The shiny Rebble future: one year after the Pebble server shutdown
Hi out there, Rebble world! Joshua on the microphone here for a bit. It’s been a year since the Pebble servers have shut down, and I’m still wearing my beloved Pebble 2 on my wrist every day; as far as I can tell, it’s still the case that nothing else out there compares to these things. As the buttons start to wear out on this one, though, I’m starting to ask some of the same questions that I hear echoed out in the Pebble world: what does the future of Rebble and of Pebble-like things look like? Well, I’m an optimist on that – and I wanted to fill you all in on some of the reasons why. I’ll catch you after the fold.
Lingering in the back of my head have been three things: money, movement, and hardware. Without money, the Rebble web services can’t run; without forward movement, we fade quietly into the sunset; and without hardware, there’s nothing to put on our wrists! On all three of those, I have pretty darn good news in the short term, and I have ideas for the long run, too. I’m going to get into each of those in a moment, but before I do, I want to give you the same proviso that Katharine did last year: I can’t guarantee the future, but I’m going to give you my best guess. Let’s start!
I think this is the biggest question on everyone’s mind after we watched the downfall of our beloved Pebble Technology Corporation: how can we build a sustainable way to keep our watches ticking? After all, web hosting can be pretty expensive for a cloud application like Rebble, and we’re not even making any revenue by selling watches. The solution that we came up with was to have a two-tier model: everybody gets access to the basic services for Pebble for free – firmware updates, the app store, account management, and such, but the things that cost us money – dictation and weather – we’d charge a small amount of money for, and if we got the math right, the paid users would subsidize the free users.
So the question is: how well did that work out? I’m happy to say that it seems to be working pretty well. We have around 7,000 paid users, which comes out to about an annual run rate of around $190,000. This means that we’re doing a fair bit better than breaking even for now: even though we’re not drowning in cash, Rebble is definitely managing to pay its own rent from Amazon. This is heartwarming news, and I hope that it makes everyone feel better about the sustainability of Rebble itself, and also about Rebble’s model for running services.
On that front, I wanted to thank all of you who are Rebble subscribers: without you, it wouldn’t be possible to keep this service running, and you all are amazing proof that people will pay to sustain technology that they want to have more of in their life. Maciej Ceglowski, proprietor of a small bookmarking service called Pinboard, wrote a good piece a few years ago about the importance of small paid services, and how they help build business models that center their users as a priority, instead of business models that center investors or surveillance systems as priorities; I have looked to that as inspiration, and I’m glad that we can follow in those footsteps. It’s a joy to serve you all!
I suppose this would be the right time, also, to invite those of you who haven’t joined us as subscribers to come on board! I think that $3/month (or $33/year, if you subscribe for a year at a time) is a great value for being able to dictate messages while I’m out on my bike, and for knowing at a glance when the sun is going to close me out without having to pull out my phone – and, of course, as I noted above, subscriptions go towards keeping Rebble sustainable. So it’s never too late to join the Rebble-lution!
One worry, of course, is that if Rebble is standing still, we start to look pretty dead. After all, we’d been pretty quiet for about a year after the initial Rebble Web Services launch. Well, I assure you that we’re not dead! Some of you with eagle eyes have been watching commits to the Rebble repositories, and have noticed that the pace of development has picked up some over the past few months, culminating with the most recent launch of Timeline. You might be asking: what lead to this sudden surge in motion? And will the development continue?
Well, in May, Katharine, Ish Ot Jr., and I got together in a Hangout, and we spent some time thinking about the future of Rebble. We decided that we had a little bit of money left to spare, and that we wanted to reinvest it in the development of Rebble, and so we’d pay someone to do a little engineering work. Well, precisely, we’d pay, well – me! About a year ago, I left my previous day job to do some software and hardware consulting, and as a result of that, it suddenly became possible for me to dedicate time in small quantities, rather than as “everything or nothing”. For the past few months, I’ve been doing about six hours of paid work a week or so on Rebble (and maybe another five or six during the evenings and on the weekends!) to knock off some features that we’ve been hoping to build.
I’ve been doing a bunch of work behind the scenes on building development tools and administrative features so that we can help you out with billing problems, but Timeline was the first major fruit of that work that was visible to you, our beloved users. I don’t think Timeline will be the end, either: on my to-do list is to start building out the app store developer portal, and even some work on longer-term ideas for keeping the Pebble ecosystem alive. Of course, all of the work that I’m doing is and always will be open-source, just like the rest of Rebble (it’s even written into the contract!).
I’m doing this all on the back of the amazing work that Katharine did to get Rebble Web Services off the ground. She basically put this whole thing together single-handedly, and I owe her incredible thanks for such a strong foundation to keep building on top of. If you haven’t watched her talk from !!Con West 2019, it’s a great story about how we got here, told expertly in 10 minutes – go watch it; you won’t regret it!
A year ago, Ish Ot Jr. wrote and said that we’re just getting started, and he was right. It feels to me like we have a path forward to keep building Rebble into the future: we took a breather after we launched, but we’re back at it, and now we’re geared up to – as Pebble liked to say – keep making awesome happen!
