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Are minimalist cell phones really an antidote to the always-connected way of life?

Light Phone 2

A prototype of the new Light Phone 2; image courtesy of Light

Are new minimalist cell phones really an antidote to the always-connected way of life?

Recently, two new products caused a stir in the world of technology. They are two “minimalist” mobile phones which openly criticize the very concept of the smartphone. Here, I’ll try to investigate if they are a real technological breakthrough or just nostalgia marketing.  From now on, do big names of technology will truly need to rethink their smartphones, or it’s much ado for nothing?


A little history of mobile phones

To understand present-day smartphones, I investigated a bit how cell phones have evolved from a simple telephone into the multi-function mobile computer of today.

Key events
1984 – first handheld mobile phone (Motorola DynaTAC 8000X)
1989 – first pocket-size “clam-shell” mobile phone (Motorola MicroTAC)
1993 – first mobile phone with SMS – text messaging capabilities (Nokia 2110)
1994 – First touch-screen quasi-smartphone (IBM Simon Personal Communicator)
1996 – first mobile phone with a (text-based) web browser (Nokia Communicator)
2002 – first mobile phone with a built-in camera (Nokia 7650)
2007 – first modern touch-screen smartphone (Apple iPhone)

This timeline shows a clear evolution trend divided into three main phases.
Until the early 1990s, mobile phones are just phones, the trend is towards miniaturization, weight reduction, and improved battery life.
Afterward, mobile phones acquire new capabilities unknown to landline telephones, such as text messaging and digital cameras; mobile communication and mobile computing slowly start to converge.
Finally, the telephone function is no longer the centerpiece of the device, which has become an always-connected palmtop computer and entertainment station.

At the same time, also size, weight, and shape changed.
The first mobile phone, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, was a huge device, weighing almost two pounds (nearly 800 grams), and whose shape resembled that of a military radiophone.
Just five years later, the MicroTAC was a completely different animal: compact, relatively lightweight, and with a rather original clamshell design (which had been actually borrowed from some home telephone designs of the 1960s such as the Siemens “Grillo” designed by Sapper and Zanuso). In 1996, its successor, the StarTAC, weighted only 88 grams, and the 1999 Ericsson T28 was even smaller and lighter. Small was beautiful at the time.

Siemens Grillo Zanuso Sapper

Motorola StarTAC

A Siemens Grillo folding phone (1966), the ancestor of all clamshell mobile phones (image courtesy of MoMA – The Museum of Modern Art, New York); and a 1989 Motorola StarTAC (images courtesy of MAAS – Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Sydney)

In the early 2000s, mobile phones began to re-enlarge and regain weight; it is widely believed that this was due to the adoption of large touch-screens; yet, in the graph below we can see that size and weight started increasing well before the release of the original iPhone in 2007.

mobile phones and smartphones weight and size Inexhibit

This graph shows how miniaturization of handheld mobile phones reached its peak in the late-1990s before the trend reversed in the early 2000s; image © Inexhibit

Actually, one of the reasons of that trend is that, at the time, consumer electronics manufacturer and telephone companies started adding new features and services to mobile communication, such as messaging, e-mail, MMS, digital photography capabilities, and so on. Larger displays, bodies, and keyboards were, therefore, necessary to let the customers use and control those new functions properly. If you then add full web navigation, HD video, real-time GPS maps, high-res cameras, and some motion-tracking gyroscopes, things grow progressively bigger and more complex; it’s also a matter of ergonomics. Small was not beautiful any longer.

So, today, most of us have a large tablet-like object put in our bags (they are usually too large to fit into a pocket), which do a gazillion things, make us “always-connected” and which we can’t live without even for few minutes or when (as often happens) they are charging.

If yet what I need is just a device that allows me to make and receive phone calls wherever I want, it’s no contest. My old Ericsson T29 wins hands down over the huge Sony smartphone I have now; the Ericsson is small, lightweight, almost indestructible, it can be operated with just one hand, the battery lasts almost a week in standby, I can respond to calls in a couple of seconds without looking the display, and it also looks really nice.

Yet, my current smartphone is no more just a telephone – it is a quite mediocre telephone, in fact; it is rather a link between me and the web with all its countless services; I use it to watch videos on Youtube during a boring travel, to read the news, to find information about the places I plan to visit on the weekend, it connects me with my social network pages, it allows me to manage this website from anywhere, it’s a decent GPS navigator and a point-and-shoot digital camera and video recorder; I also make phone calls on it, sometimes.
But I swear my next mobile phone will be something cheap, with physical buttons, and without an internet connection.

cell phone and smarphone comparison Inexhibit

Side by side, an Ericsson T29s (left) cell phone and a Sony Xperia C4 smartphone; photo © Inexhibit.


A new wave of “minimalist” mobile phones

It is precisely on that “sentiment” (and real problems) that the products I mentioned at the beginning are based upon.
They are two lines of mobile phone produced by Light (https://www.thelightphone.com/) – founded by Joe Hollier and Kaiwei Tang in New York and funded through crowdfunding -, and by Punkt Tronics (https://www.punkt.ch/en/) – a company established by Petter Neby in Lugano, Switzerland, in 2008 and specializing in consumer electronics products with a “classic modern” design.

Both companies claim that their intent is to give people freedom, more time, and focus on what really matters and, consequently, to improve their quality of life.

