Pebble Thoughts

Black Pebble Time SteelIt is always a sad day when a company needs to trim staff, but at the same time it is sometimes very necessary to make sure expenses are inline with expected revenue. Today Pebble announced they were cutting 40 people from their workforce (25%). That’s a deep first cut, so hopefully for those left it will be the only one. The smart watch market is a strange one though. Even with the Apole watch (or perhaps partly because of it), the mass market adoption has been slow. 

What Pebble Does Well

Full disclosure here, I’ve had three Pebbles now (an original, from the first Kickstarter campaign), a Steel and now a Time Steel. For me the Time Steel is still my preferred smart watch. It isn’t perfect, and we’ll come back to that later, but it does everything I need. 

Battery life is top of the list for me. Even with plenty of notifications each day, I am getting over s week between charges. That is fantastic for somebody who carries two phones always (and sometimes more if I am testing things for work). Less devices to forget to charge every night is better. 

Close second would be the always on screen. I don’t want to have to make a conscious effort to look at the time. A quick glance gets me the time, and it is even clearer in sunlight than not. At night, I do still need to move my wrist to get the backlight, but a gentle twist works.

Notifications are the “killer app” for me, and the Pebble excels at them. If they appear on my iPhone’s lock screen, they appear on the watch. If the phone rings (very rare occurrence for my phone), I can see the caller ID on my watch & accept or decline the call (if I accept, I still need to get the phone out or put on the headset to actually talk). Since I am on AT&T, I also get the option of voice replies to text messages. That works most of the times I’ve tried it, but I don’t find myself using it much.

Waterproof. It is really waterproof. I can swim in it and not worry. 

What Could Be Better

The screen. Perhaps this is a case of the low power displays just not being as high density yet, but a really high density display (say 4x the number of pixels) would really shine. As would having the screen fill more of the face area; the large bezels are not great.

The software. Connectivity issues have been an issue for me on all my Pebbles and while the phone side is at least partly outside of their control, keeping the two devices connected and talking is job number one for a smartwatch. Additionally, not interfering with other Bluetooth devices is a must. Especially headsets and Bluetooth audio devices, both of which I have had issues with along the way. 

I would like to see some of the health information, like step counts, be included in watchfaces (maybe this can already be done and I just need to find, or write, a face that does it).

The Other Stuff

Health metrics is becoming a bigger space it seems, and Pebble was certainly late to the party. The activity & sleep tracking in the newer watches is a good start though. Personally, heart rate tracking doesn’t bother me, but that is not true for all. (If I had it, maybe I would feel differently too).

Timeline is another thing I don’t really use. The concept is good, but I am much more notification driven. Well timed calendar notifications work much better than me remembering to scan a list of events. 

Watch design is something I’ve seen Pebble be criticized for. The Time Steel looks OK to me & in fact is often mistaken for an Apple Watch at first, even by folks wearing an Apple Watch. The only real criticism of the design is the bezels. Smaller would be much appreciated! The screen really needs to get as close as possible to the outside edges of the face. I think the three new watches are a big step forward in design from the first two & I hope the design aspect will continue to improve. The look of the watch is very important. 

Carrying on from the look of the watch, the bands on the Time range (and the original Pebble) are all standard ones, with the included band on the Time watches coming with quick release pins. My Time Steel is on a third party nylon mesh band, and there are so many options out there at every price point and in all materials that it is hard to choose. If you go with quick release (sadly not available for my nylon band, though I am planning a mod to fix that), then you can change them in seconds for a different look.

Apps on the watch are not a big deal for me. I have two that I use (assigned to the shortcut buttons): the built in Health app for tracking  sleep & activity and Leaf, an app that connects to our home Nest devices. There are lots more available, but few that I really want on my wrist. Definitely not any web content reading or video apps!

Watch faces are something I’ve tried lots of (though still a tiny percentage of what is available in the store). I have my favourites, and switch between them occasionally. I also take a look in the store quite often to see what is new. 

