Pebble Steel declassified: Raising the smartwatch design bar without breaking the mold

The Pebble smartwatch has evolved from Kickstarter darling to retail success despite a somewhat homely appearance. This is the story of how the company's next watch, the $250 Steel, came to be.

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If 2014 is to be the year of the wearable it's at least partly thanks to the success of the Pebble in 2013. Sure, it was 2012 that the company's smartwatch hit Kickstarter and promptly blew the minds of many would-be entrepreneurs, raising a record-breaking $10 million on the crowd-funding site. But it was last year, 2013, that the watch finally shipped, hit retail, and rocketed past 300,000 sales worldwide.

To secure the next 300,000 wrists, Pebble knows it needs to do better. While the company's first watch has a lot of things going for it, posh look and feel are not among its selling points. Some call it "casual," others say "sporty," both euphemisms for what many would call "cheap." Pebble needs a product that looks as good as it works, and thus the Pebble Steel.

The Steel is a new smartwatch designed to complement the existing Pebble, not replace it. Josh Miller/CNET

The Steel is a new smartwatch designed to complement the existing Pebble, not replace it. It does exactly the same things but looks far nicer on the wrist while doing them, an aesthetic distinction that, according to the company, makes it worth a $250 manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) -- $100 more than the base Pebble. A small team has worked in secret for the last six months to create a project code-named Bianca. This is the story of how the Pebble Steel came to be.

Beginnings

Early concepts for Steel experimented with different styles, finishes, and even orientations. Josh Miller/CNET

300,000 sales across 150 countries is huge for such a small company -- just 45 employees as of December, up from 11 at the end of 2012 (and seemingly climbing by the minute). Pebble's new offices in Palo Alto, Calif., feature an open floor plan with plenty of exposed concrete and raw woodwork. Typical startup stuff, and in typical startup fashion many predict they'll soon be moving again into ever-larger accommodations.

The success of Pebble is even more impressive if you look at the current watch's predecessor: 2009's inPulse. Never heard of it? You're not alone. The chunky wearable offered a color screen and poor battery life, while lack of extensibility and support for major platforms kept it from ever gaining mainstream traction. While calling it a failure would be too harsh, as a standalone product it couldn't be labeled a success.

Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky (right) describes the Steel as a more formal version of the Pebble. Josh Miller/CNET

Except that it was. It served as the training ground for the people who would go on to make Pebble and, now, Steel. People like Steven Johns, lead industrial designer responsible for the inPulse, the Pebble, and the Steel -- or Bianca, as he prefers to call it. Bianca was the Steel's code name, a character from "The Adventures of Tintin" comics. (Indeed, the Pebble itself was "Tintin" during development.)

As with the Pebble before, there were no shortage of early concepts. These watches, most of which never made it past a conceptual rendering stage, experimented with different styles, finishes, and even orientations. Some of the watches offered a curiously and distinctly wide-screen look, though most offered more traditional layouts. Two were good enough for final consideration, with the more traditional of the two getting the nod according to Johns.

A Pebble Steel hiding in a 3D-printed case, used for testing in public.
A Pebble Steel hiding in a 3D-printed case, used for testing in public. Tim Stevens/CNET

"The look was playing a bit of an homage to the 3C industry," said Johns. "It was what people would expect what a smart watch would be. It was playing homage to that as well as playing homage to the precursors, the old calculator watches from Casio. Not an inspiration directly, but certainly a precursor with a nice flat screen...Bianca was taking it to the next step and trying to bring a class to that otherwise traditional computerized watch."

CEO Eric Migicovsky describes Steel as a more formal version of Pebble: "I'm going out for dinner, I'm wearing a suit, I've got a position that doesn't allow me to wear a plastic watch on my wrist. How do I benefit from a smartwatch? How do I get notifications and run all the apps that Pebble offers without having to put something that I don't prefer on my wrist. We took that as an industrial design problem. It wasn't really a software problem...We just had to build an aesthetically different Pebble."

Reducing the size of the watch was a major consideration as well, the team hoping to add some additional appeal to the fairer sex along the way. "Part of the idea was to bring it to be a little more feminine," said Johns. "I was desperately trying to shrink the overall profile." And that they did, creating a metal watch that weighs just 45 grams. That's two grams lighter than even the plastic Pebble, and it's significantly smaller, too, crucially along the "lug-to-lug length." That is, the size of the face as measured between the strap mounts.

Optimization here was key. "That one dimension has more of an effect physically than any of the other dimensions on the watch," according to CEO Eric Migicovsky. "If you're off by a half a millimeter in that dimension you can feel it." So just how much shorter is the Steel along that dimension? Four millimeters. You'd think it would be an imperceptible difference, but it's quite the opposite. The Steel looks and feels much smaller.

Josh Miller/CNET

Still, it's far from feminine, particularly if you opt for the black model. Color is applied using a process called physical vapor deposition, or PVD. It's used on many high-end watches to create a durable finish, and Johns assures it will be far more scratch-resistant than the black anodized iPhone 5 proved. A raw, stainless version of the watch will be available as well.

The main body and buttons are injection-molded, but the backing and bezel are cold-forged, creating a durable chassis that's far, far nicer looking and feeling than the plastic body of the Pebble. But, the team inadvertently created something else in the process. "You know what we just designed?" CEO Migicovsky asks rhetorically. "We designed a Faraday cage on your wrist. It's inside a thing of stupid milled steel."

