How the Pebble Watch Works


We’ve all dreamed of a communicator watch that will make our lives as cool as those of spies in comics and film. Can the Pebble make you feel like the future is now?
© Matthew Shaw /Getty Images

As tech gadgets go, it's not very geeky. It's smooth, shiny and has an almost Zenlike appearance. That calming exterior isn't just a façade for the Pebble smart watch. Compared to so many adrenaline-jolting high-tech devices, the Pebble is meant to be more serene and more harmonious, designed to tie together fast-paced modern life into a simple (yet smart) low-key wristwatch experience that's both fashion conscious and fun to use.

The Pebble smart watch links to your smartphone, tablet or other portable device via wireless Bluetooth signals. It doesn't matter whether you're devoted to Apple or Android; Pebble works with devices that run either operating system. Once connected, the Pebble becomes a wrist-mounted technological hub of sorts, providing notifications for calls, texts and emails, in addition to updates from Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts.

You can install a bevy of wonderful, wild or sometimes just weird apps to your Pebble watch. As of spring 2015, there were more than 6,000 apps made specifically for the watch. Because Pebble's manufacturer has opted to provide an open source software development kit, just about anyone can design and release apps, meaning new software appears almost daily, giving you the opportunity to continually tweak the watch's capabilities to your preferences.

As wristwatches go, the Pebble is a powerful multifunctional tool. You can breeze through email, appointments, weather reports, sports scores and your personal fitness statistics. Adding or removing apps changes your Pebble's functions until you're happy with the kinds of notifications and briefs you see. And yes, if you're wondering, you can even use it to check the time.

Unlike so many new darlings of the tech industry, Pebble isn't a quirky one-hit wonder. Its 2013 debut parlayed into multiple new versions, all of which see increasing demand not just from geeks, but from people who seek simplicity and sleekness in all of their gadgets.

Pebble isn't an offshoot of an established corporate behemoth. It's a small-business success story. Thanks to forward-thinking businessmen and some daring investors, it's become a reminder that anyone with a few good ideas and some persistence can shape a whole segment of a global industry.

A comparison of the Pebble and the Apple Watch
©HowStuffWorks

Mining Pebble's Backstory

Eric Migicovsky, the inventor of Pebble
Eric Migicovsky, the inventor of Pebble
© Ramin Talaie/Corbis

To see the beginning of Pebble's story, we have to start at nearly the end of the alphabet, that is, with the letter Y. That's because Pebble got a serious boost from Y Combinator, a well-known and respected business incubator that helped push Pebble from concept to real business.

The idea is pretty simple. Y Combinator provides a relatively modest amount of cash, as well as expertise and enthusiasm, to get a business concept rolling. Of the dozens that enter the program, some will thrive, some will die. Others, like Pebble, become rock-star poster children for how such programs spark innovation.

In 2008, Eric Migicovsky was an engineering student with a few ideas about how to make smartphone technology better. More specifically, he wanted to reduce our fixation of constantly grabbing our phones to check for new notifications. A wristwatch, he thought, would be much more efficient.

He fiddled around with some leftover pieces of electronics and some programmable code and hacked together a test smart watch that communicated directly with smart phones. The watch was initially called InPulse, and Y Combinator liked the concept well enough to fund Migicovsky's plan. He received $150,000 in seed money, which he hoped to use to lure liked-minded capitalists with thicker wallets.

Unfortunately for Migicovsky, his plot failed. Although a few investors were intrigued by the watch, none would bite. His first generation watch died an agonizing death before it even had a chance.

In April 2012, with what eventually became an historic decision, Migicovsky turned to Kickstarter to fund his fledgling idea. Kickstarter is a so-called crowdfunding website, through which just about anyone can request money for just about any conceivable project. Many projects fizzle out because of lack of interest. A rare few, like Migicovsky's, gather funding momentum and far exceed their fundraising goals.

The Pebble project had a modest Kickstarter goal of $100,000, which the company exceeded after just two hours. In 28 hours, the total was at more than $1 million. When the campaign finally closed in mid-May, more than 68,000 excited backers had pledged nearly $10.3 million in the hopes of making the Pebble watch a reality.

The watch first began shipping in January 2013. By the end of 2014, the company had sold roughly 1 million products.

Pebble Numero Uno

The first iteration of the Pebble was sleek and simple, aesthetics which continue to be critical to the device’s design.
The first iteration of the Pebble was sleek and simple, aesthetics which continue to be critical to the device’s design.
© Alexander Hafemann /Getty Images

The first Pebble watch snagged more than $10 million in crowdsourced funding, providing Migicovsky with the cash to hone his engineering and marketing acumen and to jumpstart manufacturing. The Pebble project had survived by evolving.

Fittingly, the device itself evolved as well. It was no longer a quaint, jury-rigged toy based on an aging Blackberry operating system. It came with an ARM Cortex-M3 CPU, memory, ambient light sensor, 3-D accelerometer and Bluetooth adapter. A touchscreen would've made Pebble's weeklong battery life pretty much impossible, so instead the device uses a monochrome Sharp LCD, a thin, flexible e-paper screen that consumes little power but still provides suitable contrast and resolution.

The watch isn't waterproof, but it's water resistant down to about 120 feet (37 meters), thanks in large part to the fact that there are no ports cutting into the watch's body. Sans USB port, you use a magnetic cable affixed to the body to transfer power.

Rather than relying on visual cues alone, you set the watch to vibrate when it detects new notifications. For people who want to break their obsessive habit of ceaselessly glancing at a smartphone, this capability alone might be enough to convince them that Pebble is worth owning.

