Pebble: Still Not Ready

Sadly, I have to say the Pebble smart watch is still not ready for general use. There are still too many bugs in the firmware, and too many limitations for it to be acceptable to anyone outside of the early adopter crowd. Even a year after they initially shipped.

In the early days, the regular firmware updates seemed to improve things. Unfortunately, the most recent updates seem to have made things worse. 

Battery Issues

The new stainless steel watches were launched with version 2 firmware and the Pebble App Store all of which seemed great. Except that the battery life of the watch could suddenly drop from the several days normally achieved to just a few hours. And it could go from super efficient to super inefficient at any time. Given that battery life is one of their key advantages, this was a pretty serious regression. Something that should have been caught during testing.

The fixed firmware was released recently, but apparently it is still not really fixed. My watch took around 24 hours to drop from fully charged to 89% (that is pretty much the normal rate I have observed – around 10% a day).

2014-05-18 04:48:27:000 ttery_monitor.c:204 Batt state: 4224mV 99% hardware charging 0 plugged 0
2014-05-19 02:55:26:000 ttery_monitor.c:204 Batt state: 4095mV 90% hardware charging 0 plugged 0 
2014-05-19 03:00:26:000 ttery_monitor.c:204 Batt state: 4086mV 89% hardware charging 0 plugged 0 
2014-05-19 05:41:26:000 ttery_monitor.c:204 Batt state: 3994mV 79% hardware charging 0 plugged 0 
2014-05-19 08:19:26:000 ttery_monitor.c:204 Batt state: 3927mV 69% hardware charging 0 plugged 0 
2014-05-19 09:44:26:000 ttery_monitor.c:204 Batt state: 3869mV 59% hardware charging 0 plugged 0

But then look at what happened. The next 30% drop took less than 7 hours. And for most of that time I was asleep and very few notifications were being delivered (I get far more during the day when all my calendar event reminders are firing off).

Seems the issue with the battery is still not fixed. I have submitted the logs, but at this point I am losing confidence in Pebble’s ability to fix these serious firmware issues.

Audio Interference

For the longest time the audio quality I have experienced when using my car’s hands free telephone system has been terrible. Very occasionally it would be crystal clear, but most of the time it was crackly, sometimes to the point where I would need to hang up and redial in hopes of getting better quality. It never occurred to me that the cause of this noise was the Pebble. 

Last week though I was driving back home after going to pick up some paperwork and I was stuck in traffic listening to music from my phone connected via the car’s A2DP connection. This had always been good quality (further confusing me as to why the telephone audio should be so bad), but now it was experiencing periodic drop outs. Very short times in the music when there was silence, but easily noticeable. Since I was stuck in traffic, often not moving at all for several minutes, I had time to trace the cause.

Remembering that the Pebble had just updated its firmware, that was an obvious place to start. Turning off the Bluetooth on the watch didn’t impact anything immediately but right then the traffic moved, so I turned my attention back to the road; leaving the Pebble’s Bluetooth off. Perhaps 30 seconds or so after I switched it off, the dropouts stopped. The next time I stopped, I turned Bluetooth back on and sure enough the drop outs re-appeared. So now, the Pebble interferes with A2DP music streams (a clear, and serious regression).

Even more interesting, during one of the times I had Bluetooth off I received a call. It was crystal clear. More experimenting with that showed that the interference I had long put down to an incompatibility between my car and iPhone was in fact also being caused by the Pebble. That is not a regression in the latest firmware though; that has always been there.

Some searching online revealed a thread on their support forums describing the hands free audio interference that is happening in lots of cars. And yet the support response I got merely shrugged it off with the advice that I should disable Bluetooth on my watch when in the car & there was no way they could test all cars. Obviously, nobody would expect them to test all cars, but it doesn’t seem hard to find some that show the problem. And there is even a detailed post in that thread stating the problem can be reproduced on Bluetooth audio quality measurement test equipment:

The Voice Quality algorithm used for this test was ITU-T P.862.1 (PESQ). The scale for the PESQ algorithm is 1-5 (5 being perfect). For all tests, the iPhone is on ATT network whereas the far-end is Verizon PSTN. Each test consisted of 3 different calls, each call sending/recordng 4 voice files. After each test i averaged all PESQ scores.
The average score for iPhone5 without Pebble was 2.71. This is average for mobile to PSTN.
The average score for iPhone5 with Pebble was 1.36. This is considered extremely low.
The average score for iPhone4 without Pebble was 2.40. 
The average score for iPhone4 with Pebble was 1.22.

