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I am prone to becoming captivated with devices that are ahead of their time. The Apple Newton (although I arrived well after the start of that party), Nokia’s 770, and MetaWatch’s first smartwatch are some notable examples. They all pioneered a product space and struggled to achieve meaningful success.
MetaWatch caught my eye as a new entry into wearable tech that brought the smartwatch concept to reality with a fashionable, capable device. The hacking opportunities their open source device firmware offered made the device yet more interesting, especially as I am prone to using mobile device platforms that do not receive a lot of official support.
I’d like to discuss some of my experiences with MetaWatch and their devices, and the various missteps and issues that’ve ultimately led to my losing most of the interest I first had in their product line.
What is a smartwatch?
As an aside for readers who are unfamiliar with these devices: a smartwatch is, in addition to being a watch, basically another screen for your phone that sits on your wrist. In practice, this functionality mostly revolves around vibrating for incoming notifications (e.g., text messages, phone calls, emails, IRC highlights, etc.), displaying the notification content for you to read on the watch face, and, in some cases, replying to notifications with a limited set of canned answers. A smartwatch also extends the amount of information you normally get from a watch by adding things like geolocation-aware weather, and automatic time synching. There are applets and other tools that can also be run to provide music playback controls and track information, sports updates, and lots of other features.
First, some history.
MetaWatch was born from a collaboration project between Fossil and Texas Instruments to develop a device that’d serve as a platform for highlighting TI’s microchip products and for Fossil to experiment with wearable tech. The team was spun off into its own company, and shortly after, released their first developer-oriented devices in September 2011. I was instantly excited by the new product and pre-ordered their digital watch as soon as it became available.
Hacker extraordinaire and all-around great guy javispedro ordered one for himself not long after I ordered mine. In a frustrating twist, he received his watch 3 weeks before I did. This worked out in my favor, however, as it was exactly enough time for him to put together a MetaWatch application for Nokia’s Maemo devices (Harmattan on the N950 and N9, specifically): sowatch. This meant I was able to start using my new watch right away when I received it. sowatch is still the best watch smartwatch application I’ve used to date.
MetaWatch ended up launching a Kickstarter campaign for the STRATA, a new casual smartwatch, in July 2012. The sports-orientated design of the STRATA, with its rubber watch band and bright colors, didn’t manage to match the excellent looks of their earlier digital watches and failed to address many of the hardware deficiencies of their existing devices, but I wast still enthusiastic at this point and backed the campaign almost immediately. The STRATA was delivered, owing to MetaWatch’s experience with hardware, as promised and on-time—unlike many Kickstarter hardware projects. The company kindly offered a lifetime 25% discount on future MetaWatch product releases for Kickstarter backers. I inquired about benefits for users who had jumped onto their platform with the original watch releases and was told they were working on something, but I don’t think anything ever materialized.
During the whole early period of the company's history, MetaWatch had never really engaged with its community, then they underwent a rebranding in 2014 and became META. The new brand was much less hacker-oriented and more fashion-accessory, which seemingly brought their brand in-line with their actions. They opened pre-orders for their new META M1 smartwatch—similar in market positioning to the Pebble Steel—in August 2014. The M1 fixed many of the shortcomings of their earlier watches: improved screen resolution and legibility, improved battery life, and faster processor. The hardware improvements and the fashion acumen were undeniable, but MetaWatch’s lack of attention to the hacker community that, I felt, had bolstered a lot of their early success, accelerated my waning interest in their platform. The branding shift only served to further underline their lack of engagement with their own community.
So where did they falter?
The original digital MetaWatch is a very striking device. It’s still the most-complimented thing I’ve ever worn, and I consider it the best-looking smartwatch manufactured to date. The Sharp memory LCD they used featured a reflective background that gave black pixels a unique silvery sheen that caught the eye. The glass-and-black styling of the device gave it a very modern feel, with an impressive visual impact. The Susan Kare-designed font lent it a stunning and timeless retro-modern quality. For me, the original MetaWatch is a true piece of fashion in ways more modern smartwatches with high-resolution color screens do not achieve.
Despite its impeccable fashion merits, the watch’s hardware had numerous downsides. It was a victim of being a pioneer to market whose technologies had not yet matured. The relatively anemic MSP430 microcontroller, while reducing cost and potentially increasing battery life, severely limited native applications. Pre-BLE Bluetooth impacted battery life, and high latency using applications rendered by the smartphone made many use-cases impossible or needlessly painful. The relatively low-resolution 96x96 pixel memory LCD gave the watch a wonderfully-executed retro-modern feel, but limited the density and quality of on-screen information. The reflective background of the LCD, while striking, often led to situations where careful positioning of the watch face was required to read it clearly (white ceilings could often be a problem) and turned off many potential buyers.
MetaWatch did not adequately capitalize on their early entry into the market, and quickly became surpassed by competition arriving later with more-capable hardware.
