Timelines on the smartwatch: Apple says no while Pebble says yes

Can a chronological timeline be the optimal user interface on a smartwatch? Apple tried it and passed but Pebble is betting its new product on that very UI.

Former Adobe CTO, Kevin Lynch, moved to Apple in 2013 for a project that he didn't even know about. It turns out that project was the Apple Watch, which Lynch has demonstrated on stage at Apple events twice in the past six months. Apple has worked on the watch since 2011, and according to a Wired interview with Lynch and Alan Dye, Apple's head of human interaction, it's been a long, bumpy road.

The entire Wired piece is well worth the read if you're interested in how the Apple Watch came to be but one surprising aspect jumped out at me: Apple tried a chronological timeline interface for the watch but eventually dumped it. It turns out that's the exact user interface used in the coming soon Pebble Time watch, expected to ship next month.

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Pebble Time timeline interface

A watch focused on time

Pebble has already sold one million of its smartwatches, which currently range in price from $99 to $199 for the original model. The new Pebble Time, launched in a Kickstarter project that broke funding records, raising $20.3 million. Pebble Time will retail for $199 and up, far less than the $349 Apple Watch entry point. And it can even do a few things the Apple Watch can't do.

The main selling point of the Pebble Time is in the second word of the product: Time. Pebble decided to reinvent the smart watch interface with a daily timeline and corresponding hardware buttons for the past, present and future. Click the top button and "see" the past by viewing messages, news or sports scores you may have missed. Tap the middle button to be in the now and get a look at your next appointment. Press the future button to see what's upcoming.

Pebble Time's interface sounds intuitive to me; that's why I backed the project have a new smart watch arriving next month. And I'll be pre-ordering an Apple Watch on April 10, mainly to evaluate the product, like I do for so many others. Clearly, the experience will be different.

A watch focused on apps

I've used the Apple Watch twice now: Once in a short canned demo and, more recently, for about 30 minutes with some guidance from Apple. Both times, I've walked away with a feeling that using the watch is bit more complicated than it could be.

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Testing the Apple Watch interface

A few interactions don't quite feel as simple or as intuitive as they do on other Apple devices. That could be because of what Lynch and Dye mentioned to Wired: One key idea of the watch is get people to stop staring at their smartphone screens. Small glances and brief notifications are the intention here, which is one reason I'm concerned about the Apple Watch app land grab. Not every app belongs on the wrist.

That aside, I'm betting that the timeline user interface Pebble chose and Apple spurned will eventually show up on the Apple Watch in the end. No, it won't come from Apple but a third-party implementation wouldn't surprise me. After all, a watch without a reference to timelines doesn't sound quite right.