At first, Pebble was just a lifeless piece of hardware. To make the watch truly impressive, its makers needed to offer a large number of apps, and they decided that an open-software developer kit was key. With this kit, anyone with programming skills can assemble apps for Pebble, in essence helping to propel the product forward. Migicovsky nurtures and encourages the developer community to spark ideas and bring them to fruition, meaning better functioning apps and happier Pebble customers.

The developers have not disappointed. By the thousands, they've created apps for weather tracking, traffic alerts, exercise monitors, games and more.

Notably, you can also download and install new watch faces for your Pebble. With each new face, the watch takes on a different appearance. You can select a silly watch face one day and a more businesslike one the next — it's an easy way to change up your watch's look without ever having to take it off.

Undercutting the Competition

One of the selling points of the Pebble is its compatibility with any standard watchband.
One of the selling points of the Pebble is its compatibility with any standard watchband.
© Ramin Talaie/Corbis

As with so many first-generation smart watches, the Pebble's aesthetic virtues were a little rough around the edges. It was flat, on the chunky side and a little awkward. In short, it had the makings of something that gadget lovers would embrace but that less tech-obsessed folks would not. That said, the Pebble's appearance was still a quantum leap ahead of many other contemporary smart watches, many of which reflect a fashion sense that would only appeal to a pocket-protector-wearing minority.

The Neptune Pine, for example, is a powerhouse of a watch, basically duplicating many of the features of an Android smartphone. It's also so big that it will overwhelm the wrist of anyone who isn't the size of an NFL offensive lineman. First-generation versions of watches from almost all major manufacturers suffered from similar fashion faux pas.

These days, though, other watches are catching up to Pebble in terms of style. The Moto 360 comes with an oversized but pleasing round face. The LG G Watch R is round, too, and looks like a traditional beefy men's watch.

Looks aside, other companies are taking a different approach to functionality. With the Gear 2, Samsung opted for a large, color touchscreen and an interface that feels like a smartphone. It also has a built-in heart monitor. Yet all of those features mean a drastically shorter battery life and a much steeper price at $299.

One of the most formidable challenges to Pebble comes from the Apple Watch. With its rounded corners, rectangular shape and aluminum alloy case, the Apple Watch looks like a small iPod. It has a touch screen that you can use to tap and swipe through menus, as well as two buttons, one of which rotates to help you scroll through options.

As with every other watch, the Apple Watch connects to your smartphone, although it will only work with Apple phones. It has Bluetooth, but it's also equipped with Wi-Fi, which means you'll be able to access your iPhone's content and connection from all over the house instead of just across the room, at least for as long as the roughly 18-hour battery life lasts.

Still, the Apple Watch is targeting a wealthier class of consumer. Its most basic model sells for $349. If you prefer a steel case you'll drop $200 more. The Pebble, it seems, is specifically targeted toward a more frugal audience. That includes the newest Pebble.

Time for a Timeline

The color display on the Pebble Time isn’t a touchscreen, but the watch has a longer battery life than most competitors as a result.
The color display on the Pebble Time isn’t a touchscreen, but the watch has a longer battery life than most competitors as a result.
Image courtesy of Pebble

In February 2015, Pebble unveiled its next generation watch, called Time. Pebble Time banks on what the company sees as key strengths, such as simplicity and an intuitive interface that offers plenty of options without being overly complicated or unwieldy.

It has a thinner, more durable body that's less geeky looking than its predecessor. It's still nearly waterproof and still works with a vast array of iOS and Android devices, yet the price of $199 is far less than many competitors. Pebble Steel, a stainless-steel version, will go for $100 more.

Most obviously, the Time has a color LCD screen. Although it's not touch capable and doesn't have the brightness or resolution of, say, the Apple Watch, it retains the original Pebble's weeklong battery life.

The Gorilla Glass lens is a tough type of glass that resists the inevitable scratches and scuffs that all well-worn watches are sure to encounter. The bezel is made from stainless steel in red, white or black, and you replace the floppy silicone band with any standard watchband you like.

One of its niftier features is an integrated microphone that lets you reply to messages and dictate notes just by speaking toward your wrist like a Secret Service agent. The microphone feature isn't as full-fledged as the one on your smartphone, so it doesn't (yet) work with every voice-activated app, but it's a quick and easy way to send messages or take notes without having to punch little keys on your smartphone.

All of these features, however, may be trumped by the new Timeline interface. Timeline is a new approach to one of the most difficult design aspects of smart watches — finding a fast, easy way to access a plethora of different kinds of information without a lot of control buttons or a touch screen.

Time's three side-mounted buttons access your life's timeline in the past, present and future, respectively. A single click of the appropriate button will often reveal the information you're looking for at the moment, whether it's your work calendar, fitness activity update or sports scores. Pebble thinks the Timeline interface is powerful and flexible enough not just for a watch, but for other types of wearable technology, too.

As with the first Pebble, the company isn't looking to reach the masses with its latest offerings. Pebble doesn't want to be the biggest or richest tech company. It does, however, want to sell the most functional and fashionable watches around, even if it means they'll mostly be targeting the kind of cult followers they garnered during the first Kickstarter campaign.

Speaking of Kickstarter, Pebble returned to the crowdfunding site to fund its second-generation watch. More than 70,000 followers kicked in funding during the campaign, yielding well over $18 million. With that kind of unprecedented online support, Pebble and its innovative watches aren't going away anytime soon. The company might have just over 100 employees, but it has harnessed enthusiasm and goodwill for its brand that will carry it forward in the fight against bigger, richer companies for years to come.

Author's Note: How the Pebble Watch Works

I don't own a smart watch. Not yet, anyway. That's probably because I feel like I already tinker around with technology far too much and that adding yet another device to my life would be another unnecessary distraction. Then again, my smartphone is already a pain in the neck that I wish would just go away. Perhaps with a smart watch I'd spend less time messing with the phone and more time actually getting things done.

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