The Pebble had several advantages over MetaWatch: big hype, a higher-resolution LCD, faster hardware, and some slick marketing that, unfortunately, leveraged a lack of clarity in E Ink display terminology to rope in more backers.
Pebble advertised their new watch as having an “e-paper” display. As stated in the campaign it suggested strongly that their watch would use an E Ink display similar to those found on ereaders. This was at least strongly misleading, if not downright deceptive. In reality, Pebble used a high-resolution version of the Sharp memory LCD (a cool tech in itself) used by MetaWatch. This was never really clarified by Pebble, and created ill-will among a lot of their potential customers.
Aside from the misleading marketing, the Pebble had a number of features in its favor. First, the higher-resolution LCD offered better legibility with higher information density and more pixels for artists to play with. Second, a faster processor (Cortex M3) and more modern peripheral hardware gave the Pebble substantially better performance than the MetaWatch devices and better battery life as well. Finally, the improved hardware significantly expanded the possibilities for native applications, which fostered a strong enthusiast community for the platform.
While Pebble did a good job of encouraging and engaging with their enthusiast community, MetaWatch did not.
As those of us who were involved for many years in using, hacking, and proselytizing Nokia’s Maemo platform know, one of Nokia’s biggest strengths was their ability to engage, encourage, and facilitate the community surrounding Maemo, despite numerous obstacles from within the company. The group of hackers that surrounded Maemo at its peak was, and is, the most impressive collection of talented, exciting, competent, kind, and all-around awesome people I’ve ever had the good fortune to be involved with. The value-add a group like this brings to a product is immense.
A small startup is obviously not a massive multinational, and MetaWatch certainly does not have the resources that a company like Nokia did. Hosting conferences and flying your community contributors around the world is not an option for MetaWatch, but Nokia was, in many ways, a company which failed in large part due to its management and bureaucratic bloat and the concomitant lack of agility and flexibility. A small startup should have none of these problems, so the corporate policies and structures which would interfere with building a rapport with a strong community should not exist.
MetaWatch mostly failed to engage with its community at all. The forums at metawatch.org experienced fairly steady traffic for many months, but it was prone to being an echo chamber of unanswered questions. The lack of expert input from MetaWatch or its employees in any community channel limited the community's (and thus MetaWatch's) growth. A strong core of community hackers was active for a while, but MetaWatch failed to engage them, and most eventually left for other platforms. The community forums are a graveyard today, and have been for more than a year.
The negative effects of the lack of community engagement were often further compounded by the shortcomings and holes in the platform's developer story.
Open Source and the MetaWatch Developer Story
My experiences are more limited in the developer side of the story, but there were two major factors that were roadbumps for many people trying to develop for the MetaWatch platform or hack on its firmware.
The first was the closed-source Bluetooth stack. This was necessitated mostly by lack of available open source-friendly hardware options at the time, but limited many hackers in the depth of manipulation they could do to the platform.
The second was the lack of a good free toolchain. TI’s Code Composer studio was only sort-of free, and presented a lot of difficulties for developers trying to work on the platform. Especially with its issues running under Linux. This situation improved with time, but the lack of good tools (especially initially) dampened a lot of the developer enthusiasm that plays such a huge role in the success of any new platform.
MetaWatch offered a lot of promise when they first entered the market. It was a cool, fashionable product that checked most of the boxes for a daily device with good open source potential—especially following TI’s strong showing with the BeagleBoard. Unfortunately their early entry into the smartwatch space was hindered by immature technology, the market entry of a strong competitor, lack of community engagement, and difficulties in developing for the platform.
Hardware limitations were largely determined by the timing of their entry into the market and the lack of mature technologies for the product niche. Pebble capitalized very well on this and responded with a piece of kit which offered a big hardware upgrade over the MetaWatch. The developer story, too, was largely dictated by immature technology.
Of these issues, the lack of community engagement was the worst. MetaWatch achieved early success with a developer-oriented product that touted its open source merits as a major selling point and then completely failed to engage the community that developed around that product. This neglect deflated a lot of the early enthusiasm the company managed to create. The branding shift to META put the nails in its coffin.
A strong community provides product ambassadors who bring hype and excitement, and who will tell anyone who will listen, “This is a cool product.” They offer free tech support to other users. The creative hackers among them make will your product do things you only wish you had the time to make happen, and others you never dreamed of. In short, they bring vitality to a platform.
The relationship between companies and their customers has changed a lot over the past 10 years. It is much harder to remain relevant in tech as a cathedral than it used to be. The companies that realize this and take the route of the bazaar—engage with the communities of enthusiasts and hackers that develop around their products—stand to gain a lot of value.1 For the rest, see MetaWatch.
I am saddened that a company whose products I had such enthusiasm for, and derived such utility and daily enjoyment out of, took this long road to irrelevancy. One wonders where they could've ended up had they engaged with and fostered their community instead of ignoring it almost entirely.