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8 Things Pebble Taught Me About the Apple Watch
As with most Apple announcements, Monday's "Spring Forward" keynote has sparked most of the conversations I've had in the last couple of days. There's ResearchKit to harness millions of iPhone users in medical research programs, there's an all-new MacBook that's incredibly thin and light thanks to the removal of nearly every common computer port, and there's HBO Now, the long-awaited and nearly inevitable unbundling of HBO's premium content from cable television providers.
Now, for the non-geeks in my life (normals? muggles?), the HBO announcement was surprisingly popular. But for everyone else, the forthcoming Apple Watch was the day's biggest news. At this point, it's perhaps the week's top tech headline.
While the Apple Watch was announced back in September, Monday answered the main unanswered questions: When will we be able to buy one? Preorders begin April 10 (with in-store try-outs), devices in-hand on April 24. How long will the battery last? About 18 hours, requiring daily charging. And how expensive will they get, beyond the $350 entry-level model? Very expensive, a mind-boggling $10,000 for the top-tier Apple Watch Edition.
That last figure has fueled most of the debate in the wake of Tim Cook's keynote. It's absolutely a new limb for Apple to climb out on. While Apple has always charged a premium for its hardware over comparable offerings from other manufacturers, the Apple Watch Edition is as much jewelry as it is technology -- a fashion statement that few people can afford to make.
For better or worse, the functionality of the $350 Apple Watch is exactly the same as the $10,000 version. The people who blow $10,000 over a weekend out on the town won't even blink at Apple's price tag. The rest of us, meanwhile, can perhaps appreciate the lesser models a little more, knowing that they have the same guts as the Apple Watch that millionaires are wearing.
The question I'm answering most often, though, is whether a smartwatch makes sense at any price.
Apple is never the first mover in any market. There were dozens of MP3 players before the iPod, dozens of tablets before the iPad, dozens of smartphones before the iPhone. Of course, the arrival of Apple's take on each of these devices ended up re-defining the category for everyone else.
In the case of the Apple Watch, it comes several years after the advent of modern smart watches, a decade after SPOT watches, and thirty years after the Casio Databank. And the key challenge for the Apple Watch, along with its Android Wear-powered cousins, is reclaiming the space on your wrist that the smartphone basically freed up ten years ago. While there are still watch wearers and hardcore watch lovers, they seem as rare as vinyl record collectors.
Why would you put a gadget on your wrist to extend the very gadget that eliminated the need for a watch?
I wondered this myself. So last year, when rumors of an Apple Watch hit a fever pitch, I picked up a Pebble smartwatch. I called it my 'training watch,' and I've been wearing it for over three months. No, it hasn't changed my life. Yes, a smartwatch largely solves first-world problems. I'm just one geek, and my likes and dislikes are quite likely to differ from yours. But here's what the Pebble, priced starting at $99, taught me about what I might expect from Apple's offering.
1. Watches are helpful in telling the time.
It didn't take long to start relying on phones to tell the time rather than watches, so I suppose it follows that it didn't take long for me to get used to looking at my wrist again. Until I started wearing the Pebble, I didn't realize how often I wanted to know what time it was, and how often I was reaching for my phone, or looking at the corner of my computer screen, or ending up in a weird Twilight Zone now and then when there wasn't a clock anywhere in sight.
Of course, this epiphany could have happened with any watch, even a $12 digital watch from the drug store. But people can also spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on watches that just tell the time, too.
2. Notifications aren't everything, but they're an important thing.
When the Pebble came out, followed by Android Wear devices, users crowed about how great it was to get messaging and app notifications on their wrists instead of on their smartphones. I could see the appeal, but I couldn't see how it was significantly better.
Now I know that it is. Sure, I can leave my phone on my desk, or even propped up on my laptop, and see notifications that way... but the wrist is just a perfectly glance-able spot. Heck, anything closer to your face, and you're in Google Glass territory.
More importantly, a smartphone is strapped to your wrist. Notifications don't do much good if you leave your phone at your desk when you go into a meeting, or on the couch when you're cooking in the kitchen. This may seem like a small thing, but if you've ever run across a room in a panic to answer a call that turned out to be a wrong number, you know the kind of panic fragments that a smartwatch can prevent.
3. Five to seven day battery life is nice, but unnecessary.
Apart from price, the biggest advantage the Pebble touts over other smartwatches is that its battery lasts for several days. And one of the biggest criticisms of the Apple Watch is that it only lasts "all day," which Apple defines as 18 hours. Having to charge the Apple Watch every night is described by some as its Achilles' heel.
