When Pebble, an early, quirky, crowdfunded smartwatch, was acquired in a fire sale by Fitbit in December 2016, the company noted that while existing watches would work for the time being, “functionality or service quality may be reduced in the future.” You’d maybe get some bug fixes, but no software updates or features would arrive for the pioneering e-ink wearables.
Nearly 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 work on the mostly 64-bit Pixel 7 and similar Android phones into the future. It also restores a caller ID function that was hampered on recent Android versions.
Most notably, the app is “signed using the official Pebble keys,” with Google Fit integration maintained, but isn’t available through Google’s Play Store.
Google acquired Fitbit for $2.1 billion, making it the steward of Pebble’s remaining IP and software pieces. Katharine Berry, a key Rebble coder and leader, works on Wear OS at Google and was one of the first to tweet news of the new update, “four years after 4.4.2.” That was the last Play Store update to the Pebble app from Pebble developers, one that freed up many of the app’s functions to be replaced by independent servers.
That’s exactly where Rebble picked up, providing web services to Pebble watches, including (for paying subscribers) voice dictation. But those services still relied on the core Pebble app to connect the watch and smartphone. If Android did make the leap to a 64-bit-only OS, it could have left Pebble/Rebble users in the lurch.
Berry’s post on r/pebble offers “thanks to Google for providing us with one last update!” This is, to be sure, not the typical outcome of products that have been acquired by Google, even if second-hand. We’ve reached out to Google and Berry for comment and details, and we’ll update this post if we hear back.
Pebble and its Rebble-led second act are a remarkable story of community code efforts and longevity. Every watch produced from 2013 onward can still be used, provided the battery and other hardware haven’t given out. In the Rebble Discord and (as noted by community leader ishotjr) in draft blog post commits, there’s evidence of a hackathon coming together in November. “One last update” somehow seems like too cautious a description.