Making Time: how Pebble built its next smartwatch

To beat the giants, Pebble puts a platform in its sling


Pebble’s offices are the typical mix of very serious work and casual, laid-back mess that’s endemic to startup culture in Silicon Valley. I’m here to see the company’s next smartwatch, and CEO Eric Migicovsky is eager to show it. But first we’re getting a tour of Pebble’s garage-turned-office, which sprawls across three buildings on a Palo Alto block and houses about 130 employees.

Standing desks commingle with shades, designed to block out the California sun beaming through the building’s windowed roof, while employees tinker away at code and hardware prototypes. There’s an ice cream parlor around the block where Pebble employees can get free lunch and milkshakes by showing their Pebble watches at the checkout. (Migicovsky jokingly calls it “version one of Pebble Pay.”)

So far, things haven’t been all that hard for Pebble; it established itself as an early mover in the nascent smartwatch market thanks to weak competition. But that competition is going to change radically this year: Apple’s Watch is due to hit stores in just over a month and Google is without a doubt working on the next iteration of Android Wear. Two of the biggest software platforms in the world are about to make life very difficult for Migicovsky.

To counter those threats, Pebble is making its most ambitious bet yet. There’s a new watch, sure, but Pebble’s broader ambitions go far beyond that. It’s launching the next Pebble as an entirely new hardware and software platform, a hub that can potentially be the center of a whole ecosystem of devices.

As we finish the tour, we approach Migicovsky's standing desk, placed in the middle of the office. A few feet above it hangs a sign that reads “This is a Bullshit Free Zone." With the Apple Watch around the corner, it needs to be.

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The first part of Pebble’s next move unsurprisingly centers around the new watch. Called Pebble Time, it’s about what you’d expect a third-generation Pebble to be. It's thinner and lighter than Pebble’s earlier watches, and it has a slight curve on the back that hugs your wrist. It retains the four physical buttons from the first two watches, and it uses the same size straps as Pebble’s first watch.

But this watch has a few tricks up its sleeve. For the first time, Pebble’s smartwatch has a color e-paper LCD screen, replacing the black-and-white panels used on the Pebble and Pebble Steel. It’s not the same kind of display you’ll find on an Android Wear watch or the Apple Watch; only 64 colors are available, and it has much less contrast, saturation, and resolution than other screens. It’s more like a Game Boy Color screen than a modern smartphone display. But it uses very little power and is visible in bright daylight, letting Pebble keep the display on all the time without using a lot of battery life. That helps preserve one of Pebble’s strengths over the competition: the company says the Pebble Time can last up to seven days between charges, far longer than other smartwatches.

There’s also a new microphone that, for the first time, allows for limited voice control: replying to incoming messages and recording voice notes. Migicovsky argues that voice control on other platforms can be hit or miss, so Pebble intentionally limited it on its new watch. "We wanted to make sure that we built a system that works," says Migicovsky. (Because Pebble isn’t as deeply integrated into your phone’s system as the Apple Watch or Android Wear, doing anything more would be difficult.) For similar reasons, Pebble Time eschews the more complicated heart rate monitoring and other health tracking systems Android Wear and the Apple Watch support and sticks with a basic motion detector to count your steps.

But while the Time doesn’t really do that much more than Pebble’s earlier watches, Pebble is offering ways for other developers and hardware makers to expand upon its capabilities. Developers will be able to tap into the Bluetooth LE radio inside the watch to trigger various functions in other devices, making the Pebble a kind of hub for your wearables and letting you leave your phone at home more often. Pebble also plans to allow for more hardware integration in the near future in the form of custom wrist straps that plug into a special port on the watch and add functionality like heart rate monitoring. Time is suddenly no longer just another smartwatch in Pebble’s lineup; it’s now a full wearable platform that can potentially integrate with countless other devices in your life — assuming Pebble can get other hardware developers on board.

