Pebble’s announcement that they were shutting down and being partially bought by Fitbit has brought mixed emotions. Pebble’s demise is incredibly sad (I was personally a huge fan of the platform and still have a Pebble watch on my wrist today), but there is an independent developer movement afoot to keep things going! Here’s where things are at!
It began with the following announcement from Pebble:
“due to various factors—Pebble is no longer able to operate as an independent entity. We have made the tough decision to shut down the company and no longer manufacture Pebble devices.” — Eric Migicovsky, CEO and founder of Pebble
Steven Levy reported on Backchannel that Pebble was having difficulties finding funding and hitting their sales targets. It seemed like a lot was going on and things just weren’t playing out as they’d hoped. Pebble laid off 25% of its staff earlier this year and continued to struggle. This led them back to Kickstarter once again (at the time, this was criticised heavily by the tech media as a misuse of Kickstarter by an established company… it turns out, they really needed to go this route for any chance of things working out):
“It was difficult to raise money around the layoffs. That was kind of a non-starter, […] That’s why we did the Kickstarter. After the Kickstarter we tried to raise money and we were unable to.” — Eric Migicovsky (speaking to Steven Levy from Backchannel)
Insiders said to Business Insider’s Steve Kovach that part of the demise is thought to be linked to Apple entering the market:
“Apple’s brand was so strong, recalls one insider, that it sucked up all the oxygen.” — Steve Kovach
Steven Levy says that it “was the company’s willingness to keep Pebble’s developers and users in the game” that made Eric choose Fitbit in the end. The final deal was described by Steven Levy as “an asset sale involving Pebble’s software, firmware, patents, but not the actual hardware or inventory. Pebble is still responsible for its own debts”. Fitbit will reportedly hire about 40 percent of the Pebble workforce.
Just to quench the rumour — Citizen did not try to buy Pebble for $740 million. It’s been a rumour going around a bit! Steve Kovach did a bunch of research and found it’s not true:
“While TechCrunch reported that Citizen considered acquiring Pebble for roughly $740 million in 2015, no deal ever happened. One source directly familiar with Pebble’s acquisition talks said Citizen never discussed buying Pebble, and accused someone of spreading a false rumour to TechCrunch.”
For existing Pebble owners, do not fear! Your Pebble will continue to work throughout 2017 at least:
“Fitbit is going out of its way to keep Pebble software and services running through 2017” — Jon Barlow
In particular, Jon says that “no one on this freshly-formed team seeks to brick Pebble watches in active service. The Pebble SDK, CloudPebble, Timeline APIs, firmware availability, mobile apps, developer portal, and Pebble appstore are all elements of the Pebble ecosystem that will remain in service at this time.”
The main areas which aren’t quite as certain, are those that look to other cloud services in order to work. Jon points out that they are “currently evaluating Pebble features dependent on third-party services—dictation, messaging, weather, etc.—to establish if and for how long these experiences can continue on”. Here’s hoping they’ll find a way to keep these going. Dictation uses Nuance and weather uses The Weather Channel, both services that I assume someone would need to pay for in order for them to continue.
Not everyone is turning from Pebble, Antony Leather wrote a great post for Forbes entitled “Pebble’s Closure Is Gutting, But I Just Ordered One Anyway“. He’ll be happily using his Pebble with his already purchased Time Dock (we mention them more below!).
Gadgetbridge might also help people who want to distance themselves from the Pebble service but still use their Pebble watch on Android. It is “an Android (4.4+) application which will allow you to use your Pebble or Mi Band without the vendor’s closed source application and without the need to create an account and transmit any of your data to the vendor’s servers”.
The sad thing on my end is that there’ll be no Pebble Core. I was really looking forward to that one — an Amazon Alexa voice assistant powered, small screen-less device with GPS and Spotify. Le sigh. Looking for a future device to build? I bet someone else will create something similar (I hope they do…).
Eric’s mention above about their “willingness to keep Pebble’s developers and users in the game” along with this line in the Fitbit announcement gives me a bit of hope — “The acquisition will also accelerate the development of customized solutions and third party applications for Fitbit Group Health customers and partners, including researchers, employers and providers.”
