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Pebble Is Dead - What Now?

2016-12-09 4 min read Hardware marco

The last we all heard of Pebble, they had funded a successful KickStarter campaign to get the new version of their smartwatches out. They had the Pebble 2, Pebble Time 2, Pebble Round 2 in the pipeline. I was waiting for my Pebble Time 2 to arrive any second – the Pebble 2 had already been shipped.

Yesterday, I received not one but three updates. As Pebble put it, “due to various factors […] Pebble is no longer able to operate as an independent entity.” So they shut down operations. While Pebble gear is still available on Amazon and other sites, Pebble itself is not selling any more inventory, nor updating their products. Software is not going to be updated, either, and after a while the Pebble app is going to die, when the first OS incompatibility hits, best guess about a year from now.

What happened? Fitbit apparently agreed to buy out the developers, and not much else. Refunds are being processed: they were supposed to be done by March of 2017, but now they are saying December 16. That probably means a cash infusion from Fitbit before the deal can get fully consummated.

I cannot tell from the release what the driving force behind this decision was. Likely culprits:

  • The smartwatch segment is growing much more slowly than expected; even Apple admits it sells only about 2 million units a quarter, which completely crimped the market
  • There may have been problems developing the new models; in particular, the timing of the pledges required Pebble to get shipped units out by the end of the year. Maybe it was the impending deadline and the realization there were problems with the new devices that could not be addressed in a reasonable amount of time
  • As usual in the USA, a lawsuit may have prompted this; wearable devices have a way of causing skin rashes and similar ailments, and the Pebble is definitely not immune to that. Heck, even I developed more than one wrist rash after not taking off the watch for more than a day. This might explain why the blog article is adamant about the fact that only “certain assets” of Pebble were bought, pre-empting a lawsuit against the acquirer
  • There may have been some personal event going on, like a dissatisfied CEO or the like.

In the end, this decision is maddening, because Pebble was by far the best smartwatch out there. In fact, if there is one thing I wished they did, it’s them open-sourcing everything (including the firmware) so that someone else can give it a go.

For now, I guess I only have one option: Buy more Pebbles before they run out of them! Maybe there is going to be a fire sale, who knows.

For those that haven’t been following what was so special about Pebble: they had a completely different approach than most other smartwatches, making them far superior. For one, the watches had an e-ink screen that allowed the watch to last for almost a week without recharging. Then, the development tools and the marketplace were open. Anyone could download the compiler and build cool watchfaces and apps, and there was a thriving market.

It wasn’t all good, of course. The notification area was a giant mess, with the notifications clouding the watch until you dismissed them, and with the display of the notification being preoccupied with graphics more than information.

Also, Pebble seemed to push in a lot of different directions without a clear idea of where things were going. You could develop in the cloud or at home, in C of Javascript or a combination, and each device had its own display size and capabilities that you had to work around. Since the company was small, it might have been smarter to focus. I guess focus is not fun when you are a startup.

A real shame, and the smartwatch market will lose its only credible entry. Frankly, after I used the Apple Watch for the first time, I couldn’t see it as anything but a fashion statement, as it was largely useless. The Pebble, on the other hand, was intensely useful: I had my Google Authenticator tokens on it, used the barcode generator for my gym tag scanning, and the workout timer to tell me how many reps and what timing I needed. I got turn-by-turn directions, found the nearest good restaurants on Yelp, controlled the music player, all without having to touch the phone.

Pebble, you will be sorely missed – and I sure hope someone will pick up where you left. Although it doesn’t appear to be Fitbit, the company that bought the assets.