Microsoft is working on Pebble support for Windows Phone

This week’s Kickstarter darling, the Pebble Time smartwatch, has much to offer — if you use an iPhone or Android handset, that is. Pebble doesn’t officially support Windows Phone, and although a Microsoft employee was tinkering to fix that last year, it hasn’t happened yet. Based on an app in the Windows Phone store, however, that may be changing.

WMPowerUser noticed the app for Windows Phone 8.1 devices, which is an internal [company]Microsoft[/company] test build of something called Pebble Notifications. The app description spills the beans and even includes a link for notes:

Pebble application for Windows Phone. This is an internal test application to get feedback on Accessory Ecosystem Support feature in WP Blue GDR1. Fore mode details refer to https://www.yammer.com/microsoft.com/notes/1362520

I don’t have access to read the notes or to install the app. Yes, I tried.

pebble notifications wp

Clearly, this is for Microsoft testing only at the moment, but based on the screen shots, the app looks as if it would be very handy if you wanted to use a Pebble smartwatch with a Windows Phone.

There’s no guarantee that Microsoft will ever publicly release the software, of course. But if it wants to make Windows Phone more attractive to potential buyers, it would make sense for the company to get its platform working with as many third-party devices and services as possible, even if it has to do the software work on its own.

While Microsoft could simply be using the Pebble to test Windows Phone notifications over Bluetooth, it strikes me as odd in one sense.

The Microsoft Band already supports notifications (and more) with Windows Phone. Why bother testing with the Pebble if you have your own hardware to work with? Even odder is that the test app for Pebble Notifications was updated within the past week. That suggests to me that Microsoft may release this app in the future, but of course, only Microsoft knows at this point.

Broadcom has an Android Wear platform with 3G, NFC and more

Broadcom wants to make it easier for hardware makers to build an Android Wear smartwatch, complete with features that Google’s software doesn’t even support yet, notes PhoneScoop. The chip company introduced its watch platform that pairs a power efficient quad-core processor with mobile broadband radio, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2, GPS, NFC, wireless charging and optional camera support.

Indeed, the hardware is far ahead of the software in a few ways, much like the Sony Smartwatch 3 I bought last year is.

Smartwatch 3 screen on

My Android Wear watch, for example, includes both GPS and Wi-Fi radios but the software only works with the former; Wi-Fi support isn’t yet included with Android Wear. I anticipate it will be at or before this May’s [company]Google[/company] I/O event. That would let you untether the watch from a phone; data could be sent over a local Wi-Fi network.

Broadcom is clearly thinking beyond Wi-Fi in Android Wear, however.

Adding a 2G/3G radio would make such a device work without a phone, even outside the range of a Wi-Fi network. It would also challenge battery life, which is already a downer for many who are considering an Android Wear smartwatch. I can eke out two days of run time on my Smartwatch 3, for example, but often charge it nightly, just as most Android Wear owners do. The addition of wireless charging support adds convenience but does nothing to improve battery life, of course.

The new Broadcom platform for Android Wear is available to hardware makers to sample, and the company will be showing off its platform focused on smartwatches at next week’s Mobile World Congress.

This is Pebble Time, a new smartwatch to manage your days

After teasing us with a week-long countdown, Pebble introduced its new Pebble Time smartwatch on Tuesday. The revamped hardware includes a color e-paper display and focuses on the past, present and future for its interface.

pebble time timeline

Unlike the original Pebble, the interface is very different. The watch still has the same three buttons on the right side but they represent slices of time. Press the top one and see relevant items from the past few days such as your step count or game scores. The middle is your current day while the bottom button represents your future.

It’s a novel approach compared to current smartwatches; take a look:

[protected-iframe id=”c4a9b0b7d401d24a83ba20782407523a-14960843-4856826″ info=”https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/597507018/pebble-time-awesome-smartwatch-no-compromises/widget/video.html” width=”500″ height=”375″ frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no”]

The new hardware is 9.5 millimeters thick, which is 20 percent thinner than the original Pebble watch. It still connects to a phone via Bluetooth, runs for up to 7 days on a charge and will be available in several colors. And it’s still compatible with the more than 6,500 apps built for Pebble.

pebble time colors

 

Also included in this version is a microphone so you can dictate message replies and notes yourself; this feature is more limited when using Pebble Time with an [company]Apple[/company] iPhone than it is on [company]Google[/company] Android handsets.

Those who backed and bought the initial Pebble aren’t left out of the new timeline interface: Pebble is working to bring it to the older smartwatches as well. I’ll be interested to see how this new interface pans out on both the new and old Pebble devices as it sounds nice in theory.