“Our time & attention are the two most important things that we too often take for granted. So many products are claiming to “make our lives better”. They are engineered to keep us hooked. They are being built & funded because we will be addicted to them, not because we ever needed them. Being more “connected” couldn’t possibly make us any happier. (…) This is why we built a phone that’s designed to be used as little as possible.”  From The Light Phone official website

“Everything you need, nothing you don’t. No app icons, animations, or special effects vying for your attention. The phone is without the internet, which makes it easy on the eye when you’re using it, and easy to put away when you’ve finished with it. Pixels are great, but isn’t there more to life?”  From the Punkt MP01 official description.

Though they share a similar philosophy, the products of the two companies are rather different.


The Light Phone, first and second generation


The Light Phone is a small aluminum body credit-card-size 2G device, weighing just 38 grams, and equipped with a gray-scale OLED display. The price is a whopping $300, but this is not a problem since the phone is definitely sold out. To make it work, you have to “link” the Light Phone via an online software available on the producer’s website (only in the US) to a real smartphone, from which it will “borrow” the possibility to receive calls and send calls to few contacts (nine, to be precise). The idea is that, in some special occasions, the Light Phone could replace your main, invasive mobile phone with a simpler, and more easy-minded device; yet, keeping you connected when it really matters.

This is clearly a very limited device, honestly. Therefore, the company is currently developing a more complete and powerful model, the Light Phone II.
Of the same size of its predecessor but a bit heavier (about 80 grams), the second generation is a true standalone 4G phone, with a gray-scale E-ink display, a full make and receive calls capability, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, text-based GPS navigation, and an audio player. The operating system is proprietary and it’s unclear whether it includes an internet browser or not (though, I guess to provide it would make it really too similar to a conventional smartphone); expected price is about $400.

The Light Phone 1

The Light Phone 2

Two pictures of the Light Phone; source: Light

The Light Phone 3

This image shows the technical simplicity of the original Light Phone, which is manufactured in Yantai, China. 

The Light Phone 2 b

The Light Phone 2 c

A schematic view and a preview picture of the Light Phone 2; source: Light


Punkt MP01 and MP02

Punkt MP01 is instead a 2G device quite similar to an “old-school” cell phone. It has a rather good design (by Jasper Morrison, who was arguably influenced by the classic “Braun style” of Dieter Rams), an ABS – Fiberglass body, it looks sturdy, it weighs only 88 grams, it has nice round buttons, it doesn’t have internet connectivity, and a battery life of some 500 hours in standby; it costs 195 euros.
Punkt is also ready to present a second model, the MP02 (the two companies are not very imaginative with names, admittedly), which puzzles me a bit, at first sight. Compared to its first cell phone, the Swiss company has added Android instead of its proprietary OS, a  “great audio”, and (ouch!) Internet access (though limited).

Punkt MP01 mobile phone 2

An image of the Punkt MP01 mobile phone; the phone dimensions are 116.5 x 53 x 14.5 mm; photo courtesy of Punkt Tronics

Punkt MP01 mobile phone 3

Punkt MP01 mobile phone 4

Punkt MP01 mobile phone

Designed by Jasper Morrison, the MP01 has an ABS+fiberglass body available in three colors; images courtesy of Punkt Tronics

Punkt MP02 mobile phone

At a first sight, the new MP2 (presented in September 2018) looks almost identical to its predecessor; image courtesy of Punkt Tronics

Possibly a revolution?

The two companies’ philosophy is really interesting and I sympathize with their products, admittedly. Yet, I see a couple problems.

The first problem is the price. Why paying an openly minimal mobile phone from two to three hundred dollars when you can get a Nokia 105 for few bucks? A possible reply is that these are high-end products, aimed at customers who appreciate their manufacturing quality and their design. This sounds reasonable to me, but only up to a point.

The second problem is that these phones could be neither fish nor fowl. The temptation to make them evolve into quasi-smartphones is still strong, indeed.
The Light Phone 2, for example, looks still too much like a smartphone; if I want just a phone, I prefer it with physical buttons instead of a fragile touch-screen. The Punkt could feature some more useful functions (a simple GPS navigation system, for example), and a more innovative design (the current one is nice but too “classic”, IMHO). Moreover, I don’t understand what sense it makes to include a 4G connection and internet access into a device which has a 320x240px two-inch display. Possibly, the idea is that it will be used as a hotspot for a laptop or tablet computer.

The fact is that both devices, in their second generation, feature a 4G connectivity and seems to  “conceal” web navigation capabilities they already have, technically.
This is a fundamental issue. What we call “smartphone” doesn’t exist without access to the Internet; remove the internet and it will become just a mobile phone with some additional functions (GPS maps, photo-shooting, audio and HD video reproduction, and offline games). Add a web browser to a cell phone and it will evolve soon into a smartphone, with a large display and all the usual stuff.


In conclusion

My thought is that both companies are pushing forward promising ideas and good design, though with some hesitations and contradictions.
Yet, just the fact that, only ten years after the advent of the first smartphones, a current of thought that questions their real utility and criticizes their invasiveness is already growing should not be dismissed.
The key point is whether people, or at least a part of them, are really willing to renounce the abandon the many functions of their smartphones or not; and if that new minimalist approach, together with the products which embody it, will go side by side, replace, or transform today’s smartphones. Or to vanish without a trace. We’ll know it soon. Meanwhile, I am looking on eBay for a replacement battery for my T29.


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