Jonathan Alland only bought his first Pebble smartwatch after the company stopped making them.
In late 2016, Pebble had sold its assets to Fitbit and was planning to shut down its services, having failed to establish itself against smartwatches from Apple and other tech giants. As retailers started clearing out their inventory of soon-to-be-dead products, Alland, a product manager for a web design agency in New York, picked up a Pebble Time for about $60.
A few years later, Alland is more than just a happy Pebble user. He's become part of a community that's still improving Pebble long after the company behind it has gone away. His RSS feed reader app is the first new release on the Pebble App Store since it officially closed last year, and he's a regular on both the Pebble subreddit and the Discord server for Rebble, a collective of developers that have been keeping the platform alive.
None of this support had much material value to Pebble Technology Corporation, whose assets Fitbit acquired for a mere $23 million. Still, the community that Pebble left behind is invaluable in its own way, creating a space for hackers and tech enthusiasts to build upon the cheap wearable hardware that they still love using.
“Pebble is a very unique product even now, which I think is a big reason why there's this community of people keeping it running,” Alland said.
Pebble's lasting appeal
When you ask current Pebble users what they like most about their smartwatches, chances are they'll point to the utilitarian stuff: Instead of a full-color touchscreen like the Apple Watch, Pebble watches have low-power e-paper displays that always stay on and can run for upwards of a week on a single charge. And instead of a touchscreen or rotating crown, Pebble watches operate through physical buttons on their sides. Even as Pebble's hardware evolved from its original Kickstarter-funded version, with slimmer designs, color screens, and classier "Steel" variants, it never moved beyond e-paper display tech and push-button controls.
Raymond Forte, a registered nurse who works as a medic in Trenton, N.J., said Pebble's low-tech approach is essential as he works 18 hour ambulance shifts. The watch provides active 911 notifications in an unobtrusive way, lets him reply to crew and dispatcher texts by voice, and allows him to glance at directions in the NavMe app while driving.
“It's inconspicuously flat so people don't wonder about it, and it's got a battery that can make it two or three whole shifts without charging,” Forte said. “Nothing from Android Wear or iOS can match that.”
Hardware specs don't tell the whole story, though. Look through the Pebble subreddit, and you'll find people showing off their cool watch faces and hardware mods, trading software tips, and bragging about their latest second-hand Pebble purchases. When I posted in the subreddit earlier this month, looking for people to talk about why they still use Pebble, I was overwhelmed by the number of emails and private messages coming from users eager to share their experiences.
It's hard to believe all this activity would still exist, nearly three years after the company's demise, just because of a low-power display and physical buttons.
As a longtime Pebble owner myself, I suspect a less tangible factor at work: No other smartwatches are as joyful to use. The software is filled with fun little flourishes—my kids always enjoy seeing the sneaking mouse animation that pops up when you enable "Quiet Time" for notifications—and if you're unsatisfied with the thousands of watch faces that people have created, you can easily make one yourself. Even the low-tech display contributes in some way to Pebble's geeky charm, and in its afterlife, wearing one almost seem like a badge of honor.
“I really do like this little smartwatch,” Alland said. “It's very hackable, and it feels very personal and customizable to add stuff to your wrist that's so close to you.”
Pebble itself also deserves credit for this cultivating this enthusiasm through its third-party developers. Instead of keeping them at arm’s length, the company made a point of embracing what they’d created.
In 2013, for instance, a Pebble user named Katharine Berry was unsatisfied with Pebble's own software developer kit, so she created her own web-based developer environment called CloudPebble as an alternative. Instead of shutting it down, Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky was so impressed that he hired Berry and eventually put her in charge of the company's developer tooling, while also maintaining CloudPebble as an open-source tool. Pebble also allowed hackers to modify and run their own firmware, whose features it gradually integrated into the main product. And when one developer created an online watchface generator for people with no coding skills, Pebble created a section of its store to showcase users' creations.
“The community that Pebble built was very intentional,” said Joshua Wise, a hardware and software design consultant who now does work for Rebble as a side project. “Pebble very intentionally created this space for people who loved their devices.”
Rise of the Rebbles
Those community-building efforts are now paying dividends as Pebble's biggest proponents help keep the platform alive.
After Pebble sold its assets to Fitbit, Katharine Berry took a job at Intel, but she still had access to CloudPebble's Twitter account. Fitbit was planning to shut down Pebble’s web services in June 30, meaning that users wouldn’t be able to log into their accounts, access the Pebble App Store, or check the weather on their watches. With the shutdown looming in early 2018, Berry put out a message on CloudPebble’s Twitter account, asking if people might chip in to keep the service running.
That message, Berry said, was widely misinterpreted as an offer to preserve not just the CloudPebble developer environment, but all of Pebble's online services, including account creation, the app store, weather forecasts, and voice dictation. Her post received dozens of retweets and nearly 200 likes, its mentions filled with users asking where to send their money.