The Future

I hope this downsizing is indeed a “right sizing” and Pebble can keep going strong. They have come so far, and I believe continue to supply something that the other contenders still cannot match (always on screen & a week of battery life), it would a shame to see them fail now.

The mass market appeal of wearables though is much harder to pin down. Health & fitness tracking will appeal to some, but I fear the things I value most in my Pebble will never be seen as more than nice to have (if that) by most people. Maybe the key to success for now is targeting the early adopter with a slightly higher end product. Early adopters will pay  more than the mass market & will upgrade more frequently. I am hoping Pebble isn’t planning to morph into another fitness tracking company with watch features.

Apple vs Law Enforcement

I’ve said a few things about this on Twitter already, but what amazes me here is that they are not asking Apple to turn over the key, or even to decrypt the data using a key they already have. Instead, they are trying to say they can force a private company to dedicate resources to writing a special version of their software, installing it on a device and then allowing the FBI remote access to the device.

Continue reading

Self Driving Cars

A while back it occurred to me that when my kids reach driving age, I might not have to teach them to drive because we might all be using self driving cars. There are very obvious benefits to that, not least of which is the improvement in safety. Too many people die in car accidents each year, and many of them are teens. Reducing those numbers would be a big step forward.

The flip side though is that while driving to & from work in heavy traffic is no fun at all, driving a roadster around a winding road, with the wind in your hair is an exhilarating experience that no self-driving car will ever be able to replace. In fact, I doubt we will even see self-driving roadsters. Most of the self driving vehicles I’ve seen so far have been more practical vehicle styles (with the possible exception of that Google one, which is just odd IMHO). My current car, while being a pretty long way from practical, puts a smile on my face every time I drive it on an open road (which is not often enough – it does around 2,000 miles a year max these days).

Extending that thought though, what happens to the premium super car companies? Does anybody believe there is a market for self driving Ferraris, Porsches or Lamborghinis? Will cars just become practical vehicles for getting from A to B?

While I suspect teaching either of kids to drive would be traumatic, part of me will be a little sad if my generation is the last one that learns to drive a car.

Starbucks Mobile Order

With the tag line “No time? No line.” Starbucks rolled out their mobile order & pay app a month or so ago. I’ve used it a number of times since then, not always successfully, and my initial impressions would be that they released an MVP. I’m hoping it will get more of the features it currently lacks.

First (and second) Impressions

The first time I tried to use it, I thought it was Android only because my iPhone app didn’t show the ‘Order’ option at all. That, it seems, is because the feature only works if you allow it to access your location (and I’d turned that off for Starbucks on a previous mission to try to save battery – I rarely need a store finder, and if I do, I find the Maps app works just as well).

The second time I tried to use it, I was in a hurry and was hoping to skip the line. But it insisted the nearest store was almost two miles further away than the store that was less than a mile away. And which I know was supporting the program because I’d heard mobile orders being called out on previous visits. When we stopped at the store, the line was indeed long, leaving me wondering whether the mobile ordering system is trying to route me to a different store. If so, that’s a major fail in my opinion. The store I wanted to go to was on my route; the one the app was insisting I order from was in the opposite direction (and across the estuary in Oakland where I would also have been unable to find parking easily).

Third Time’s a Charm

The third time it worked as expected. When I arrived, the order was not ready (apparently four mobile orders had come in at the same time & overwhelmed the system). A minute or two later I had my drinks & food; all good.

Missing Features

While they seem to have done a good job on the ordering part, the payment section needs work. As far as I could see right now, there is no way to use a loyalty reward to pay for a drink. Nor is there a way to enter a “coupon” code for one of the offers they email out. Both basics for online checkout systems.

Obviously, I also can’t order & use a personal cup (though I would love to see if they could incorporate that somehow – perhaps taking the cup at the delivery area).

I have also heard from some that drink customization is near impossible unless the option is in the app. Not a problem for my simple latte drink!