Is it possible that they’ll bring across some of Pebble’s development tools and ecosystem to the Fitbit platform? I sure hope so! That’d be a surefire way to bring a lot of third-party apps to the Fitbit platform and keep Pebble development alive, if they provide a way to migrate apps across. The level of documentation and the huge developer community that’s out there is one that’s surely valuable for Fitbit to maintain and move across? Jon Barlow, an ex-Pebbler who is now at Fitbit, is encouraging Pebble developers to continue to show their enthusiasm to show how valuable it really is,
“I want the Pebble community to know just how much impact they can have on what’s to come. Continuing to engage with us and sharing your passion for what makes Pebble special to you will go a long way towards showing our Fitbit friends how valuable your enthusiasm can be.” — Jon Barlow
Even without the support of Fitbit, the Pebble developer community have already reverse engineered the Pebble appstore and one developer named Ester Sanchez successfully paired a Pebble with her own native iOS app. A large chunk of that has happened just within the last two weeks. It’s incredible! Here’s a look at Ester’s iOS pairing:
These efforts are banding together at Rebble, “the aim of Rebble is to bring the many disparate efforts under a single banner, concentrating energy and enthusiasm to maximize the likelihood of continuance and resurgence of Pebble as a platform.” Just hanging out in the Pebble Dev Discord chat server is inspiring! There is a community of developers who truly are working to keep it alive. As the Rebble blog points out,
“There are a vast quantity of extremely talented individuals ready to commit their time and expertise to extending the longevity of our wrist-based companion, from app distribution to hardware reverse-engineering, from archival to revival, from community to companion apps.” — Rebble Blog
They’ve already got a Wiki that’s building up to replace the Pebble documentation.
Pebble is very special to many developers out there. One developer who is pretty much leading the charge with Rebble and the whole movement is ishotjr who said this recently on his blog:
“Over the past few years, Pebble development has grown to be my most beloved hobby, almost addictive to the point where I typically forego almost all sleep regularly on the weekends in order to try out the latest API feature or indulge myself in another absurd smartstrap idea.” — ishotjr
As Katharine Berry, one of Pebble’s unbelievably passionate team members who put together so many of their tools, stated on Reddit, CloudPebble is open-source and available for people to use and host themselves:
“It’s all open source! github.com/pebble/cloudpebble-composed contains instructions for using docker-compose to set up an instance (you might want to just update all the submodules to latest master, though). I’ve forked everything to my personal account, too.”
Rajendra Serber, an enthusiastic developer, has even launched a Kickstarter for a really cool looking range of watchfaces, despite Pebble’s demise. I asked him what made him decide to follow it through. He said the idea for several of the designs had been conceived about 3 years ago and he’d always planned on using Kickstarter to launch them:
“Between my full time job and making time for my baby I couldn’t focus on these designs. This fall, I finally had time to focus on the designs and the Kickstarter campaign. I was set to launch the week that the rumors about the Fitbit buyout started circlating. At first I was totallly stunned. I didn’t know what to do. But after a few reassuring (but vague) posts from Jon Barlow (from Pebble/Fitbit developer relations) I was hopeful about Fitbit eventually coming out with a smartwatch that supports third-party apps. I was also reassured by the posts about a potential community supported ecosystem to keep the Pebble hardware viable, and the fact that there are over 2 million Pebbles out there. Finally, I realized that when looking at all the other available smartwatches, I would rather keep wearing my Pebble. So instead of waiting to see what and when Fitbit will come out with, I revised my campaign for the current state of affairs and launched it.”
For me, that’s pretty inspiring stuff. A desire to see it through despite the confused state of everything right now. That deserves support. Without a doubt (if you’d like to support his Simplications Kickstarter, it’s right here). He’s also open to the fact the campaign won’t leave him rolling in cash, but is totally okay with it. He’s open to seeing where the market develops:
“Even though I still think Pebble is the best smartwatch available, I don’t expect this campaign to make much money. My goal is to get the designs out there. After delivering these 8 faces for Pebble, what’s next really depends on how the smartwatch market develops. I can see bringing them to a Fitbit smartwatch, Android Wear, Apple Watch and even desktops, or other embedded systems. It’s like launching myself into the unknown. I hope the publicity for these designs will help open doors.”
The response from existing Kickstarters out there that were making Pebble related apps and hardware has been mixed. Here are a few quotes from two of the main ones:
They, like everyone else, did not see this coming —
“We are not a large company like Pebble or Fitbit, and like you, did not see this happening until the rumors started. Even then we really hoped they were just rumors.” — Daniel from Team Engineerable
TimeDock produce a docking/charging station for the Pebble and they’re continuing on the same delivery schedule. For those who aren’t interested in a Pebble dock any longer, they are instead offering to switch Kickstarter pledges for TimeDock for Pebble Time 2 to the TimeDock for Apple Watch.
Refunds are tough. In fact, even if they wanted to, they could not refund the whole cost as “for TimeDock for Pebble, all of the costs have already been spent including: tooling, finalizing and approving production, production; then shipping all of the parts to our shop for the final stage of assembly, testing, and shipping.” Instead, they are able to refund people the shipping costs if they no longer want the product.
