (Cue chorus of "no kidding Kienan, the watch isn't exactly a modern trend".) Pebble takes it a little further, though, as do other smartwatches, by extending that convenience to the other major distraction in our lives, our phones.

It was in this way that Pebble redeemed all $200 very quickly after it arrived, and in fact I have rarely felt better about a purchase. I had no idea how annoying it was to have to pull my phone out of my pocket for every email, text message, Snapchat, and app notification until I no longer had to do so. Maybe it seems like a small grievance, but I think it gives credit to the biggest advantage that Pebble has, which is--wait for it here, because this is probably the deepest thing I'm going to say for a few months--it fixes what phones have gotten wrong.

That's right, I said it. It fixes phones.

Here's the thing. A few years ago I had a flip phone that was off for 80% of the time. Now the only time my phone's off is when it's restarting, and I don't think it's a bad thing. I've become more connected to my friends, I've become more productive, and it's gotten to the point where my phone is, essentially, an extension of my person and life. But that comes at a price, and it's in the form of the aforementioned notifications, which, while they aren't to blame themselves, are somewhat irritating because of the manner in which they are presented. A notification check on a phone can balloon into more distractions, wasted time, and unnecessary train of thought derailment. So here's why I love Pebble: it lets you filter out what's important in a fraction of a second. If I'm in the middle of a conversation and my watch vibrates, all I have to do is look down (or ahead, depending on the vehemence of the conversation) and see a very small selection of information that lets me determine whether whatever just landed on my phone is worthy of an extended investigation. I don't get distracted by the temptation to check a different app. No extraneous info, nothing, just a small summary and a few options.

In a nutshell, the Pebble compresses distractions and weaves them into the normal flow of life, where they very much belong. But I can hear you now, critical reader. Can't any smartwatch do that? Yes. But here's why I think Pebble's beaten Android Wear and Apple Watch for the time being.

Moore's Law has a lot of equivalents in different fields; I've formulated an idea that one exists in personal technology, not in the technology itself but in our interactions with it. As with the sophistication of technology, we can take paradigms of interaction and shrink them ever more onto smaller devices. And to some extent, this works. But just like the Moore's Law of silicon, there's a point where the curve levels off and a reduction in size becomes less and less beneficial. I think that point lies around the position of smartwatches on the scale. There's a limit to how much with which we can deal in a tiny space, and there are a lot of things that, while yes, may be technically possible on the smartwatch, shouldn't be implemented, because it's cumbersome and more trouble than it's worth. I'm a pretty firm believer in the idea that smartwatches don't need touchscreens. Yes, they're awesome! We can touch things and they respond! To our fingers and skin! But strapped to a very hand-centric part of our body? Nah. It's already hard enough to type on the Pebble with existing text-input methods. We don't need a keyboard.

Incidentally, I've voice this opinion to a friend, and he feels that (if I'm paraphrasing him correctly here) it's more a matter of inventing new paradigms rather than reinventing and scaling down new ones. He feels that the Apple Watch, when it comes out, is going to make rather complex actions just as natural as it is to me to clear a notification off my watch. And he very well may be right. But I still have a hunch that there's a limit to even what the best UI designers can muster in such a small space. Only time will tell...even though he recently bought a Pebble too.

But what about the actions we do want to take in response to notifications? Just recently, Pebble has started adding beta support (might not still be in beta, I'm not sure) for Android actionable notifications, and it's really very nice and unobtrusive. And here, again, the Pebble team made a great choice. Instead of having to deal with more Android APIs (which, from experience, are not pristine interfaces) and rolling their own response code, they just waited for Android to deal with it themselves, and when actionable notification support was added for applications, they hooked into it. And it works great.

And let's face it, the Pebble Steel just looks good. It's not a gimmick watch, it's a solid hunk of tech that I feel confidant while sporting a suit and tie.

Despite all this, it obviously isn't a perfect piece of technology. The e-ink display is absolutely fantastic, but a slightly higher resolution would have been even better. And though it may have affected waterproofing (oh, did I mention it's waterproof? Yeah. I can control Pandora from the shower and it's fantastic), the one missing feature I would have loved is a microphone, to make dictation even less work. The in-app store can be slightly unresponsive at times, and eight apps or watchfaces is a limit that births many a hard choice, but at the same time, this is quickly becoming my favorite piece of technology. Combine it with a nice open development scene in C (be still my beating heart) and I think I'm going to be wearing it for quite a long time.