Timing

Unlike other mobile ordering systems (e.g. Chipotle’s), there is also no way to add a delay to the order. If I know I am 15 minutes away when I leave home, I either have to expect a cooled down drink & food, or order while driving (not going to happen until they add voice ordering).

Will I Keep Using It?

Probably sometimes, but the timing part is going to be the hardest part to work around. It is rare that I can order 3-5 minutes away from the store.

Android Marshmallow / GMail Data Use

I upgraded my Nexus 5 to the latest Android version. 6.0 aka Marshmallow, and didn’t really think much of it. Then, on Monday, I needed to run a test on some software that required the Wi-Fi to be turned off. I noticed at the time that the GMail app was having some problems; I received regular crash notifications from it (while it was running in the background).

Then tonight I checked in on my test and was surprised to see an Android mobile data warning in the notifications area. Tapping through, I saw that in the last few days I have consumed ~5GB of mobile data. On a phone that has been sitting on my desk without me touching it. The culprit? You guessed it, the GMail app was responsible for almost the entire 5GB. In less than five days.

Massive Data Consumption

I also received an OS update this evening, and since then the GMail app seems happier. I am back on Wi-Fi now though and will continue to monitor it. Had I been on a 3GB plan, I would have been more than a little annoyed (and had to pay for the extra data). As it happens, this phone is on a 20GB shared plan, so I have some headroom.

Pebble Time Steel: Initial Impressions

Pebble Time SteelOne of the new toys that arrived last week was my new Pebble Time Steel watch. This was one I was excited about as, despite some occasional problems with my original Pebble & Pebble Steel watches, I am still a believer in the platform and decided to go with the Pebble Time Steel rather than an Apple Watch.

I’m not going to do the traditional unboxing photos, suffice to say it came presented more like a watch this time (in very retail-friendly packaging, so I expect to see these hanging in my local Target store soon alongside the other Pebble watches they carry already).

The other big change is the style aspect. Personally, I like the new style, though I do agree with some of the other reviews I’ve read that the black border around the screen seems very large on the Time. It would have been nice to see a screen that went much closer to the edges of the watch. Of course, that would have made the screen a different pixel size to the current ones which introduces a bunch of complexities for developers, but we cope with that on Android and iOS, and even on the Apple Watch.

My watch shipped with only the leather strap. The metal bands for the Kickstarter orders are on backorder and will be coming later; I believe the retail orders only come with the leather bands though.

Continue reading

Lima: First Impressions

The last week has seen two of my crowdfunding investments delivered. The first of those two was Lima. Lima is a small box that connects between my home network and a USB hard drive and promises to make my documents & media files appear on my computers, and mobile devices no matter where I am, or which device I am using. My own personal DropBox. 

The device arrived last week, but I ordered a new 4TB RAID 1 external drive for it that didn’t arrive until this week. Tonight was set up time. 

Continue reading

Stanford Children’s MyChart

In 2013 our pediatrician’s practice was acquired by Stanford Children’s Health which, at the time, seemed to be a positive move. The pediatricians at the hospital where both our kids were born was part of the same group and they were great.

Indeed, the actual doctor part hasn’t really changed beyond the introduction of computerized records (believe it or not they were still using paper records until around a year ago). What did change though was how we pay the bills. Initially, there was some confusion as the billing was moved from the old system over, which, while not really acceptable, is at least understandable as a temporary problem.

Finally though, the bills were being sent out as Stanford Children’s Health bills, and to pay them online we need to login to their MyChart system – something that appears to have been licensed from Epic Software. Quite why this is necessary I don’t understand; all the other medical bills I’ve ever paid allowed me to simply go to a payment portal, enter the details of the bill and pay it without needing an account. But, SCH requires an account at MyChart. And that is where the confusion starts.