Like the original Pebble, the new Pebble Time is a Kickstarter project with backing to start at $159 with delivery expected in May.

Microsoft improves its Band and launches Health website

Microsoft’s health tracking device is getting its first big update since launching in October. CNET says the Microsoft Band now has an activity tile specifically for cycling and a small keyboard for responding to messages from your wrist. The company also debuted data on its Microsoft Health website, a dashboard for viewing activities tracked by the Band, and a developer SDK preview for the device.

Microsoft Band steps

If you’ve used any major activity tracking services online before, the new Health site will look familiar. It takes the data from your Band, which is synchronized to [company]Microsoft[/company] servers, and shows a nice graphical view of your exercise. Here’s an example of a run where I wore the Band, and it tracked my heart rate as well as my route, pace, distance and time.

microsoft band run graph

 

Clicking between the three icons at the top — the runner, heart and mountains — shows different data: Pace and distance, for example, or elevation. All of this information is already available on the companion smartphone app but it’s nice to have a view available in the browser. I don’t see a way to export the data, unfortunately. However, Microsoft says the Band does integrate with MapMyFitness.

Also new to the Band itself is a cycling tile, which offers the same types of data tracking as running but, of course, ties that data to bike rides. And cyclists will get the option of using workouts specific to their activity; the Band already has downloadable workouts for other exercises.

Microsoft Band tiles

Lastly, the Band is getting a way to better respond to incoming messages from a Windows powered smartphone: A virtual keyboard and voice replies. The little keyboard is based on Microsoft’s Word Flow technology used on its Windows Phone handsets, so word prediction and swiping out characters is included.

For those that prefer to use their voice or find the Band’s screen a bit too small to type on, dictated responses are available as well. This, too, is a Windows Phone 8.1 feature only though since it relies on Cortana; if you’re using the Microsoft Band with an [company]Apple[/company] iPhone or [company]Google[/company] Android handset, you won’t be able to reply with spoken responses.

Leaked image may show Pebble’s new colorful watch

Last week we saw a countdown timer on Pebble’s website, suggesting the company may introduce its next smartwatch Tuesday morning. On Monday, an image from Pebble’s own servers shows what the new device may look like.

pebble-2-smartwatch

9to5 Google found the image, which shows a wider but similar watch to the current Pebble, which works with both [company]Apple[/company] iPhones and Google Android handsets.

The most noticeable difference is the yellow background color; up to now Pebble smartwatches have used low-power, e-ink monochrome displays to help the watches run for several days on a charge. The image shown has the same button placement as prior Pebble watches, with one on the left and three on the right.

pebble action

Earlier this month, Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky said new hardware was on the way. I had figured this meant a more radical redesign, but based on the picture, it appears that Pebble is refining its current hardware. There’s nothing wrong with that and it surely keeps production costs down as opposed to creating a completely different design.

I’m more intrigued by the software we’ll find inside a new Pebble, though.

The company hired some of the old webOS team and Migicovsky noted that the watch interface will be different; there will still be apps but they won’t be the focus. Based on the image of a notification, it could be that these take center stage in some new way, similar to [company]Google[/company] Now. We should know for sure tomorrow at 10 a.m. ET when the countdown ends.

Watch this: iPhone notifications on Android Wear

Despite the fact that both Google’s and Apple’s smartwatches are designed only to work with their own respective mobile platforms, you can get notifications from an iPhone on an Android Wear watch. Well, maybe you can’t, but Mohammad Abu-Garbeyyeh can.

MohammadAG, as he’s known in developer circles, shared this brief video over the weekend, showing a notification from his [company]Apple[/company] iPhone appearing on his [company]Google[/company] Android Wear watch.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/DIIYmVSc9Yw]

Android Authority notes that the solution here uses the Apple Notification Center Service (ANSC), which is what the Pebble smartwatch has used for the same purpose. Apple introduced ANSC with iOS 7 so that Bluetooth devices could receive notifications from iOS devices. To get ANSC working with an Android Wear watch, MohammadAG created a small Android app, which he may open source and make freely available.

For now, this is more concept than usable solution if you like Apple’s phones and watches that run Google’s software. And notifications are just one small part of what smartwatches can and should offer. Still, MohammadAG’s effort is an interesting proof of concept.

Perhaps Google will pick up where he left off and bring native iOS support to Android Wear? Given how well Google supports iOS with nearly all of its other apps and services, I wouldn’t be shocked if Google is working on it.

Have we figured out what we want in a smartwatch yet?