The last piece of the puzzle, I claim, is hardware. I’m not the only one with holes bursting in the buttons of his Pebble 2. Pebble Technology Corporation isn’t making any more of the things, so in theory, our userbase is only shrinking from here, and that’s not a good place to be. How can we keep more Pebbles running for longer, and is there ever a possibility of there being more?
Pebble life support: you can save your Pebble now!
I am a die-hard believer in my Pebble 2, but as we all know, these things have a serious design defect: the silicone buttons on the side fall apart after about a year. There have been a handful of makeshift solutions out there, but I never found the Sugru approach to be great. Fortunately, the quality of 3D printing has gotten quite good in recent years – and even more fortunately, two wonderful Pebblers have been experimenting with hardware to rebuild Pebbles stronger, and, frankly, I think even better-looking. Tation and Astosia have a Shapeways store with all manner of exciting fixes for your Pebble 2, including entirely new cases that use the original “OG” Pebble buttons; they also have Imgur albums with the guts of how to dissasemble and reassemble the devices. They’re also experimenting with replacement 3D printed rubber buttons that you can glue right on. So if your Pebble 2 is falling apart, don’t despair: there are fixes that you can make today to bring it back to life! There are also some models available on Thingiverse, for those inspired to print their own.
The batteries in these things also don’t last forever, we’ve found. Luckily, it seems like you can get anything in China if you know where to look – people have had success with batteries from Aliexpress for the original Pebbles, for Pebble Time and Pebble Time Steel, and for Pebble 2. If you’re handy doing a little soldering, Pebble batteries are not too tricky to replace, and you can get years more of reliable service from your beloved Pebble.
Pebble life support going forward
Here’s the bit where I start to speculate a little bit. I’ve heard rumblings of the GadgetWraps guys making some side buttons for Pebble 2 with their beautiful silicone molding process. If they do, it could be possible to get the same lovely smooth feeling buttons that you were used to, without any major surgery at all. If that sounds like something you’d like, you might want to shoot them some mail telling them that you’d be interested!
I’ve also been talking a little bit with a low-volume injection molding company. I don’t want to say too much about that, since I don’t know where it will end up, but it’s definitely possible that in the not-so-distant future, we could have new cases for Pebbles in all manner of interesting shapes designs, and materials. The logistics of selling them are very scary to me, but if there’s interest, Astosia, Tation, and I are interested in making it happen!
The post-Pebble problem
Of course, this is all well and good, but how can we bring new Rebblers into the fold? In some ideal universe, it would be nice to sell new hardware, without all of the pain of trying to limp along something that we didn’t design. What if we could improve on Pebble with new features? After all, Bluetooth microcontrollers have come a long way in the last few years in terms of power consumption…
It sounds like a pipe dream, but it’s not entirely. Over the Christmas break last year, I designed an nRF52840-powered microcontroller board that, hopefully, could be shrunk down into the form factor of a watch. A month or two later, I had a circuit board that I called “Asterix” that I had Bluetooth and a display up and running on … and a month after that, I managed to bring RebbleOS up on that, along with my Pebble app “Dali Clock”. For the first time in history, I think, I had an application that was built using only Pebble tools running on non-Pebble Technology Corp hardware!
I don’t want to get your hopes up too much. There’s a lot of work to do. Barry – who some of you on Discord may know as ginge – did an amazing job laying the groundwork for RebbleOS, but as everybody who’s come and asked about it knows, we still have a long way to go on the software front. The hardware that I have is about four times too big; I think it’s definitely possible to shrink it, but it’ll require a good amount of effort to do. And the question of manufacturing it looms huge in my mind, and I don’t know where to even start with that.
But it feels possible, in a way that it didn’t a year ago. I’m hoping that I can put some time towards that once I get Timeline settled in and under control. I don’t know anything about manufacturing, and distributing and selling them scares the dickens out of me even if I manage to make more than one of them. So, hey, if you know about these things and want to take charge of a piece of it – come in and help out! I’d be happy to work with you!
On that front, I’ll leave you with an exciting little video of Asterix booting into RebbleOS. It’s way less complete than it looks: it’s incredibly unstable, and it doesn’t even know how to talk to the Pebble app yet. There’s so much I don’t know, and I don’t even know how to estimate how much is behind it. But it’s hard not to look at it and grin. What is the purpose of the future, if not to give us something to aspire to?
Rebble is alive and well. I touched on three pieces: money, progress, and hardware. These three things all feed into each other: money keeps us alive, and helps us make progress; progress keeps us alive, and helps us make hardware; and keeping hardware alive keeps us alive, and lets Rebble keep making money. In the short term, Rebble is healthy on all three of these fronts. There’s a plausible idea for how we could remain healthy going forward, too! It’s going to take work, and it’s going to take the continued support of you, our amazing community, but it’s not impossible.
On a personal note, it feels very rewarding to get to serve yinz Rebblers. Pebble built a passionate group of users. I’m excited.
Ok, that seems like about it for today. Thanks for staying with us so far, and I’m looking forward to coming with you all into the Shiny Rebble Future – keep your Pebbles on your wrists!