When Pebble, one of the first original crowdfunded smartwatches, was acquired in a fire sale by Fitbit in December 2016, the company noted that while existing watches would work for now, “the functionality or quality of service may be reduced in the future”. You might get bug fixes, but no software or feature updates will arrive for pioneer e-ink handheld devices.
Almost six years later, a new Pebble app for Android has been released by the Rebble Alliance, a group that has kept Pebble viable for its users since Fitbit shut down Pebble’s servers in mid-2018. Pebble version 4.4.3 makes the app 64-bit so it can run on the mostly 64-bit Pixel 7 and similar Android phones in the future. It also restores a caller ID feature that was hampered on recent versions of Android.
Most notably, the app is “signed using official Pebble keys”, with Google Fit integration maintained, but is not available through Google’s Play Store.
Google acquired Fitbit for $2.1 billion, making it the steward of Pebble’s remaining IP and software elements. Katharine Berry, a coder and key Rebble leader, works on Wear OS at Google and was one of the first to tweet news of new update, “four years after 4.4.2.” This was the latest Play Store update of the Pebble app from the developers of Pebble, which freed up many features of the app to be replaced by independent servers.
That’s exactly where Rebble came in, providing web services to Pebble watches, including (for paying subscribers) voice dictation. But these services still relied on the main Pebble app to connect the watch and smartphone. If Android had made the jump to a 64-bit-only operating system, it might have left Pebble/Rebble users in the lurch.
Berry’s post on r/pebble offers “thanks Google for providing us with a final update!” This is, of course, not the typical result of products acquired by Google, even if they are second-hand. We’ve reached out to Google and Berry for comment and details, and we’ll update this post if we get back to you.
Pebble and its Rebble-led second act is a remarkable story of community code effort and longevity. Every watch produced from 2013 can still be used, as long as the battery and other hardware have not failed. In the Rebble Discord and (as noted by the community leader ishotjr) in draft blog posts, there is evidence that a hackathon will meet in November. “One last update” somehow seems like an overly conservative description.