Next month will be the one-year anniversary of Google’s smartwatch platform introduction. And the month after that will see the Apple Watch ship to its first buyers. While smartwatches have been around for far longer, it’s only been the last year or two where they’ve become viable enough for mainstream consumers to even consider purchasing.

I’m not sure we’re any closer to knowing what we want from these wearable devices though, or rather if we’re at a point where smartwatches are compelling enough to generate hundreds of millions of sales. That’s partly why I wasn’t surprised to see reports of only 720,000 Android Wear devices shipped in 2014. There are other reasons of course: the first devices only started shipping in the middle of the year and the platform is brand new. But I think the central stumbling block to sales is convincing people that a smartwatch is worth buying.

Table stakes and notifications aren’t enough

At the moment, all of these devices offer what I’d call “table stakes” or the minimum you’d expect. That means they all have clock, alarm and stopwatch functions, for example. Of course, I’d hope a watch could actually tell the time, so this is pretty basic and obvious. Not all of them show the time constantly though, in order to save battery life.

Google I/O Motorola 360 smart watch

The second functional level is pretty much there as well: Notifications. This is where the smartwatch receives texts, emails, incoming call info and other app data from the connected phone. Android Wear is pretty good at that, the [company]Apple[/company] Watch will support these nuggets of information as well. And third-party smartwatches can do this too: Earlier this week, Pebble added full Android Wear notification support for its watches.

Health tracking helps a little

Telling time and having actionable notifications that you already have on the phone in your pocket isn’t enough though. Enter health tracking functions, which are handled through the sensors in these devices for the wrist. Nearly all have an accelerometer and/or gyroscope to track steps, movement and exercise. That’s a start.

Sony SmartWatch 3

Add in heart-rate monitors and you get more depth into the captured health data. Some, such as the Android Wear smartwatch I bought, include a dedicated GPS. Now we’re getting somewhere, because the Sony Smartwatch 3 breaks away from the connected phone for some functions and works as a standalone device.

Standalone devices vs. accessories

And that brings me to the crux of the problem when it comes to cracking the code for massive smartwatch sales: Most of the devices currently or soon available aren’t standalone devices. You need a [company]Google[/company] Android phone for nearly all of the functions an Android Wear watch provides. The same holds true for the Apple Watch; you’ll need an iPhone to use the watch.

Apple Unveils iPhone 6

So the question becomes: How do you convince consumers to spend $200, $300 or more for device that is an accessory to the phone? I think that’s the biggest obstacle here before the smartwatch market can ever tout sales of 100 million or more devices.

Context is a plus, but is it enough?

Google has a bit of an edge here with Android Wear because it takes advantage of its own Google Now service. This provides contextual notifications that are optimized for consumption at a glance; precisely the type of useful information that works well on a watch and something I hoped for months before Google announced Android Wear.

Got a meeting coming? Your watch reminds you in advance. Is there traffic now that could impact travel time to your job? The watch will let you know. Essentially, Google Now on the wrist tells you things you need to know that you didn’t need you know. Although Apple’s Siri can’t do this yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets an upgrade for the Apple Watch and this becomes a “killer feature” of the device.

Joanna Stern Google Now

Even so, this contextual conversation with timely, personal reminders still relies on the smartphone you already have, in which case you can get the same information and reminders from that phone. I’m hoping the Wi-Fi radio in my Sony Smartwatch 3 cuts that cord a little in the future. For now, we have to remember that smartwatches of today are still secondary to the phones we already have.

Are apps the answer?

Mobile apps helped propel smartphone adoption but I’m not yet sold that it will do the same for smartwatches. Sure, it’s handy to use an app optimized for the wrist when the phone is in your pocket. Does it add a tremendous amount of value? I’m not convinced; at least not yet.

There’s a convenience factor but it’s pretty limited. For the moment, these apps are simply a way to interact differently — and usually less so — with their full-featured smartphone cousins. App makers are also constrained on smartwatches with limited hardware and screen space; at a time when phones are getting bigger and there’s more room to work with, developers have to pick, choose and cram functions into a smartwatch app, often just mirroring similar information from the phone.

Pushing data from one screen to another isn’t worth $200 or more for most consumers. So it’s early days for this market and until we can find some other features or functions we want in a smartwatch — and device makers have the technology to implement them — this market is still one for high-priced accessories where the value proposition isn’t yet compelling for most people.

Mobile recap: LoopPay vs. Apple Pay; new Pebble; LG Watch Urbane

Samsung has a new way to fight back against Apple and it has nothing to do with Google. This week, Samsung bought LoopPay; a company that adds mobile payments to phones using a magnetic field. Early reports and rumors about Samsung’s Galaxy S6 handset — expected to debut on March 1 — suggested a LoopPay tie-in.

