A Smarter Smartwatch: Pebble Gets iOS Notifications, Announces Foursquare and Yelp Apps

The Kickstarter superstar just became a whole lot more useful.

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Harry McCracken / TIME

With its monochrome display and lack of fancy accoutrements such as a camera, speaker or touchscreen, the Pebble is one smartwatch which doesn’t try to be all things to all people. But it’s about to become more things to more people, courtesy of a bunch of new features which its maker is announcing.

As always, this $150 watch isn’t really a standalone computing device. It uses Bluetooth to communicate with your iPhone or Android phone, and focuses on providing you with quick hits of information so that you don’t need to pull out your handset. Today’s big news affects users who pair their Pebble with an iPhone rather than an Android phone, and it’s really big: With a new version of the iOS app, currently under review by Apple for the App Store, the watch is able to display notifications from any iOS app, not just the far more limited selection it had before (incoming phone calls, text messages and e-mail). This brings the iPhone to parity with Android, which was already able to do this with a third-party app.

Once you’ve installed the latest version of the iPhone app and updated the watch’s firmware, you handle everything through iOS’s notification settings. If an app is set up to display notifications on the phone’s lock screen, they’ll show up on the watch’s display, too (in truncated form if necessary). The new functionality takes advantage of notification improvements in Apple’s iOS 7, and for the first time uses Bluetooth LE — an advanced version of the technology which the watch supported all along — to communicate with the phone.

I’ve been trying out the update, and it’s rare to see a product become so much more useful all at once. Pebble can now serve up news alerts, instant messages, information from gadgets such as Dropcam and prompt you to take your turn while playing games. My favorite new application so far: using Google Maps on my iPhone to look up walking directions, then leaving the phone in my pocket and checking each step on my wrist.

The necessary new version of Pebble’s iOS app should go live soon, but the company is also announcing a new version of the software development kit which lets third-party programmers create Pebble applications. It should permit significantly more sophisticated apps than the ones which are currently available. And Pebble says that ones from Foursquare, Yelp, action-camera GoPro and home-automation provider iControl are in the works.

Among the changes:

  • Pebble programs can access the accelerometer on the watch to detect motion, which will allow for Fitbit-like fitness apps.
  • Apps can save data on the watch (useful for stuff like preserving settings) and log data for later transfer to the smartphone (valuable for apps which you might use when your phone isn’t right there, such as ones for runners or swimmers).
  • The part of a Pebble app that runs on an iOS or Android gadget rather than on the phone itself can now be written in JavaScript code, which Pebble says will make it easier to write apps which work on both platforms. (At the moment, the software lineup is rather fragmented.)

It’s still easy to come up with ideas for how Pebble could be better. (My colleague Jared Newman has several suggestions which I like, and I wish that it didn’t tend to cut off all but the briefest snippets of information.) But it’s good to see that the watch, which first attracted attention as a Kickstarter phenom in the spring of 2012, is continuing to evolve. With the iOS update, it does more today than it did yesterday — and the new features for software developers should help it do a whole lot more in the months to come.