“At that point, I didn't want to say, ‘That's not what I meant,’” Berry said.
Meanwhile, a group of Pebble fans had been trying to figure out how to save the smartwatch platform on their own. One former third-party developer, who uses the alias "ishotjr," had registered a domain at Rebble.io in late 2016, and had announced vague plans to keep the platform alive under the Rebble name. The ultimate goal was build alternative firmware that preserved the Pebble experience but didn't rely on Fitbit's good graces to keep functioning.
Still, the group hadn't made much progress over the following year, so Berry aligned herself with Rebble and devised another plan: Instead of replacing Pebble's firmware outright, she would build an alternative service layer called Rebble Web Services, allowing users create an account, download apps from the Pebble App Store, and optionally pay for voice dictation and weather app support.
It's unclear whether Berry would've found time to build this service before Fitbit pulled the plug on Pebble's built-in connectivity features, but in the spring of 2018, she was laid off by Intel, which had canceled the smart glasses project she was working on. Berry quickly found work at Google, where she's still employed today, but she had about three weeks in between jobs to make Rebble Web Services a reality.
“My original motivation was simply that I didn't want to see this thing that I had worked on for three or four years die, and I didn't want everyone who was still using it to be unhappy,” Berry said. “Later on, when it came to me implementing it, my primary motivation was, I had set out to do something and didn't want to let everyone down.”
Pebble's community has even gotten a hand from former Pebble employees inside Fitbit, according to Berry and other members of Rebble. Although Fitbit originally planned to take down Pebble's web services at the end of 2017, it later delayed the shutdown until June 30, giving the community more time to devise a backup plan. And when the Pebble app disappeared from the iOS App Store in August, apparently because no one paid Apple's $100 per year developer fee, ex-Pebblers inside Fitbit successfully pushed to restore it. Fitbit did not respond to requests for comment.
“It's probably a combination of there still being people at Fitbit who care because they worked for Pebble, and probably PR,” Berry said. “I think they lose nothing by helping us, especially since the employees doing so are mostly doing it in their spare time.”
Pebble's path forward
With Rebble Web Services, Pebble users can simply load a web page from Rebble’s website on the phone that’s connected to their watch, log into a new Rebble account, then press a button to switch over from Pebble’s online system. Due to a convenient flaw in the way Pebble was set up, Rebble is able to connect to its own boot server when users switch over, in turn connecting to its own set of online services instead of the ones that Pebble was using.
Rebble Web Services has far exceeded the Rebble team's expectations. As iFixit first reported, more than 177,000 users have connected to the service, and 9,000 of them have subscribed to voice dictation and weather features, which cost $3 per month or $33 per year. With the money that Rebble has brought in, it's even hired Joshua Wise, the hardware and software consultant, to spend about six hours per week on feature development.
The current level of funding should be enough to keep Rebble's services going for several years, but the longer-term plans are murky. Pebble watches weren't made to withstand the test of time, so eventually their batteries, buttons, and screens may need replacing. While Pebble watches—newer ones, especially—are pretty simple to fix, parts aren't always easy to procure, and not everyone wants to go through the trouble of making repairs. According to Wise, the total number of paid Rebble Web Services subscribers is currently at 5,800, and it's on the decline.
“There are a finite number of these Pebbles out there,” Wise says. “The people who have heard about Rebble and are willing to pay basically already have. It's not moving in the good direction, but that's the clock that's running down.”
For now, Rebble continues to chip away at its original plan to build an alternative operating system, which could theoretically run on new watches in the future, but the group acknowledges that it has a lot of work left to do and no clear hardware prospects. Wise has floated the idea of working with Pine64, which is building a $25 Linux-based smartwatch, but even that device is just a side project, and it's unclear if Rebble as a whole is on board with that kind of partnership.
There's also a more fundamental question, brought up by Jonathan Alland, the Pebble RSS app developer, as we talk about Pebble's future: If Rebble does succeed at building its own firmware and running it on new hardware, what's left to tie it back to Pebble?
"If you're replacing both the hardware and software, yes, go do it, I'm all for it, I want something like Pebble to exist,” he says. “But I'm not sure what the relationship to Pebble is at that point,” he says.
To me, though, the common thread is obvious: It's not the idea of an always-on display or push buttons, but the community that continues to use its low-fi smartwatches in weird and creative ways, hanging onto them for as long as possible instead of just moving on to whatever's shiny and new. If Rebble can find a way to carry that spirit forward to in a sustainable way, it will have created something more enduring than a smartwatch.
Wise said he and Rebble will try their best to make that happen.
“I'm going to keep serving the Rebble users that we have, and I'm going to keep working on building something new,” he said. “If that converges, then that's great. If it doesn't converge, that's a darned shame. But I'm in it because it's nice to know that people like it, and I'm going to do what I can for as long as I can.”