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CES 2013: Pebble watch looks like one stone that’s on a roll

Pebble watch

Pebble watch

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Updated: January 11, 2013 7:30AM

Many friends of mine attend CES every year. Their messages to me over the course of seven days follow a predictable arc. “Don’t you wish you were here?” they say, after they’ve spotted their first Amazing Thing. By the time they return home, and every moment of a 14-hour workday is devoted to either catching up on missed work or examining tissues to see if what they’ve just sneezed out or coughed up contains anything alarming, this will have transitioned to “I wish I were dead.”

Ah, my little Mars Rovers. Sent at great expense into a hostile, life-pummeling environment, sending back data that I can then analyze in safety and comfort and with a stimulating beverage at the ready.

My correspondence with the gang on Wednesday was dominated by a single product, which I hereby designate as CES 2013’s Biggest Generator Of Genuine, Sarcasm-Busting Glee Among Tech Pundits And Analysts: the Pebble E-Paper Watch.

Pebble caused a huge splash early last year, when the device appeared on Kickstarter and was fairly successful; on the very last day of the fund-raising campaign, they managed to raise only just slightly more than 100 times the $100,000 its makers were seeking.

Cool. The campaign’s overwhelming success definitely illustrated the pent-up demand for a wristwatch that’s intimately connected to the phone in one’s pocket. But it was a Kickstarter project. Who could guess when the thing would ship? Who knew if the maker could actually deliver all of the features they’d promised? And who could say if this product would actually be anything more than a $149 novelty? Pebble is by no means the first watch of this kind.

Well, after a charming press conference in which Pebble’s founder and designer Eric Migicovsky needed to apologize for having blue skin in the live feed but which otherwise was pitch-perfect, we know the answers to two of those questions. Pebbles will begin shipping out to tens of thousands of Kickstarter backers on Jan. 23. The next batch from their 15,000-per-week production run will go to folks who pre-ordered it from The very first watches will deliver every promised feature and then some.

The last question is still up in the air. But boy, does Pebble look promising. It was such a good demo that when it was time to write a formal article about it, the pundits who (like me) were watching the live feed would be inspired to describe Migicovsky’s skin tone as “reminiscent of a mighty and proud Na’vi warrior” instead of “Smurf-like.”

The central strength of this watch — as introduced in their Kickstarter video and emphatically underscored during Migicovsky’s presentation — is the concept of the smartwatch as a blank canvas. It’s not really designed to replace any of the functions of the iOS or Android phone in your pocket. Instead, Pebble gives your phone an extra screen, an extra vibration emitter and an extra set of buttons, and allows it to inform and assist you even when it’s tucked inside a pocket. An app on your phone communicates with the watch and sends it notifications (texts, caller ID info, email, and even system-level notifications from the apps on your phone and from Pebble-enabled web apps). Through Pebble’s few, simple buttons, you can dump calls to voicemail, control your music player, and scroll through the headers of recent messages.

Aside: I can’t move forward until I note this intriguing new wrinkle in our personal Chain of Digital Command.

My notebook or iPad allows me leave the office when all I need to do is work on a couple of things today. My iPhone lets me leave my notebook in my bag when I’m riding the subway and I just want to jot down a quick note or send off an email. And now a Pebble watch allows me to leave my iPhone in my pocket when I just want to verify that it’s OK to live my life as I choose to live it at this particular moment, and there’s nothing going on in the world that can’t wait until I’ve finished my constitutional.

The next step is obvious: a smooth, round, reassuring stone. Inside, there’s a vibration motor, but no other outputs or inputs. A dead-simple app on my phone allows me to define the one and only one super-critical emergency circumstance under which this rock is allowed to buzz. So long as the stone is still and silent inside my pocket, I can continue sitting here on the beach, listening to the ocean and the wind, without the slightest concern that maybe I ought to check in with the grid and see what’s what, just in case.

It’s shaped like a stone because reaching into a pocket and feeling a small, smooth river rock is calming and reassuring. And ultimately, the goal is to attain such a serene and humble state of Let It Be that you eventually hurl it into the water, watching it skip and then sink to the bottom, where it hasn’t the slightest chance of interrupting your enjoyment of the ocean and the wind.

It’s an awesome idea for a Kickstarter project. The only hangup is that there’s already a gadget called “Pebble” and the only smaller-sized rock word I can think of as a product name is “gravel,” which hardly conveys an image of peace and serenity. Perhaps I should launch a Kickstarter to fund the research fees into a product name for my future Kickstarter. Is that even legal? Third Kickstarter to define the legal liabilities of the second Kickstarter?

I seem to have discovered a new economic concept that I shall term “Fractal funding.” End of aside.

The CES presentation included a super-cool demonstration of Pebble’s use as an action for the If This Then That web service. ITTT is a “glue” for dozens of different web services and Internet-enabled things. Migicovsky assembled an ITTT recipe that sent an alert to the Pebble whenever the Weather Service forecast snow for Las Vegas. But what if you’re such a fan of Dick Cavett’s sporadic New York Times online essays that you want to your watch to alert you the instant a new one is published? This sensible desire can be fulfilled with just a few clicks.

Realistically, perhaps you’d really rather have it buzz when your college-age daughter posts a photo to Facebook tagged “drunk.” The point is that it’s all up to you.

The Pebble watch is so exciting in part because the company seems to be defining its role in the Pebble community as “enablers” instead of as “wish-fulfillers.” Expanding the features of the Pebble isn’t limited by the company’s resources; it’s limited by the desire and interest of the community.

Most of the company’s immediate efforts with Pebble 1.0 are invested toward making sure Pebble will still be a useful thing even if North Korean spies were to kidnap their entire engineering team and force them to build watches solely for Kim Jong-un from a secret lab above the 38th Parallel. Most of Pebble’s future efforts are dedicated toward releasing a developer kit that will allow anyone to write native apps for the watch. As sort of a test of this project, the company will soon release a toolkit for the creation of custom watch designs.

The watch hardware itself is quite neat. Pebble is built around a 144x168 pixel black-and-white LCD. The e-paper technology means that it’ll be perfectly readable even in bright sunlight. Developers will have quite a playground of sensors and hardware features to exploit, too. Pebble 1.0 has a Bluetooth 4.0 radio, a three-axis accelerometer, a digital compass and an ambient light sensor. It’s water-resistant (you can even swim with it) and it’ll run for a full week on one charge. It works with just about any iPhone or Android phone on the market.

Let’s drift back down to earth. Who could fit a Pebble into their lifestyles, outside of that curious but useful fork of the human genomic code project known as “geeks”?

(Oh, shush. My blood type is “nerd-positive.” I can say such things.)

Pebble has some fundamental problems. On a man’s wrist, it’s a big, attention-getting watch. On a woman’s wrist, it’s a bracelet; that’s fine if you’re cosplaying as Wonder Woman (just have your costume maker install a pair of standard 22mm watchband posts onto your Amazonian bracer) but otherwise? Quite problematic. The e-paper display draws little power, but even so, Pebble needs to be charged once a week. As much as I enjoyed wearing my iPod Nano as a watch, this was the dealbreaker. I’d forget, and then for that whole day I wouldn’t have a wristwatch.

The average consumer will either instinctively like the idea of a smartphone-connected watch or they won’t. If they’re in the second category, can they be trained to integrate “check my wrist to receive messages” into their core behavioral programming?

And I hate to be the one who says this, but: Apple can punch several holes in Pebble’s boat instantly by releasing a watch with even half of the Pebble’s functions. A smartwatch does seem like a natural extension for iOS. It serves entertainment content, it’s a natural fit for exercise apps, it makes many other Apple products more valuable, and it clicks right into Apple’s affection for making technology more accessible and adaptable.

I don’t think Apple will make a smartwatch, though. If they were even vaguely interested in such a product, wouldn’t they have at least held on to the sixth-generation iPod Nano’s wristwatch-style design?

Well. Fingers crossed on all of those things. I’m looking forward to receiving a Pebble for review.

Pebble, and the excitement that the company’s CES press conference generated, demonstrates one of the anachronisms of the Consumer Electronics Show. A small startup has no shortage of resources for attracting funding, forging partnerships and building an audience. Before Pebble’s staff had booked their flights to Las Vegas, they’d already done $10 million worth of business. They don’t actually need CES, do they?

Shows are helpful because they put so many live bodies in the same place. You can meet with the press and prospective partners for the cost of a cab fare or a coffee. So CES will always be valuable.

Still, the second decade of the 21st century presents new opportunities for startups. The Pebble watch doesn’t need to become a successful product on the same level as the iPhone. I’m reasonably sure the company would be pleased to move 5 million devices in one weekend (that is, until they were left with the problem of how to manufacture and ship them all before the lawsuits commenced). But Pebble can be successful the same way that Jonathan Coulton or the makers of any of a number of successful Kickstarter-backed games and web comics succeed. A community of 100,000 people who are absolutely bonkers-in-love with a product can make it just as profitable as a million people who only like the device.

Judging by the reaction to Wednesday’s news, I’d say Pebble has a Bonkers audience. Unless the company screws up the 1.0 release, they’ll have enough excitement and goodwill to do this again, and better...and hopefully to an even larger audience of consumers.

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