This week, word broke of the final, ultimate demise of the Pebble smartwatch, with current owner Fitbit announcing that it would be ending support for the scrappy crowdfunded smartwatches this coming June.
And while that moment will go down as the death of an era of Kickstarter successes and a dream of a true third-party smartwatch alternative to Apple and Google’s own smartwatch platforms, the end of the Pebble era will hold a different sort of significance to me: the death of hardware buttons.
Because unlike an Apple Watch or Android Wear device, Pebble watches worked completely with physical buttons. The whole point of a smartwatch was supposed to be that you can use it instead of having to take your phone out of your pocket, and no time was that more useful than when it’s cold or snowing outside and you just want to change the song that’s playing on your phone or read a text message. For years, even as I’ve stopped wearing my Apple Watch entirely, I still turned to my Pebble if I wanted a physical hardware control for my music, one that I could use while out on a run or a train without needing to look down at my watch. And while some of the hybrid smartwatches are picking up the tactile button slack, they lack the full smartwatch capabilities of the Pebble watches.
It’s a problem that predates the Pebble. Touchscreens have been bringing this issue to the forefront of my mind for years. When I upgraded from an iPod video to an iPod touch, I lost the ability to just plug in my headphones and skip between songs on my iPod while drifting off to sleep on planes. The aphorism “Easy enough to do with your eyes closed,” simply doesn’t apply to our technology anymore, because no matter how intuitive the operating system, the very nature of the hardware demands your full visual attention. It’s the same reason that touchscreen keyboards on tablets aren’t as useful as physical keyboards on our laptops and desktops — because we don’t need to look at the real, physical buttons to use them.
Now, are any of these major, life-altering problems that irrevocably effect the overall technology industry? Obviously not. The era of the touchscreen is likely here to stay; with the exception of holdouts like the BlackBerry KeyOne, a full-touch experience on a smartphone allows for far more functionality than what we lost in tactile responses.
But still, as the Pebble — and the last bastion of mobile hardware buttons — rides off into the sunset, I can’t help but wish that companies would put more thought into this side of the user experience. After all, it’s still winter in New York for another few weeks, and my fingers are getting cold.