That makes it pretty clear that the Pebble is interfering with the audio quality on iOS devices at least. Again, this should really have been caught during testing.

Recommendation

At this point in time, if you asked me whether you should buy a Pebble I would have to say no. Not unless you are willing to live with pre-alpha quality software, potentially abysmal battery life, poor quality Bluetooth audio connections and relatively little support. When it is working well, the Pebble is a great smart watch, but the ongoing software quality issues are really letting it down right now.

Pebble: First Few Weeks

What seems like a long time ago now, I backed a Kickstarter project to create a smart watch for iOS and Android called the Pebble. Due to deliver late last year, the project ran a little over schedule, but a few weeks back my Kickstarter Edition Pebble watch arrived in the mail, and I have been living with it ever since. This is my summary of my experiences in those first few weeks, using the watch connected to my iPhone 5.

I am deeming it to be semi-smart though, in contrast to some of the watches that are available since without the connection to the smartphone it does nothing more than tell the time. Even updating the time when daylight savings came into effect was dependent on a ping from the associated phone.

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Prepaid Plans for iPhone Users

As a traveler who likes to stay connected, but doesn't like the rates that my home network operator charges when roaming, I am accustomed to looking for a prepaid SIM for my unlocked iPhone before traveling. When a relative from Australia said one of her first tasks after landing was to sort out a plan for her iPhone (which she checked was unlocked), I thought I would take a look at the prepaid plans available.

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Free With Ads or Ad Free

Every so often an app comes along that breaks the sacred rule of ads: they include some form of advertising in a paid app. The most recent was Angry Birds, a hugely successful $0.99 app, by including a house ad on their pause screen. That’s pretty innocuous – most players will rarely, if ever see that screen, and the ad was for other Angry Birds products. But where did this rule come from?

Free With Ads
Most people seem to have accepted that a free app with some ads is an acceptable compromise, allowing the developer to collect some revenue to (help) pay for the development & maintenance of the app. This model appeared on the web too, where many sites carry ads to pay for their content being free.

Unfortunately, it rarely brings in enough money to truly pay for the development of the app, or the creation of the content. As the news industry is discovering, ad supported web sites alone just don’t pay the bills. The solutions for the web are well known:

  1. Less content, which is a vicious circle, since less content means less ads;
  2. Lower quality content, also a vicious circle since you less readers;
  3. Subscriptions for accessing some or all of the content;

In the app world, especially in an app world where updates are expected to be free for life & the initial purchase price as near to $1 as possible, the choices are more limited. The Angry Birds idea of adding discrete ads later in the life of the paid app seems like it might become more the norm as developers loom for ways to at least subsidize ongoing maintenance of very low cost apps that are in the long tail of their sales volume.

Old Media
The odd thing about the fuss over ads being included in a paid app is that most of those complaining are probably happily paying for newspapers, magazines and television content, and at rates often much higher than $0.99 for life, yet all of those include ads as well.

My Comcast cable bill makes my app purchases look insignificant, and yet almost all the channels on there show ads. Even the premium HBO channels show house ads between programming; essentially the equivalent of the Angry Birds pause screen ad.

Watched a movie at a theatre recently? Over $10 to enter, and they spend 15+ minutes before the movie plays showing ads for all kinds of things.

Why is it acceptable to pay for these types of content and still see ads, but it breaks an inviolable law for a paid app, charging a fraction of the price, to include even discrete house ads? Seems like there is a double standard there somewhere.

Free Updates
There’s no such thing as a free update, at least not for a developer. Every update, no matter how small, involved time and effort. It also requires an annual subscription to the developer program(s) for the platform(s) the app is being supported on, and continuous outlay for expensive hardware to make sure the app works on the latest devices as well as a selection of older ones.

I don’t want this piece to become a whine about how developers are not getting paid enough for their apps though. If you’re not getting paid enough to keep your business working, you need to look for a (creative) solution to that, or change business!