Loop mobile payments

Google may not like it, but the acquisition gives Samsung a digital payment solution of its own, although the company can certainly still offer [company]Google[/company] Wallet on its Android devices. Google’s Wallet, four years in the making, hasn’t really resounded with consumers though. I’ve been using the service on and off since 2011 with Android phones that have an NFC chip inside them but retailers have been slow to adopt or support Wallet. That’s in stark contrast to [company]Apple[/company] Pay, which is a successful twist on the same NFC technology.

While LoopPay will work for now in the U.S. by spoofing the magnetic card stripe on current payment cards, Samsung will have to adopt it for the upcoming change in payments here. Samsung will need to create bank partnerships for EMV payments; essentially, we’re getting a payment card upgrade here later this year, which will require LoopPay to work with chip-and-PIN cards. LoopPay knew of this transition, so it’s not completely in the dark; we’ll see how it handles the change in a few months.

pebble action

Before then, we may have a new smartwatch or wearable device from Pebble. The company, which ran a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012 for its current smartwatch, is expected to announce something on Tuesday of this week. That’s based on a countdown timer that’s been busily ticking away since Thursday.

While we have no idea what Pebble is counting down for, the company did say earlier this month that it would be launching new hardware this year, along with a unique software interface. Perhaps we’ll get a glimpse of a new watch this week; hopefully, it’s not just a new band for the existing Pebble.

lg watch urbane gold

 

Even if Pebble does launch a new smartwatch, it’s going to compete with more Android Wear devices. The latest, LG’s Watch Urbane, hides its smarts in what looks like a very traditional analog timepiece. The stainless steel Urbane will be available in gold or silver finishes, uses the same 1.3-inch circular plastic OLED touchscreen display as the existing G Watch R and is aimed for the upscale smartwatch market.

Countdown clock suggests new Pebble product next week

It looks as though on Tuesday at 7am PT next week Pebble will announce…. something.

pebble countdown

I’m basing that the not very subtle countdown ticker currently on Pebble’s home page. Based on the time remaining, we have five days to figure out, speculate and predict what’s happening with Pebble. But we’re not completely in the dark.

It was just a few weeks ago that Pebble CEO, Eric Migicovsky, said the company would have both new hardware and software later this year. The current Pebble watches haven’t seen a major hardware upgrade yet — at least not from an internals standpoint — so a new product with more sensors and perhaps voice command capabilities wouldn’t surprise me.

Hardware is the easy part to predict though; Migicovsky’s comments about the software for a new Pebble product are far more intriguing. “It doesn’t look like what we have today, and it doesn’t look like what’s on your smartphone,” Migicovsky told The Verge, adding that apps will be part of the product, but not the focus.

That suggests to me that some type of contextual interface along with health-tracking, but of course, that’s just an educated guess. As it stands now, with the latest software update, the current Pebble watch can interact with Android Wear notifications but it lacks many of the other features found in [company]Google[/company]’s smartwatch platform. I can perform a search or ask for my agenda by voice on the Smartwatch 3 I bought; not so on the Pebble.

Regardless, we’ll have to wait at least five more days to find out what Pebble has in store for your wrist. Let the speculation begin!

Oh, look: An Android Wear watch that looks like a watch

LG was Google’s primary hardware partner to develop the first Android Wear smartwatch last year and now it’s taking the next step to make the devices look more fashionable. On Monday, LG previewed the LG Watch Urbane: A digital smartwatch with the design of an analog timepiece.

lg watch urbane gold

The “all metal, luxury” Urbane will debut at next month’s Mobile World Congress, LG said in a release, and it borrows from the display technology in LG’s current round [company]Google[/company] Android Wear watch, the LG G Watch R. The same 1.3-inch circular plastic OLED screen from that model is used for the Urbane, as are the same internal chips, battery and sensors.

From a design standpoint, however, the look is modernized with a thinner, stainless steel body finished in either gold or silver and a leather strap in your choice of black or brown. Any 22-millimeter watch band can be substituted on the Urbane.

Although one could argue that the Moto 360 was the first Android Wear device to most closely resemble a traditional watch, there were still clues that it was a digital timepiece — the small chunk of the screen that doesn’t show anything, for example. You can’t really say the same about the LG Watch Urbane. It resembles a traditional watch but offers the functionality of Android Wear inside, which is an important step for the platform: Consumers want watches that look like watches, not small smartphones on their wrist.