Account Holder

Obviously, the patients in this case are not paying the bills, so the account needs to be created in an adult’s name, and associated with the patient. The first to receive a bill under the new system was my daughter, following a visit when my wife took her. But I pay the bills. When the account was created, I entered the magic code from the bill, and my email address. But somehow the record had been created with my wife’s name on it, so now the account is in her name, with my email address. Unfazed, I just paid the bill and left it; it doesn’t really matter much.

Next to visit was my son, so now I have a bill for him. And here is where MyChart falls apart. It would seem that nobody at Epic ever considered the possibility that a family might have more than one child. I can’t create a new account for him because my email address is already associated with an account (I guess I could use a different email address, but I don’t want to deal with two accounts for this either). And I can’t see his bill on the existing account because that account is associated with a different patient (my daughter). And there is no way for me to link him to the existing account. Which means there is no way to pay the bill online. Total failure!

Continue reading

Traveling Light

As I write this the view out of the window next to me looks similar to the photo on the right (snapped with my iPad camera moments ago) and I am writing this on my iPad seated in 3A at the front of the main cabin of an Airbus en route to Los Angeles from Fort Lauderdale.

Unusually though, even though this was a business trip, I do not have a laptop with me. Normally I would have my trusty 13″ MBP in my bag, but this was a quick trip (I was in Florida for a little over 24 hours), and I did not need to present anything at either of the conference sessions I was speaking at (both were panel sessions).

Instead, I brought just my iPad, my TwelveSouth Compass stand, and a Bluetooth keyboard in case I needed something more than the on screen one.

So how did it work?

Continue reading

Pebble Update

Given all the issues I had been having with my Pebble watch staying connected to my iPhone, it might seem odd that I ordered a new Pebble Time rather than an Apple Watch. For the last few months though my Pebble has stayed connected to my phone almost continuously. The iOS permission notification, that I used to see regularly, now really only appears when the phone restarts.

Intermittent Disconnects

Also, the problem where it appeared to be connected, but was not getting any notifications, has gone away after a factory reset of the watch (from the watch’s settings menu), followed by switching to recovery mode (press and hold back, up and select buttons for 30 seconds) and letting the phone re-install the latest firmware. The app reinstalled 

Not sure what caused the problem, but I suspect either the update process left something in a strange state or there is something that leaks resources. With the latest firmware though, I haven’t seen it again, so I’m hoping that was something in an earlier version. If I do see it again, at least I know the trick to getting things back to normal now, and while it sounds painful, getting watchfaces & apps back on the watch is automatic once the watch is paired back to the phone.

Audio Issues

I still get the interference from the Pebble when using a Bluetooth hands free system for voice calls. Most noticeable on in car systems, though either the latest versions of iOS and/or Pebble firmware, or perhaps my new car (same make as the previous one, but a few years younger) have made it less of a problem. I haven’t had a chance to do any testing with other devices.

The Bluetooth audio connections for listening to music were fixed with a Pebble firmware update a while ago.

Battery Life

For a long time after I had the issues with battery life (which, I am pretty sure, were actually caused by the Bluetooth communication issues), I had been using the Modern Longlife watchface. With that, I was getting 5+ days regularly from the Steel, with moderate to heavy notifications. I switched to Modern Neue recently, which includes a second hand, and I think it has knocked a little off the battery life, but it is still 5 days between charges most of the time. I have become comfortable with the 20% battery warning and know that just means I need to charge that night, even when it pops up early in the day.

The Good

As I mentioned earlier in my smart watch thoughts post, having the important things that happen online appear on the watch is great, and something I would definitely miss now. The watchface options are unbelievable too, and while perhaps not as pretty as the new Apple Watch ones, they are every bit as functional (perhaps more so if you take into account the fact that they on screen all the time and not just when you activate the screen).

On the app front, there is already a huge selection of apps, but my personal feeling right now is that few are really useful for me simply because I would rather use the watch to be notified of things than to act on them. I do like the Nest remote, but even that i don’t use often. I certainly don’t want to be reading anything longer than a notification on my watch (though I do wish Facebook notifications included at least some of the content too so I cou,d decide whether I want to get the phone out or not).