When the Pebble smartwatch hit the market earlier this year, it hewed to a "simple is best" philosophy, offering only a limited set of features. But the company also pledged to help others develop their own creative uses for the gadget, and it's now followed through with a more fully fledged set of developer tools and better iOS 7 integration.
The latter should interest iPhone users who want Twitter, Facebook, Skype or other alerts on their Pebble watches with a minimum of fuss. But the new software development kit, or SDK, should pique the interest of Pebble developers, particularly those itching to explore niches such as health monitoring, remote home security, automation and a variety of other futuristic features.
As Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky put it: “We’ve given them access to the sensors.”
See also: The Time Has Come For Smartwatches
Sensors lie at the heart of "cool tech" innovations these days. Want to know what your heart rate is during that run? Flip the lights and TV on as soon as you come through the door? That's the work of sensors, and Pebble has them, including an accelerometer and magnetometer. And that means you may soon be able to monitor or control gadgets around you easily and conveniently, all from a watch strapped to your arm.
Pebble's Kit And Kaboodle
Pebble launched with little more than a basic—dare I say charming?—e-paper display and a handful of features. The device handled alarms, music controls, some watch faces and alerts for email, call and texts from iPhones and Android handsets. Likewise, Pebble's first SDK was also rather minimal, allowing developers to customize watch faces or to nix backlighting or vibrations and not much else.
Subsequent updates, along with a snazzy new sports API, made things a bit more interesting, offering support for two-way Bluetooth communication between the smartwatch and the paired smartphone. And apps like Runkeeper and FreeCaddie joined the party, essentially turning the device into a wearable fitness gadget.
Migicovsky has put his SDK where his mouth is. With the sensors available—including a 3-axis accelerometer with gesture detection—app developers have chance to dig in and dial up the innovation.
See also: A Tale Of Two Fitness Trackers
There's a lot of buzz around sensors—hardware designed to detect changes in things like location, movement, light or temperature, among other things. One of the company's early partners includes iControl, whose technology powers new home-automation services from Time Warner Cable and Comcast Xfinity. The company is working on a Pebble app, says Migicovsky, so customers can see data about their home on their watch and even perform some basic tasks.
Imagine Pebble sensors working with Apple's geo-fencing API, so your home can sense when you've arrived and unlock your garage or front door, play your favorite playlist when you shake your arm, or automatically shut down your WiFi network when you've left the house.
In the context of a Pebblefied world, where things like smartphone GPS can join forces with arm gestures, a flick of a wrist can summon cool suggestions of activities to do in the area. Why not? That's a feature Yelp is working on. And it's not alone; others working on Pebble features include Foursquare and GoPro.
"For each of these apps," Migicovsky told me Monday, "there’s a small micro interaction, a small bit of data that can be lifted from the smartphone and used by Pebble."
Pebble also flipped the switch on Bluetooth Low Energy, adding that to its older, more stable Bluetooth connection profile. That means new features have better odds of not sucking batteries dry.
iPhone Users Get Good Vibrations—Lots Of Them
Of course, it will take time for new apps and Pebble-compatible features to arrive. Meanwhile, some customers can take heart in the new iOS notifications Pebble has just enabled.
Android users had more control over vibration alerts than iPhone users, either via the official Pebble app or third-party programs like Pebble Notifier. But now Pebble has just leveled the field. Similar to the jailbroken app BTNotificationEnabler, the new iOS Pebble app update "finally supports the full suite of notifications that show up in the top part of the phone," Migicovsky says.
By taking advantage of the Apple Notification Center Service (ANCS)—which allows Bluetooth accessories to access those notifications—Pebble is giving people the opportunity to field an array of alerts on their Pebbles, from social networks to game apps and more.
The updated Pebble app has already been submitted to the App Store, so users will be able to get their hands on it as soon as Apple approves it. Once downloaded and launched, it will automatically update the smartwatch over the air.
[Update November 11: The iOS app is now live and available in the App Store.]
I got an early peek at the beta version, and the fuller range of alerts made me smile. It's been extremely useful not having to dig out my iPhone 5S whenever I got a notification. The downside: The stream of Tweets, Facebook messages, chats and other alerts set my arm on near-constant jitter mode. This, however, wasn't a tech fail; it was a user fail. I needed to tweak my settings to reduce the list of apps that shook my wrist.
Assuming that the release version works the same way as the beta version, it's a pretty easy process: To get Pebble alerts for specific apps, you just enable them one by one in the Notifications Center and make sure they're set to Banner alert style. Then go to the Bluetooth setting. If the Pebble's paired, you'll see it in the list. Select it, and then switch on the "Show Notifications" toggle on the next screen.
Beyond that, there have still been some issues. Sometimes email notifications would appear repeatedly. Or the Bluetooth connection would drop out and, upon connecting again, would dump an avalanche of previous items into the pipeline of alerts again. Pebble is aware of these bugs and already has some fixes in test mode, a company rep told me.
If Pebble can solve the pairing problems and make the experience more stable for those 190,000 Pebble owners—and if the SDK is sufficient to keep the developer community engaged and inspired—then Migicovsky and company might actually be on to something.
Pebble is also upping its game in customer service. With its manufacturing woes in the rearview mirror, it's promising to put smartwatches in people's hands quickly, with free priority shipping (5 to 7 days) worldwide for a limited time.
Combined, these moves all suggest that Pebble could have a lot more potential than it first appeared. “Pebble can be a platform that other people can build apps and even companies off of,” Migicovsky insists. Time—ahem—will tell.