They raise an important reminder for those who see Kickstarter as a pre-order online store… it’s really not!
“This is the real point of Kickstarter, to help bring a project to life by crowdfunding the start up costs a creator can not come up with on their own. It’s not a store or an order, but a pledge to support a creator by helping them take on all of the costs of bringing a project to life, in exchange for a reward the backer selects.” — Daniel from Team Engineerable
This team have decided to cancel their project, which is a shame! They say on their Kickstarter page, “after a lot of thought and discussion among our team, we’ve decided to cancel the Kickstarter project and not to sell the product commercially.” That would be heartbreaking. They also have been unable to provide any refunds for understandable reasons:
“The money raised by the Kickstarter campaign went entirely into the project and was far short of what the project cost. Funding a Kickstarter campaign is inherently risky – it is not buying a product, it is investing in a vision.” — The FitPay Team
They’ve got a lot of customers who say they no longer use their Pebble and don’t need the smartstrap any more — “Producing a product our own Backers no longer have use for with the hope of selling tens of thousands more, simply does not make sense.” What a shame!
Rajendra’s Simplications watchfaces may one day end up being hugely popular on a revived Pebble platform, or they could end up working out on other platforms like the Apple Watch, Android Wear or (of course) Fitbit’s own smartwatches. Pebble could still be a good platform to tinker on and build prototypes for right now, as long as you keep in mind that you may port the apps to other platforms soon enough.
I spoke with ishotjr about his thoughts on it all and he pointed out just how strong the community is and the potential he sees in it:
“For me, Pebble’s greatest accomplishment – beyond the obvious hardware feats – is the developer community that they fostered. The SDK itself is a delight to work with, and its documentation and examples (archives of which have been made, just in case!) effortlessly facilitate edification and mastery. There are over two million Pebbles out there, and while the number in use may contract over time, the passion I’ve experienced among Pebble fans suggests to me that they will be clinging to their Pebbles for as long as feasible, and the appstore, mobile app, and firmware projects that the Rebble team has made almost implausible progress with in the short time since Pebble Technology Corp. closed its doors suggest that Pebble’s functionality will not only be maintained, but even advanced in the hands of the community.”
Emerging tech like smartwatches is just that — emerging. As it emerges and grows, things go in all sorts of directions you wouldn’t expect. Companies are bought out, they refocus in different directions, APIs completely change, things get discontinued… this isn’t a reason not to develop for emerging tech. It just means you need to be agile. Ready to adapt to changing circumstances. That’s often the same with many tech platforms out there, however I like to think emerging tech is especially exciting and that being on the cutting edge is worth every second. Please don’t see the Pebble news as a reason to abandon emerging tech. There is so much out there that’s incredibly exciting to work with — go out and explore! Use your Pebble as a controller for random Arduino creations or your very own robot! There’s no reason to shelve your Pebble permanently. Even lessons you’ve learnt (and can continue to learn) in terms of smartwatch interface design are transferrable to other smartwatches and smaller screen platforms. You’ll learn from every project and platform. Enjoy each moment.
They did an incredible job managing their developer relations. Pebble’s team was always available for developers to get in touch and ask questions. Documentation was seriously impressive and the tools for developers were equally (if not even more so) impressive. The Pebble developer community was also an incredibly open one, sharing knowledge amongst each other and building apps/services where they were needed. This was an ecosystem that truly was remarkable in how well it managed its developers around the world. Despite the way it has currently ended, this was something emerging tech platforms out there could definitely learn from.
Quite a few people I’ve heard reacting to the news have been especially disappointed that the Pebble Core isn’t happening. That’s a sign of a potentially promising product category that the community want! I’d love a portable assistant, music player and GPS device like that. Both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are likely to have their services opened up for others in 2017, so the opportunity is there for this category of device. Maybe Fitbit will attempt it? Maybe a new startup? Maybe you?
There is also one other thing I really wanted to stress…
As one key point in the article by Steven Levy points out:
“No matter what he does, he’s not leaving Pebble as a wealthy man. ‘It’s not that kind of a deal,’ [Eric] says. ‘This deal is mainly about customers, employees, and vendors.'” — Steven Levy
Whatever you think about his decision to sell to Fitbit, just know that it wasn’t a deal where he ran off with everyone’s Kickstarter money. He seems like a great guy and worked incredibly hard to get Pebble (and smartwatches overall) to where it is today. That deserves huge kudos.
“It didn’t go perfectly to plan, but things rarely do. We gave it a shot. We built a great product, we shipped it, we started a market…and we weren’t able to get to the next step.” — Eric Migicovsky