Even I bragged about the Pebble's multi-day run time, at first. But now I'm charging it every night anyway.
Why? I found that it's easy to forget to charge a gadget that goes several days without charging. Just when you get comfortable and let your guard down, leaving your Pebble on the sink overnight, it dies halfway through the next day. It doesn't help that sometimes the Pebble battery lasts the whole week, while sometimes it burns through it's battery by Wednesday. Even if it was consistent, how easy do you think it is to remember to do something every three days?
I already unpack and plug in several other gadgets each night, so now I just include my Pebble in the same routine and don't worry about it. So I'm not worried about the Apple Watch.
4. It's not hard to pull your phone out, but it's no picnic doing it fifty times a day.
I also used to roll my eyes at smartwatch fans who said that they loved being able to leave their phones in their pockets or purse. How much time and energy could that possibly save? One second? Two calories? Have we gotten that lazy?
But I'll tell you what. It makes a difference. One thing that a smartwatch made painfully clear to me was how often I was checking my phone. A text message here, a reminder there, every beep or vibration used to send me digging out my phone to see what the message was, and two times out of three, it wasn't important. Even once an hour, it added up over a day. On a smartwatch, a notification is checked in an instant, and most of the time it's right back to work.
And we've been down this road before. The entire reason people started wearing watches on their wrist was because it was less trouble than pulling out a pocket watch.
5. Checking your watch is a little less rude than checking your phone.
This one might actually be a wash, but I definitely feel less like a jerk for checking my watch during a meeting or conversation than checking my phone. Using a phone, I feel like I have to explain that I'm taking notes or checking an important email and not browsing Facebook or playing Angry Birds. On the other hand, coworkers and friends alike have told me that checking my watch makes it look like I have someplace else to be.
6. Smartwatches don't do much (so far), and that's a good thing.
The Pebble in particular is refreshingly basic, with a calculator-like LCD screen that can show a handful of lines of text at most. It won't show me Instagram photos, or let me watch videos, or play games that are much more complex than Pong. I do see incoming text messages, basic summaries of incoming emails, reminders, Caller ID information... a distillation of the most important information that I need.
The problem with the all-powerful smartphone is that it's too easy to get distracted by its glorious touch screen and the infinite worlds behind it. One minute you're reading a text message from your boss, the next minute you're scrolling through Facebook. A two second "glance" becomes a ten minute fall down the rabbit hole.
7. Smartwatches are taking time back from smartphones.
The number one unexpected twist of smartwatch living? Even though it was an extension of my smartphone, it actually made me use my smartphone less.
For all of the above reasons, my iPhone now spends more and more of its time in my pocket, or in my backpack. A smartwatch has helped me deliberately separate signal from noise, surfacing important notifications and suppressing distractions. And while I felt this way, I could quantify the change as well: while I used to get home with 20-3o percent of my iPhone battery life remaining, now I'm seeing 40-50 percent.
8. The many other things the Apple Watch does could be great, or not.
I can see spending $100 on a solid, regular watch. I spent $200 to get the metal, rather than plastic, Pebble watch. Having experienced the utility of the Pebble, and having fallen for the beauty of the Apple Watch, $350 doesn't seem like too much of a stretch.
But the Apple Watch isn't the Pebble. The Pebble is a barebones gadget, and does a few things well. The Apple Watch is designed to do a lot of different things -- some of them things no gadget in any class has done before. Even I had to raise an eyebrow when Apple unveiled the watch home screen, with its cluttered cluster of little app bubbles. And now, early hands-on reviews concede that the Apple Watch is not as intuitive as you might expect out of the gate.
It could be amazing. But it could also be a mess.
I'm optimistic that a new product category, and yet another new platform for developers, will yield innovation and creativity that no one had thought to try until it existed. I want everything the Pebble Watch did for me, plus much of what the iPhone did as well.
As an Apple fan and incurable early adopter, I'm willing to go for this ride, but I can see how it's not going to be compelling for most people. (On the other hand, I'm surprised at how many people seem personally offended that the Apple Watch even exists.) If you're not sold on the concept of a smartwatch, you could go the Pebble "training watch" route first.
And if you're curious but just not yet sold on the Apple Watch, the practical and prudent thing to do is wait for the next version, which will inevitably be better and possibly cheaper.
Extra: Here's our quick take on Apple's announcements on the Hawaii News Now Sunrise morning show: