By Michael Fisher | April 18, 2012 12:14 AM
It’s become a fairly common scene: in the dark early-morning hours, riddled with insomnia, I lie in bed in the pool of light emanating from my tablet, and I buy things. eBay, Amazon, the Buy/Sell/Trade forums of geeky tech sites- my credit card information lives in their storefronts, burned into the text fields by an auto-complete engine accustomed to 3am payments. Sometimes I just browse, and sometimes I pull the trigger. Sometimes I’m hunting and pecking through many items, and other times I fixate on just one.
Last night was one of the latter occasions. The media was still abuzz with news of Allerta’s record-breaking Kickstarter fundraising effort, which sought to raise $100,000 and as of this writing has surpassed $3.6 million – with 31 days still to go. As of this morning, 115 of those contributed bucks are mine. The destination of all the dollars? A wrist-worn mobile phone accessory called Pebble. The newest such item from the makers of the inPulse has turned heads with its simple, streamlined design and practical feature set. It has a real chance at nabbing the title of the first widely-adopted smart watch.
Maybe that’s why the usual next-day online-shopping hangover is absent: even with no hands-on exposure, I believe in the thing.
For the uninitiated: the smart watch concept aims to breathe new life into the wristwatch, by making it an extension of the smartphone. Smart watches generally connect via Bluetooth and serve as a kind of peripheral, serving up notifications and offering some degree of remote control. They’ve been around for a little while, and this isn’t the first time I’ve considered pulling the trigger on a device like this. Many a night have I browsed product pages for products like Sony’s SmartWatch, WIMM Labs’ WIMM One, and the I’m Watch: all variations on the wearable smart accessory concept. All of those, though, came with caveats that prevented me from taking the leap: laggy, buggy software; bad battery life; clunky design.
We won’t know until it’s released, of course -my preorder’s estimated ship date is September- but Pebble seems to have solved most of those problems. An e-paper display confines users to monochrome, but offers high contrast and probably has something to do with the watch’s claimed endurance of over seven days between charges. Compatibility with iOS and Android is guaranteed, and the hardware design is smaller and more streamlined than anything I’ve come across before. An open SDK and dedicated app store ensures that the device will evolve over time, spawning new capabilities as developers apply their imaginations to the platform.
So Pebble might end up being to smart watches what the first iPad was to tablet computers: not the first, nor most capable device in its field, but one that catapults the segment into mainstream popularity. But until then, it’s still a prototype version of a very niche product, and like all such products, it needs to justify its existence.
Why Do I Need This?
Smart watches are somewhat polarizing devices. Wristwatches have been extensively utilized in fiction as hosts for advanced technology: Dick Tracy, Star Trek, and Inspector Gadget are but a handful of popular franchises to include wrist-worn communicators in their gadget arsenals. So just as popular culture embraced the novelty of flipping open the first clamshell phones ala Star Trek‘s flip-top communicators, it may quickly warm to the prospect of wrist-bound communications.
But opponents to the concept exist, and almost all seem to base their objections on the fact that the smart watch is a close-range accessory. Using one doesn’t allow an owner to leave his or her phone at home while out on the town; the Bluetooth connection is only good up to about thirty feet. So the phone has to stay in a pocket or a purse, where it could easily be checked anyway. “Why do I need to drop over a hundred dollars on a watch when I can just look at my phone?” goes the question. And it’s entirely legitimate.
To skirt the edge of a fallacy, though: that logic can easily be extended to disavow the usefulness of many accessories and developments that make our mobile lives easier. “Why should anyone buy a Bluetooth headset? Wired ones are cheaper, and provide the same function- better yet, just use the speakerphone! And why’s everyone spending all that money on phones with keyboards? My numeric keypad works just fine for texting which, by the way, is useless, since a phone call is better!” Blah, blah, etc.
That’s an exaggerated view of that kind of thinking, but I’m not a fan of it. A product like a smart watch broadens and enhances the user experience by giving us new ways of interacting with our devices. How is that a bad thing?
A cursory glance at the comment sections of many of the articles discussing Allerta’s Pebble shows a pretty even division of skeptics and fans of the concept. Among the latter group, the potential use cases for a smart watch are never-ending. To paraphrase a few:
If I’m carrying something, I can still see alerts and decide whether to take a call or reply to a text.
My phone usually lives in a holster because of my rough-and-tumble job; taking it off my belt is cumbersome, and a smart watch would reduce the need to do so.
It’s a great way to silence an incoming call faster than fishing around in your pocket/purse, if you’ve forgotten to silence your phone.
This would be handy for staying on top of emails and messages in meetings or in other places where phones on the desk aren’t appropriate.
The applications for running, bicycling, etc. are endless: tracking, speed, remote music control, etc.
Now, I don’t know much about all that running and bicycling and “being active” that the kids are into these days, but the other examples given are very appealing. Instead of leaving your phone face-up on the café table or desk, waiting to pounce on it when a notification comes in, you can leave it in your pocket and check your wrist when it buzzes. If you’re walking between offices or across town, you don’t need to break your stride to fish your phone out when an email arrives. If Pandora starts blaring an annoying song, the press of a wrist button skips to the next track – much simpler than frantically flailing about to get the phone out of a pocket to achieve the same end.
Imperfect, but Irresistible
Are there downsides? Sure. I won’t be able to use Pebble as a Bluetooth speakerphone, severely hampering the Dick Tracy role-playing games I was looking forward to. If I ever get an iPhone again, I won’t be able to receive SMS notifications on the watch -not unless Apple builds MAP profile support into iOS 6 (and if I succumb to the siren song of the Lumia 900, Pebble won’t work at all). I’ll have to charge the device about a hundred times more often than I’ve ever had to change my Timex’s coin cells. And if the product is a success, I’m going to have to upgrade in a year or so when the Pebble 2 drops and the “phone-ification of smart watches” begins.
All the tradeoffs, though, are worth it. We’re finally approaching the age of the unsexily-termed “Personal Area Network,” with wearable communications accessories enhancing our connected experience. Yeah, it sounds a little cyborg-y, and will probably end up ushering in a new era of information overload but if the first step toward that reality looks as good as Pebble, I’m willing to live with it.
Did you pre-order? If not, do you want to? Do you already own one of the competition’s products? Or do you find the notion of smart watches absurd, offensive, and inhuman? Share your thoughts in the comments below.