On Wednesday 7 December 2016 the Fitbit buyout of Pebble was official. Two days later, members of the Pebble dev community announced Rebble, "Pebble reborn", an open source project to keep the platform and the legacy of the much-loved smartwatch company alive. If you've followed the rise and fall of Pebble, none of this should come as a surprise.
We're now gearing up to see Fitbit's first proper smartwatch launch by September, complete with a third-party app store, based on Pebble's SDK. The online Pebble servers will go down on 31 December 2017 but thanks to an update in early April that removes the dependence on cloud services, the 1 million+ Pebble watches on wrists worldwide will continue working.
We joked about the stages of grief we were going through
Over at the Rebble alliance, public updates have been a little quiet since April. But Ish Ot. Jr, an ex-'Rockstar' Pebble dev and organiser who is co-ordinating some of the efforts while working as a CTO in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says the progress on the alternate app store, Android and iOS apps, APIs, firmware and services so far has been "mind-blowing". Those first few days after the shrug tweet and then the official news, though, were full of panic and frantically hoarding data files: "It hit many of us extremely hard. It was like mourning a close friend. We joked about the stages of grief that we were going through – but it was real."
Pebble's Happiness app experiment
The appeal of this line of smartwatches to owners and developers has long gone beyond even Apple fandom – you can read the love letter to Pebble and its community which Ish Ot. Jr – yes, that's a pseudonym – wrote last December. "Its whimsy, elegance of use, and constant presence made it a beloved companion. I think a lot of people fell in love with this quirky little wrist buddy, and the fact that the company that created it no long exists has yet to severely impact our enjoyment. For me, the goal is to keep my love alive," he tells us.
"That means hardware, the developer community, the user community – as much of it as possible. And there are a lot of talented, enthusiastic people who have their own specific areas of expertise or curiosity and who are able to contribute in whatever way they find enjoyable and rewarding."
Making it for real
One of those people is Ester Sanchez, a Spanish iOS developer based in Amsterdam who goes by @misato online. She has been building Pebble watch faces and apps since 2015 – you might have seen her work on the Kiezel watch face collection and CalendarCards watch face for Pebble.
The community was blooming. So I thought I could join them
"When Pebble announced that it was closing, it felt natural for me to start making an app for iOS," she tells us. "I had been thinking about it for a while and I even contacted Pebble. I thought I'll make it for real in case the official Pebble app stops working. Right after I started, I was talking in the Pebble Discord server and I saw that more people were doing a lot of Pebble stuff like making their own app store clone, firmware, etc. The community was blooming! So I thought I could join them."
That community can be found on the unofficial Pebble Dev Discord server. Twelve people are listed with bios and links on the Rebble site but developers around the world are working on everything from recreating Pebble firmware, now owned by Fitbit, almost from scratch to looking for voice dictation alternatives and experimenting with the ambient light sensor on the Pebble Time. As Ish Ot. Jr says, "There have been a number of technical challenges along the way, of course, though 'challenges' like reverse-engineering APIs and firmware is all part of the fun!"
The Pebble 2 (which you can still buy) and the abandoned Pebble Core
Sanchez is focusing on developing an alternative Pebble iOS app as well as an alternate library to the current Pebble SDK for iOS which can be used by other iPhone apps. As with many of those involved, life and day jobs have got in the way of this labour of love and there's no time estimate yet but she is pressing on in her free time.
"So far I have not implemented a lot yet," she says. "Most of my time was used to investigate how Bluetooth LE works, and how Pebble talks to the phone. The furthest I got was to pair all Pebble models from my app. I hope I can continue with my Rebble iOS app soon! Next will be trying to get information from the watch like for example health, and trying to install apps/faces to the Pebble from the app."
The spirit of Pebble's not going anywhere
The success of Rebble depends, in a peculiar way, on how much Pebble DNA Fitbit incorporates into its smartwatch – according to ex-Pebblers we've spoken to, not a lot, as we're expecting more of a full-blown Apple Watch competitor rather than a long-lasting, indie dev-friendly device.
We don't have a 'click to make your Pebble Rebble' button
He does point out that the Rebble project has received "support, insight and encouragement" from ex-Pebble employees – even some now working at Fitbit have got in touch to help in a personal capacity. In a twist on the bad-natured acquisition narrative too, Fitbit itself – as well as "keeping the lights on" at Pebble which it may not have been obliged to do – has "never done anything to obstruct our efforts," says Ish Ot. Jr. "They could easily have claimed threats to their newly-acquired IP and used C&Ds or takedowns to impede our progress, but instead we've received nothing but support and good will!"
We'll be keeping an eye on Rebble's progress throughout the year. If you want to get involved, even if you're a newbie, head to the #rebirth channel of the Pebble Dev Discord server and post what your areas of interest and skills are to get started.
Perhaps the most amazing thing is that in 2017 people are buying cheap Pebble watches and starting to develop for the smartwatch platform for the first time. Rebble has made it clear that the ecosystem is down but certainly not out: "The reality is that while we don't have a cohesive 'click here to make your Pebble Rebble' button, we have a delightfully large percentage of that functionality covered in one form or another. If Fitbit announces that everything will be shut down on December 31, I'm confident we'll be able to fill the gap."
Pebble fans, are you excited about what the Rebble team is working on? Are you building replacement software and services for Pebble? Let us know in the comments.