Engineering challenges

Josh Miller/CNET

A Faraday cage is a metal (or metal mesh) box that blocks all external transmissions. They're great if you're looking to provide a clean, interference-free area for controlled testing of a device's wireless performance. A Faraday cage will ensure that no signals get in or out. However, when the device itself is blocking it's own transmissions, that obviously poses a bit of a problem.

Apple, maker of many a fine, alloy-bodied device, has struggled with this situation in the past. The Antennagate debacle with the iPhone 4 brought this sort of issue to the world's attention. Many of the company's devices (notably the iPad) use plastic sections to allow transmission, while the iPhone 5 and 5S include glass windows to ensure those devices' many transmissions get to their intended targets.

Andrew Witte is Pebble's CTO and a hardware designer on Pebble and Steel: "Antenna design for a watch is pretty tough because it's on your wrist and your wrist absorbs a lot of radio waves, specifically in frequencies that Bluetooth uses... After Apple's experience with the iPhone and antenna problems we did a lot of testing to make sure that if it had water droplets on it or if you were holding it and clicking buttons that you would still get good performance."

Like Apple, Pebble turned to a plastic window of sorts, in this case a ring that separates the body of the watch from the bezel. The bezel acts as the antenna and body then becomes the ground, actually resulting in better Bluetooth performance than the plastic-bodied Pebble (which situates its antenna behind the lower-right button).

Another concern was durability of the watch face itself. The curved, clear plastic of the Pebble has proven reasonably resistant to abuse, but the Steel needed something better. "We were looking at doing a sapphire lens or Gorilla Glass," said Johns. "Sapphire was extremely cost-prohibitive, but also has some durability issues. Gorilla Glass is strong but did scratch, whereas sapphire doesn't scratch, but it breaks." Ultimately the team went with Gorilla Glass, commonplace on various consumer electronics devices, thanks to the cost, thinness, and durability of the material.

Keeping the devs happy

Pebble has about 45 employees as of December 2013, up from 11 at the end of 2012. Josh Miller/CNET

While a small team at Pebble has been working on Bianca/Steel since mid-2013, the primary focus of the company has long been developer support. Of those 45 (or so) current employees, nearly half are software engineers, heads-down on building the tools and functionality to enable the next generation of Pebble experiences -- experiences that will come not through new hardware, but new software.

This was another important lesson learned from the inPulse, a watch that shipped with support only for BlackBerry devices. It also offered very limited app and developer support, compared with the Pebble and the Steel, which support Android and iOS. (Though, notably, not BlackBerry. At least, not officially.) This shift in platform support and focus on developers was one of the many lessons the Pebble team has picked up thanks to a willingness to experiment.

"I think one of the best ways that we can produce quality and useful interactions for our users is just by trying things," said Migicovsky. "I think that's very reflective for our company as a whole."

CTO Andrew Witte originally joined the team to build better firmware for inPulse, and helped to shape the broader developer support that would come in the later products. "We hacked app support into inPulse and it was popular, but Pebble was really designed around apps." App support is good, but for developers, change is bad. That's why Pebble Steel doesn't mess with the core equation.

Same CPU, same display, same developer interface. "Developers won't see any difference," said Witte, "and that was one of the goals. We're in the early stages of fostering an app development ecosystem and we want to provide good continuity for them." Though there is one change: an RGB notification LED. This is hidden on the bottom of the Steel's face, enabled through an extension to the API that won't break compatibility with the existing Pebble apps.

More to come

Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky wearing Steel.

While the focus for the immediate future of Pebble is on software, launching the app store to allow for more comprehensive app discovery, it's clear that more new hardware will come. "We will continue to diversify between metal and plastic products in the future," Johns said. "We like the differing aesthetics."

They're not entirely opposed to changing up more than aesthetics, though. Johns admits that there are some users who will want more: "When we launch this, will we get flak for not having a color screen? Then we'll have no choice but to potentially launch a colored screen like good 'ol inPulse. Sacrifice something for something else." Something like battery life.

For Migicovsky, though, the biggest hardware changes won't come within the watch itself, but the universe of devices around it. "Pebble will actually become the best heads-up display for [Bluetooth] LE sensors in your life...The way that we're going to expand the functionality of the hardware is by wirelessly talking to those sensors," he said. Imagine a fitness app that displays heart rate or a geocaching app showing distance to the next waypoint -- not thanks to a heart rate monitor or GPS in the watch itself, but Bluetooth connections to those discrete devices.

Will this be enough to fend off the approaching competition from the likes of Samsung and, soon, Apple? Migicovsky believes that simplicity, in this case, is the company's greatest asset: "When we talk about Pebble we're talking about the tiny moments in your life that it becomes extremely useful...When you put a wearable computer onto your wrist or onto your body in some way, it has to make your life better. If it doesn't, of if it actually makes your life worse through poor battery life or bad usability, it's so easy to just take it off and not use it anymore. That's not what we're about. We're about building a product that people want to use on their wrist in their daily life."

It's unlikely that Steel alone will push the company on to the next 300,000 wrists, but as more and more manufacturers stumble their way into the wearable sector this year, Pebble, with its years of experience, loyal developers, and selection of devices, is certainly looking well-positioned.

 

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