When good smartwatches go bad; the story of my Pebble RMA

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(Updated to include Pebble’s official comments at bottom and a more precise timeline of events.)

I’m a watch guy… okay, I’m a smartwatch guy. From calculator watches to Microsoft SPOT, and finally now with the Pebble smartwatch, if you find me out in public, check my wrist — you’re all but guaranteed that I’ll be wearing some kind of technology on it.

Before I found my current smart watch I went through quite a few Bluetooth watches. None of them did what I wanted. Then I was pointed to a Kickstarter campaign: an e-paper smart watch with real potential. Just two hours after its crowd-funding campaign launched, Pebble had already surpassed its $100,000 goal. In less than a week Pebble had become the most funded project in the history of Kickstarter. When the funding window closed on May 18, 2012, Pebble had reached over $10.25 million pledged by almost 69,000 backers.

Then the waiting began

Original ship estimates were missed, reportedly so the company could focus on increasing its production capacity. Finally watches started shipping. First to developers and then to backers in the order they placed their pledges — unless you wanted a color other than black, then you had to wait even longer.

Eventually I got my watch, stamped proudly with “Kickstarter Edition” across the back. It was great! It did what I needed it to, though not much more. Then the screen started getting “wonky”. Dots and other “errata” began to appear on the screen. Generally once I’d navigate to a new screen, the dots — which started growing into “lines” — would go away. Over a short period these anomalies became more common and more disruptive. This was during the time when I was beta testing the 2.0 firmware on the watch and the 2.0 version of the Android app, so I wrote it off as coincidental, or simply bugs that would be fixed in the final release.

UPDATE: Some readers are asking, so to clarify, no, this was not caused by the 2.0 update. The timing was simply coincidental.

They didn’t go away

Pebble RMAAfter I got the final code on both my watch and my Android, the problems persisted. I contacted Pebble Support for assistance. They walked me through some steps to factory reset the watch and flash a completely new ROM to it. When I started up the watch for the first time there were lines everywhere. At least I knew it wasn’t some renegade app or watch face that had been installed that was the cause of the problems.

After completing Pebble’s troubleshooting steps it was determined that my watch had become defective. Not to worry though, that’s what warranties are for. Pebble never once hassled me about whether I was under warranty or not. Instead they opened the RMA process… which was quite unusual.

Pebble RMA

Return Merchandise Authorization (or “Return Materials Authorization” if you prefer) is the process through which a person like me gets approval to send back a defective product for repair or replacement. I should know. I ran the RMA department for a local computer chain for quite a while some years ago. I know all about the RMA processes for vendors like Nvidia, ATI, Intel, Asus, Sony, LG, and so many more. Some are better than others.

Typically the process goes something like this:

  1. Hi, I think my thing is broken.
  2. Yes, I’ll troubleshoot it with you.
  3. You agree that it’s broken, too.
  4. Is the serial number still within warranty? If not, does the proof of purchase indicate that it’s still within warranty? Yes? RMA issued.

The “RMA” generally consists of a number, instructions on where to ship the thing, and how long the turn-around process will likely be. With Pebble it’s different.

After troubleshooting revealed the device to be defective (which took the better part of a week to complete via email) I was asked to submit pictures of the serial number, and several pictures of the defect in action. After that, instead of the RMA being issued right away like most other companies would do, I had to wait — for pretty much what felt like another week.

If you’re keeping track, that’s a fortnight week since I started the process (March 6th) before I got an RMA number and instructions to return the defective unit (March 12th).

That’s where Pebble said they’d send out a replacement as soon as notification of shipping was received from the U.S. Postal Service. Great! A “cross-ship”! That should save some time!

Only it didn’t

The postal service showed that my Pebble had arrived at its destination in California, but my RMA status still said they were “waiting”. Apparently I misunderstood the RMA process — it wasn’t a “cross-ship” at all. Another week passed (March 12th to March 19th). I gave the folks in the RMA department another couple days. After hearing nothing I took to the Twitter-verse and began poking and prodding, trying to get a response.

Nothing.

Finally, one individual mentioned a person I’d never heard of, asking if I’d contacted them. It turns out that person was the Product Evangelist for Pebble, whom I probably should have known. As soon as the tweet went out with that person’s name included: BOOM! Pebble responded that my issue would be looked into. The next day my replacement shipped. It arrived several days later (March 24th).

pebble-rma-3

Rounding up, that makes three weeks (18 days) from the time I started the process to the time I got my replacement back. That’s far too long — and the replacement doesn’t say “Kickstarter Edition” on the back, which makes me a little bit sad.

The aftermath

I got comments from all kinds of people, most of them slamming Pebble. I, however, did not. I came to the defense of this little company. Why? It makes a great product! I fully support Pebble, and literally put my money where my mouth is when I backed the project. I’m still not disappointed that I did so.

However, two constants seems to ring true: Pebble is slow with delivery and terrible with communication.

Even today, people who were eager to buy the new Pebble Steel are still waiting — some more than 8 weeks after having placed their order. That’s not the problem, after all, Pebble did say 6-8 weeks before it would start shipping. The problem is that it said “6-8 weeks” six to eight weeks ago. The status of current orders still says customers will need to wait six to eight MORE weeks. Of course that’s not what it means, but that’s what it says… and it’s already beyond eight weeks, and people are getting frustrated.

In an era where you can track a package literally to your doorstep, a perceived four month window is ridiculous. Pebble has got to iron out its communications and vastly increase its time from order to delivery — otherwise people will give up and take their dollars elsewhere, even if Pebble may be the best product suited for their purposes.

 

Update

Pebble has responded with an official comment on Joe’s case specifically:

Pebble is committed to helping all customers who reach out to our support channels with questions and requests for assistance as speedily as possible. While most of our RMA process is automated, some aspects of vetting and verifying warranty replacement claims are reviewed by live support staff on business days, Monday to Friday.

After reviewing the case history for Mr. Levi’s support request, we can confirm it took 18 total days (6 March) from initial support request to final delivery (24 March) of his replacement Pebble, and 13 business days. We’ll keep working to improve turnaround times, and thank Mr. Levi for his patience in getting his replacement Pebble delivered.

While we don’t publicly share internal customer records, Mr. Levi is welcome to contact us if he would like to personally see the internal records we have of our most recent support interaction with him. We thank him for being an active member of the Pebble community!

 

… and Pebble Steel availability:

“Pebble Steel demand has been off the charts since we started taking orders in January. We’ve been shipping watches for the last two months, and we’re working hard to get them on wrists as quickly as possible. To speed up delivery, we’re continuously refining our manufacturing process and streamlining production. Wait times will continue to shorten. We appreciate our customers’ patience and support and will remain in direct contact with them regarding the status of their orders.”

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy".By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video.Read more about Joe Levi here.