Time is suddenly not just another watch, it's a full wearable platform

Pebble Time is certainly the nicest watch Pebble has ever created, and it’s the result of over a year of development. The company started working on the Time project months before last year’s Pebble Steel was even announced. Pebble doesn’t expect to compete head to head with the Apple Watch’s design and materials, but it’s also pricing the watch considerably lower than even Apple’s entry level watch. The base model will retail for $199.

pebble time

A hardware platform is nothing without software to control it, and Time is only half of what Pebble’s announcing today. Along with the new watch, Pebble is introducing a completely new operating system with a new interface based on a simple timeline. "We tried a whole bunch of stuff, and then we happened upon the biggest revelation of Pebble: the best interface for interaction on your wrist is actually time," says Migicovsky. He notes that every other watch is based around the concept of time, and a smartwatch should be no different. "Eighty to ninety percent of the things people were doing with Pebble could be displayed more effectively over a timeline."

The new software is a big departure from Pebble’s earlier efforts, in both functionality and design. Unlike the siloed app and watchface paradigm of before, Pebble’s timeline puts all your notifications and apps in a single, scrollable interface. It pulls in data from apps and services and displays them in a chronological order: Move down the timeline, and you might see an upcoming calendar appointment or flight information. Move back, and the timeline can show how many steps you took yesterday or the score of last night’s playoff game. The "present" or default setting of the timeline displays things like stock information, current weather, and, of course, the current time. It’s similar to Google Now’s intelligent, ambient notifications, but not quite as smart. On the other hand, Pebble’s system is more linear and predictable.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the new software is just how polished it looks compared to the older platform, even in the non-functional demos I was shown ahead of the product’s launch. The utilitarian look and feel of Pebble’s older software has been swapped for whimsical and informative animations and transitions. The timeline and app cards take advantage of the Time’s new color display to convey more information than was possible with a black-and-white screen.

Liron Damir, Pebble’s head of design and another former member of the webOS team, says a lot of the software design decisions were informed by the hardware characteristics of the Time itself. The Time’s color e-paper display behaves very similarly to the black-and-white version, and there are choppy, glitchy moments when it switches from one screen to another. "When designing this, we took the [characteristics of e-paper] into consideration and actually pushed further this glitch moment to where it is actually being stretched by animation," says Damir. The pixel art animations are designed to work with the hardware they’re happening on. They’re timed to be short, snappy, and concise, since they have to happen within a screen the size of a postage stamp.

The focus on design makes Pebble feel more grown up than before

This new focus on design (Damir became Pebble’s first head of design when he joined the company last summer) gives Pebble a more grown up appearance than it ever had before. Much of the software on Pebble’s earlier watches felt very home-brewed, including the apps from large partners such as Yelp and Foursquare. The new software looks like something that belongs on your wrist, not something that’s merely tolerated there.

One of the problems that Pebble aimed to solve with this new interface was scalability. The original Pebble software limited users to only eight apps on the watch, which Migicovsky says was intentional to keep the app list from becoming unwieldy on the small display. But with the timeline, apps can plug in data and make themselves known when it’s most relevant to you. Pebble now feels the arbitrary app limit is unnecessary, and sure enough, you can install as many apps as you’d like on the Time.

But if Pebble’s plans go as it hopes, you won’t even have to install apps to make the most of the timeline and your watch. The company is opening up access to the timeline via a web API, so apps and services can dump information into users’ timelines with minimal effort and, importantly, without a native Pebble app or companion app on your smartphone. The developers just have to provide the raw data, such as the time and gate of your upcoming flight, and Pebble’s software will format it in the timeline in a way that makes sense on the watch. At launch, Pebble is partnering with Jawbone, ESPN, Pandora, and The Weather Channel to inject snippets of information into the timeline, and it says more partnerships are on the horizon.

Like the expandable hardware capabilities of the watch itself, this open access for services and websites makes Pebble’s software more of a platform than ever. While Pebble has had apps on its watches for years (and boasts over 6,000 apps and watchfaces in its store), the new software turns the Pebble from a device that runs apps on your wrist to something that can easily integrate into a larger connected ecosystem of devices and services. "Pebble is a wearables company so we designed this to work really well on a smartwatch," says vice president of product Itai Vonshak (an alum of the webOS teams at HP and LG).

