The Beautiful, Impossible Dream of a Simpler Smartphone

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Smartphones are amazing. And smartphones are terrible. It’s a central paradox of modern life: The devices that help us find rides and friends and food and sex and adorable puppies are the same ones that disconnect us from the life in front of our eyes, kill our attention span, give us FOMO, and turn the world into a series of torrential feeds we can’t stop trying and failing to keep up with. You’ve probably had grand visions of hurling your smartphone into a lake and living life as your ancestors did, gloriously tech- and stress-free. I know I have. And yet, my smartphone stays in my pocket.

This tension between a smartphone’s fantastic usefulness and its frustrating side-effects is well documented. “Why I ditched my smartphone” has entered the blog-cliché canon, alongside “Why I left New York” and “Why I quit Twitter.” The “digital detox” was invented so people could ditch their gadgets, if only for a few hours. Some Airbnb listings now proudly announce their lack of cell service and Wi-Fi, a feature right up there with the hot tub and gas grill.

Meanwhile, the smartphone emotional complex has given rise to a whole new class of products: gadgets that save you from your gadgets. The Apple Watch’s purpose, at least at first, was to quiet the constant buzzing and nagging from your phone. You can drop $295 on a Punkt MP01, a phone capable only of calls and texts (just like the Pilgrims had). Or take things even further with the Light Phone, a $150 gizmo about the size of a credit card that can store nine numbers, make and receive phone calls, and nada else. These devices aren’t trying to replace your smartphone so much as free you from it.

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That idea led Kaiwei Tang to start working on the Light Phone a couple of years ago. Tang, a Brooklyn-based designer, started user research by asking people to swap their smartphones for an old-school Nokia or Motorola flip phone. Just for six hours, maybe the entire day. Everyone reported the same thing: After a miserable first hour, they felt more aware, relaxed, and free. That told Tang and Hollier they were on to something. “The value is not the phone,” Tang says. “It’s being away from internet, social media, and smartphones from time to time.”

When the Light Phone made its debut in the world, though, a funny thing happened. People loved it, and the idea of “going light” without their smartphone. But they all said the Light Phone would be perfect, if only it had this one thing. Tang has a long and growing list of one things: Some people want GPS to order an Uber or track their loved one. Some want a camera to capture the moments they’re finally experiencing, as if for the first time. Music. Text messages. NFC for buying stuff. On and on the list goes.

Let’s say you were in Tang’s shoes. You wanted to build the Minimum Viable Smartphone, a handset with all essentials and nothing else. Call it the MVS 1. The MVS 1 needs a microphone and speaker, obviously, plus some sort of full keyboard—texting is too important and T9 won’t do. You’ll definitely need WhatsApp, though, since that basically subsumed SMS. You can do without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and email, which are what everyone who hates their smartphone hates about it. You’ll need a camera, though, and probably two; nobody’s going to buy a phone they can’t use for selfies. GPS and NFC, too. Built-in storage for music and podcasts, plus Apple Music and Spotify and Pandora. YouTube. A few games. And a web browser, even though that’s an open window back into the social media morass. Pretty quickly the MVS 1 sounds like a regular smartphone, minus a bunch of really popular apps.

Ultimately, the problem with your iPhone isn’t the camera being too close to the GPS chip. It’s that you unlock your phone to check the weather, and suddenly a notification comes in so you check your email and then you blink and eight hours have passed and now you’re 700 photos deep in your ex’s Instagram feed. Tristan Harris, Google’s former design ethicist and a longtime thinker about how technology affects humanity, calls these “leaky interactions.” Harris wrote a blog post in 2016 urging people to “reboot your phone with mindfulness” by turning off most notifications, moving apps off your primary home screen, and putting as many barriers between you and the attention-sucks as possible.

Right now, if you’re an Android user, you can do that by installing any of a handful of “minimalist” launchers, apps that replace your phone’s homescreen with something a little simpler. Sure, they’re mostly meant for old people with failing eyes, but they work just as well for smartphone burnouts. Or you can dump all your apps into a single folder, making each one just hard enough to find that you’ll stop mindlessly opening them. One company, called Siempo, is working on a launcher to replace your entire screen with a text box that asks, “What’s your intention?”

Siempo’s initial plan was to build a minimalist smartphone, an e-paper device called Minium that resembled the candy-bar Nokia phones of the early aughts. Eventually, the company launched a Kickstarter campaign for a more traditional smartphone, this time called Siempo. When that campaign badly missed its funding goal, Siempo’s founders redirected their focus to building software for existing smartphones. “Turns out people are more attached to their phones than we thought,” the founders wrote in a Medium post after the campaign ended. “With our new approach you’ll be able to enjoy the benefits of Siempo without leaving the comforts of your current device.” The takeaway? People want their smartphones to be cleaner and simpler—as long as they’re still smartphones.

People might say they want to ditch their smartphone, but hardly anyone actually does. Billions of users now have in their pocket a device that can do everything. Are some of those things bad? Of course! But that’s the tradeoff for the peace of mind and spectacular value that comes with having every capability in your pockets at all times. It’s nice to imagine leaving it all behind for a little while, but you wouldn’t throw it away forever. The question, then, doesn’t concern whether our phones are too powerful or feature-rich. It’s about how to flip the relationship between user and phone, letting you control it rather than the other way around. That’s a lot harder than building a phone without Facebook.

Virtual assistants, like Alexa and Siri, may offer a smartphone’s superpowers in a more palatable package. Tang says he actually considered including Alexa in the Light Phone, maybe making Amazon’s assistant the number 9 speed dial. Alexa just wasn’t good enough when the company started, and a crummy assistant hardly alleviates the pain of using a smartphone.

That virtual-assistant tech is improving, and it’ll be near-perfect sooner than you think. With these AI helpers, checking the weather won’t require dodging attention-sucking, FOMO-inducing land mines. You’ll just ask the question, get the answer, and move on with your life. You’ll only pull out your smartphone when you’re ready to get lost in its many splendors. Because there’s nothing wrong with doing that now and then.