With enterprise software, the cost of updates is covered by, often very expensive, annual maintenance contracts. For shrink wrapped or downloadable desktop consumer software, the initial purchase price includes some maintenance, and major updates normally have to be paid for (if you’re lucky, at a discount rate). But for mobile apps, free updates for lifetime have become the rule. A developer who tries to charge for an update by making the next version of their app a different app that must be bought again is likely to called greedy & given lots of bad publicity online.

In some segments of the market that is less of a problem – games, as an example, have a short life before they are replaced by the next great idea. Apps that are expected to have a longer useful lifetime find it harder to maintain a revenue stream that can pay for new features, or even maintenance of existing ones.

Options
What options are available in the current app world to a developer wanting to keep improving their app?

  • Ads, even in an app that was initially paid for;
  • Subscription for content and/or a service;
  • Charging for new features via in-app purchases, or by creating new apps on major releases;

If your app does not lend itself to a service you can charge for (or Apple’s ever changing rules on subscriptions outside of the app store payment mechanism concern you), then your options are charging for new features or running ads.

In the near future, in expect we will start to see more paid apps including some form of advertising. I hope it is better than the generic & poorly targeted banner ads we see today from networks like AdMob and iAds.

Location Based App Survey

You Are HereDo you use any of the current location based services? Things like Foursquare, Gowalla, Facebook Places or even Yelp’s check in option? Or, perhaps you don’t use them because you don’t like something about them? If you have a spare couple of minutes, we’d really appreciate it if you could take our 7 question survey asking about these applications / services.

Once we have enough answers in the survey to make it meaningful, we’ll publish the results here and/or on the ourLivez site.

Torpedo Alley

At the end of last week, ourLivez LLC, my fledgling mobile app development company, launched its first game for iOS devices (iPhones, iPod touches and iPads): Torpedo Alley.

The game is pretty simple in concept, but surprisingly addictive. Fire your torpedo at just the right time to hit the mothership on one of its two weak spots, destroying it. You have at most 5 torpedoes to achieve this goal. As you progress through the game though, defending mini-subs appear to block your torpedoes.

On the iPad, the extra screen space allows us to support two player mode so you can play with a friend for added fun (not to mention the extra element of strategy from allowing your friend to take out the defending mini-subs allowing you a clear shot at the mothership!).

Want to see a preview of the game in action? Check out our YouTube video:

All of that fun is just US$0.99 (or equivalent in other currencies). Buy now from the App Store.

The app is on Facebook as well, and we’d love it if you could ‘like’ our page:

Newspapers Are Killing Themselves

Yesterday saw the removal of all of my iNewz apps from the Apple app store. Not something I really wanted to do, but something that was forced on me by the very people who stood to benefit the most from the apps: the news organizations who publish the news.

Yesterday was also the day that another RSS based news app, Pulse, was removed from the store despite being praised & shown on stage at WWDC by Steve Jobs. Why? Because the New York Times complained that the app contained the URL for their RSS feed. Quoting from the letter Apple received from the Times:

I note that the app is delivered with the NYTimes.com RSS feed preloaded, which is prominently featured in the screen shots used to sell the app on iTunes.

The same argument was made by Apple to me for the recent rejection of an update to iNewz (and a few more news feeds were cited as problematic too).

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App Store Roulette


This week I have been presented with something of a dilemma regarding what to do with my iNewz applications for the iPhone, iPod touch and most recently the iPad. As is often the case with apps for these platforms, the cause of the problem is nothing technical; it began with Apple’s review process, or more specifically the inconsistent way in which it is applied.

The Rejection
Like most app developers, I’ve had rejection emails from Apple before (actually called “feedback”), and they have normally been for things that are simple to address, even if not always things I agree with the need for.

This one was different though. Here’s the key paragraph of the email:

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Twitter xAuth – The Missing Docs

The recent decision by Twitter to turn off support for Basic Auth soon means a lot of Twitter apps are now racing to implement either full OAuth support, or the cut down xAuth designed for non-web apps. The iNewz apps fall into this last category, and an initial look at the work involved made it seem as though switching from basic auth to xAuth would be pretty straightforward. Sadly, and mostly because of poor documentation and what I consider bugs in the Twitter API implementation of OAuth, this took far longer than it should have done. Hopefully this blog post will help others looking to make this switch by providing a more complete, step-by-step description of the xAuth process. It may also help those trying to make full OAuth work, but I haven’t tried that yet.

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