Touchscreens have taken over smartwatches. But it didn’t have to be this way. For a few short years, Pebble showed a different way forward with a purely hardware-based user interface that reigned supreme, until it — like the rest of the company — was left behind by the rest of the industry.
Virtually every smartwatch today relies on a mixture of touchscreens and hardware buttons — from the Apple Watch and its digital crown to Samsung’s rotating bezels. Even Fitbit’s most basic trackers like the Charge feature touchscreens to supplement physical buttons.
But Pebble held out. From the time it helped pioneer the concept of modern smartwatches in 2013 to its eventual purchase and shutdown in 2016, the Pebble could only ever be controlled by pushing physical buttons. It traded more advanced functionality in the long run for a more user-friendly experience.
It’s not even that the buttons on the Pebble were particularly enjoyable to use, mechanically speaking. The original Kickstarter-famous model’s buttons were plastic-y and mushy, with a tiny center button that could be easily lost between the other two. And while the final Pebble watch — the more polished Pebble Time — would improve on things with clicker buttons and a refined design, it’s hard to laud its buttons as anything beyond “functional.”
Overall, though, the Pebble’s design made it a joy to use. I fondly remember dismissing errant notifications with a quick button press and flipping through songs on a crowded bus or while skiing and wearing bulky gloves. The relatively simple nature of its input method also meant that the Pebble’s software was similarly streamlined, cutting down cumbersome menus in favor of simpler displays.
The Pebble’s idea of how smartwatches should be controlled was rooted in how analog ones worked. You didn’t want to block the dial because the whole point of a watch is to be able to see the time. It’s a fact that makes touchscreen smartwatches an inherent paradox: watches are nicer to wear when they’re smaller, but touchscreens are nicer to use when they’re bigger. But the Pebble sidestepped that entirely by taking after a regular watch and only using case-mounted buttons to control it.
It’s undeniable that those tiny touchscreens aren’t particularly enjoyable to use. Apple spent years trying to figure out how to make text input work on the Apple Watch, simply because the postage stamp-sized display just doesn’t work well for fitting an entire keyboard. And of course, there’s the infamous “nose tap” maneuver for when you desperately need to dismiss a notification.
Pebble’s simple hardware buttons offered new, useful ways to interact with my phone on the go. Conversely, an Apple Watch is just as difficult as a phone to use when my hands are wet or while wearing gloves. The benefit is just a screen that’s slightly easier to see since it’s on my wrist, not in my pocket.
This really gets to the heart of the shift away from buttons: smartwatches have grown in scope. Today’s watches aren’t companion gadgets to smartphones; they’re full-blown miniature smartphones in their own right, complete with cellular data, GPS, and app stores. And while that may be a good thing for smartwatches as viable hardware platforms, it does mean that some things — like exclusively physical buttons or the entire Pebble platform — will inevitably get left behind.