The race to build the modern smartwatch started in earnest thanks to two major events in the past two years: Pebble’s über-successful run on Kickstarter in early 2012, and a steady drumbeat of reports in 2013 about Apple’s alleged plans to build its own iWatch (or whatever the company decides to call it, should it in fact exist).
With low-energy Bluetooth, Pebble made it easy to view important notifications, check the weather, or change the music you’re listening to without ever needing to reach for your smartphone. It managed to make digital watches look less nerdy but also far more user-friendly and functional, especially as a simple but helpful extension to the diverse apps on your smartphone.
Pebble made it easy to understand the value of a smartwatch, but the New York Times lit a fire under every major tech company in February 2013 when Nick Bilton reported on Apple’s nascent smartwatch efforts, likening its possible “next big thing” to something Dick Tracy or James Bond would use: “A watch that double[s] as a computer, two-way radio, mapping device or television.”
Suddenly everyone wanted to crack the smartwatch code before Apple could get its first iteration iWatch out the door. So far, however, Pebble remains in the forefront of this nascent market in many ways, having launched its first “appstore” in January and unveiling its premium Pebble Steel smartwatch, which is currently in limited supply.
Unfortunately for Pebble, the company’s dominance in the smartwatch space is almost sure to be short-lived. Companies with deeper pockets than Pebble, including device makers like Samsung and chipmakers such as Qualcomm, are beginning to get the hang of their own early-generation products. Meanwhile, Google recently introduced its Android SDK for wearables, which will help power smartwatch entrants from LG, Motorola and others.
And then there’s Apple, which seems likely to finally unveil its own smartwatch later this year—probably in time for the all-important holiday push. (Among the bits and pieces of evidence here are the company’s hiringspree for smartwatch makers and designers last year, as well as the recent 9to5Mac scoop outlining the new Healthbook app in iOS 8, which would ideally provide important health information by tracking data from one’s pulse.)
Many believe Apple’s iWatch will marry the looks of a luxury wristwatch with the powerful sensors found in today’s fitness wristbands, and, of course, familiar elements from the iPhone and iPad shrunken down and reconfigured to work from your wrist. Apple is undoubtedly full of its own ideas. But it would also benefit from looking at the progenitor of the modern smartwatch—or rather, its steely successor—both as inspiration and as a model to surpass.
What Apple Should Borrow From Pebble Steel
- It actually looks like a watch: These days, wristwatches are born and worn for aesthetic purposes above all else; the key for smartwatches is to retain that physical attractiveness while also incorporating new technologies that exponentially increase the wristband’s power. The Pebble Steel is significantly smarter than a normal watch, but its low profile is excellent for blending into one’s environment. For its own smartwatch, Apple will similarly want to pursue a design that’s stylish but not gaudy, in the same way the iPhone is modern and beautiful without being ostentatious.
- Visibility in all light: Whether in the light or in the dark, the display on the Pebble Steel is easy to view at all times. That’s because the Pebble Steel features a backlit e-paper display, which means you can read its screen even in direct sunlight. Apple’s current iOS devices are no bueno in the sunlight, but it would make more sense to consider more effective polarization methods to make the iWatch visible anywhere.
- Notifications: This is the main reason people want smartwatches—to see who’s messaging them or what appointment is coming up without having to pull a phone from their pocket for every vibration. The Pebble Steel offers iPhone or Android smartphone owners a simple way to see incoming texts, phone calls and Facebook activities with a relatively discreet glance at their wrist. Notifications in Pebble Steel are simple “cards” with text; Apple will likely pursue a similarly simple notification system for the iWatch, but with a more colorful palette. It wouldn’t be surprising for iWatch notifications to resemble those in iOS 7, with the use of semi-transparent layers, simple iconography and playful animations.
- Battery life: If Apple can make its iWatch battery last roughly as long as Pebble Steel, most customers ought to be satisfied. I’ve been using the Pebble Steel for a while, and in my experience it runs low on battery roughly every 5-7 days. Even better, fully charging the device via my laptop takes less than an hour. Apple products, especially early-generation ones, have tended to suffer from battery-life issues, so this would be an extremely useful rabbit for Apple to pull out of its hat.
How Apple Can Improve Upon Pebble Steel’s Model
- Fewer buttons: The Pebble Steel features four buttons—one on the left side above the charging port and three on the right side to go up, down and select. It’s relatively intuitive, but pressing any button requires at least two fingers, and that’s not always convenient. Apple could fit the iWatch with two buttons, like it does its iOS devices—one for power, the other for “home”—but if the iWatch comes with a touchscreen, most controls and gestures would only need one finger at most, which would be significantly less awkward.
- Improve the screen and interface: The Pebble Steel’s black and white display works in bright sunlight and at night, but colors and some multi-touch capabilities would be a nice touch (literally). At times, it would be nice to provide touchscreen inputs like swiping as opposed to awkwardly pinching the buttons around my wrist when I want to play different music or make notifications go away.
- Appeal to women: Don’t get me wrong, the Pebble Steel is a beautiful smartwatch. But I don’t see it becoming “fashionable” anytime soon. Most smartwatches today come with rectangular watchfaces (the Moto 360 hopes to address this), but more importantly, many smartwatches are thick and bulky. Apple should deal with that front and center.
- Fix the wristband: The Pebble Steel offers two premium wristbands, including leather and two metal styles, brushed stainless steel or black matte. Having a choice in my wristband style is nice, but I still need to visit a jeweler to get my steel wristband properly sized, and that’s a problem. Sure, Pebble is a fledgling company, but forcing customers to make multiple appointments to purchase the device and size the watch properly to one’s wrist seems like too much hassle for customers, and not something Apple would do. Removing pins to accommodate different-sized wrists also seems like an ancient, clunky solution that’s unacceptable in the world of modern technology; I couldn’t imagine Apple’s design team OK’ing an iWatch that didn’t crack this problem on how to accommodate different-sized wrists without needing to visit a jeweler.
- Use the voice: I mentioned earlier that it takes at least two fingers to press one of the four buttons on the Pebble Steel. With a touchscreen, you’d still need to use at least one finger. Sometimes, though, I’d like to be able to use no fingers. Apple’s Siri isn’t voice-activated like Google Now, but for iWatch, perhaps a simple shake of one’s wrist could activate Siri, which would then allow you to ask directions, send texts, schedule appointments, or even tweet without needing to fiddle on your wrist.
- Make it comfortable: Balancing beauty with comfort isn’t easy, but if people use smartwatches as much as they use smartphones, people will be wearing this device a lot. These are the challenges Apple needs to address: Heat, size and shape. As I mentioned earlier, Apple products tend to suffer from battery issues, but complaints of overheating on a smartwatch would be disastrous for the product. So Apple needs to have a battery that’s powerful but doesn’t get too hot on people’s wrists, but also small enough fit on people’s wrists—plus, be shapely and attractive. And yet, after all of those needs, if your watch is painful for your wrist in any way, especially after extended usage, you’re not going to wear it—and that’s not good for you, or Apple.
Given the recent rush of wearables, the big question is whether Apple will add to the smartwatch conversation or simply echo it. Learning more from Pebble Steel—as opposed to the many rival smartwatches from Samsung and Sony that seem like guesses at what an iWatch could and should be—would be a big step toward building a simple wristband product that still has plenty to offer.
Lead image by Madeleine Weiss for ReadWrite; right image by Dave Smith for ReadWrite