Touch screens have taken over smart watches. But it doesn’t have to be this way. For a few short years Pebble showed a different way forward with a purely hardware-based interface that dominated the highest until the rest of the industry left it – like any other company.
Almost every smart watch today is based on a mix of touch screens and hardware buttons Apple Watch and its digital crown Samsung rotating frames. Even basic Fitbit tracking such as payment Feature touch screens complement the physical buttons.
But Pebble held on. Ever since it helped launch the modern smartwatch concept in 2013, to that final purchase and closing in 2016, Pebble could never be controlled just by pressing physical buttons. It traded in more advanced functions in the long run for a more user-friendly experience.
It’s not even that the Pebble buttons were particularly comfortable to use mechanically. The buttons on the original famous Kickstarter model were plastic and soft, and with a small center button you can easily get lost between the other two. And although the last Pebble clock – polished Pebble Time – would improve things with click buttons and sophisticated design, it’s hard to thank its buttons for anything other than “functional”.
Overall, the Pebble design made it a joy to use. I like to dismiss erroneous announcements with a quick push of a button and scrolling through songs on a crowded bus or skiing and wearing big gloves. The relatively simple nature of the input method also meant that the Pebble software was similarly streamlined, cutting cumbersome menus in favor of simpler displays.
The Pebble idea of controlling smart watches was rooted in analog operation. You didn’t want to block the dial because the whole purpose of the clock is to see the time. It’s a fact that makes touchscreen smart watches an inherent paradox: watches are more comfortable to use when they’re smaller, but touchscreens are more comfortable to use when they’re bigger. But Pebble completely ignored it by taking after a regular clock and using only the buttons mounted on the case to control it.
It is undeniable that these small touch screens are not particularly comfortable to use. For years, Apple tried to figure out how to make text input work in Apple Watch, simply because a stamp-sized display just doesn’t work well to fit the entire keyboard. And of course there is the margin of maneuver of the sad “nasal tap” when you desperately need to reject the notice.
Pebble Simple Hardware Buttons offered new useful ways to interact with my phone on the go. On the contrary, the Apple Watch is as difficult as using a phone when my hands are wet or gloves in hand. The front is just a screen that’s a little easier to see because it’s on my wrist, not my pocket.
This really moves from the buttons to the core of the transition: the scope of smartwatches has grown. Today’s watches are not smart phone aids; they are standalone full-size compact smartphones with mobile data, GPS and app stores. And while it may be a good thing for smart watches rather than working hardware platforms, it does mean that some things – like the physical buttons alone or the entire Pebble platform – will inevitably be left behind.