Imagine a sleep-tracking device pushing data into the timeline without requiring a specific Pebble app, or a connected car putting reminders in the timeline for its next tune up. These types of features are all hugely dependent on developers taking advantage of them, so Pebble has consciously made it as easy as possible to do so with basic web development tools. Since the new Pebble still uses Bluetooth to connect, you’ll need to have your phone near it for all these new features to work — this new functionality doesn’t change the fact that the Pebble is still an accessory to your Android or iOS phone itself.

Pebble has a unique relationship with its developers, often polling the crowd for new ideas and incorporating them into its flagship products. The company’s office is full of tinkerers constantly trying new things with development boards, whether that’s converting xckd comics into a format that can be read on the watch or making an animated watchface out of the intro to Super Mario Bros. Vonshak notes that it was outside developers that first demonstrated that Pebble’s basic hardware could support complex animations, which the company in turn incorporated throughout the new operating system.

The new software incorporates things Pebble learned from its own third-party developers

Vonshak says the new software will still support all of the existing apps already developed for Pebble’s old system, but they will be accessible through what the company is calling app faces, outside of the timeline itself. Watchfaces will be able to replace the face Pebble uses in the default setting of the timeline, though developers will be encouraged to update them to support the Pebble Time’s color capabilities. Pebble also plans to bring the new software to its older watches, but the company hasn’t said when that will happen.

pebble time

The company is releasing the Time and its new software platform exclusively on Kickstarter today, just like it did with its first watch back in 2012. It’s a strange move for a 130-person company that’s already sold over a million watches and has raised almost $26 million in outside funding, but Migicovsky thinks it’s important to give its most ardent supporters first access to the new device. "We want to take Pebble Time to them first," says Migicovsky.

"This is not just a product launch for us, this is not just a single product," continues Migicovsky. Perhaps more important than offering Pebble to early supporters first, Pebble is using Kickstarter as a marketing strategy, a place where it can post more announcements to counteract the impending Apple Watch PR blitz. "This is the beginning of the next generation of Pebble," Migicovsky says. "We’ve planned an entire month of announcements with new features of this product that you don’t even know yet, as well as some new stuff that we’re going to be showing off."

"We’re there [on Kickstarter] because we wanted to introduce Pebble Time to the people who supported us, the people who were standing by us the last three years, to say, ‘We liked your product so much we’re going to support it and be the community around it,’" says Migicovsky.

Pebble arguably helped to legitimize Kickstarter when it raised over $10 million to product the first Pebble watch, but that was back when the company only had a handful of employees and no track record. Now, Pebble’s products are already in thousands of retail locations across the world, including major stores like Best Buy and Amazon. It appears that the company is using Kickstarter less to "fund" the new watch and more as a way to publicize its plans and make some sales before it’s actually able to ship.

Pebble won’t be able to actually put watches on shelves before Apple does, but it expects to ship devices starting in May. The Time will cost the full $199 when it launches in broader retail channels later this year, but Kickstarter backers will be able to get a watch for as little as $159.

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Back in 2007, there were a lot of smartphone options, but they weren’t yet mainstream products purchased by hundreds of millions of people every year. It didn’t take long for Apple and then Google to radically disrupt the smartphone world, turn them into devices that virtually everyone wanted, and practically stamp every other player out of existence.

That same dynamic is looming for the smartwatch and wearables market, and it’s going to take a lot of hard work, ingenuity, and perhaps a touch of luck for Pebble to avoid becoming the BlackBerry of the smartwatch world. Pebble will not only have to prove that there’s room for a third smartwatch platform, but that its smartwatch is the one that deserves to be there.

"There is no one else in the world that's as focused on building the next generation of computing on wearables than Pebble."

As the sun sets on Pebble’s office, a crew of employees heads over to the ice cream parlor. Not to put too fine of a point on it, the flavor most appropriate for the coming days is Rocky Road. Migicovsky seems keenly aware of the challenges that lie ahead.

"I think it would be a disservice to the world to say there’s only going to be two smartphone operating systems and by definition those are the two smartwatch operating systems as well," argues Migicovsky. "There are years and years ahead of us in improving the technology and building new functionality and building new ways that we can interface between your smartwatch and the rest of your life. There is no one else in the world that’s as focused on building the next generation of computing on wearables than Pebble. That’s why we’re here, this is what we do."

pebble time