(Photos by Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)
LAS VEGAS—Just as you can never be too rich or too thin, your smartphone can never have enough battery life or storage. And while the runs-forever-on-a-single-charge phone is still just a fantasy, a Bay Area smartphone startup is hoping to make near-infinite storage a reality.
Nextbit plans to ship a $399 Android-based phone in the first quarter of next year that relies on the cloud to temporarily store apps and data. So instead of popping in a memory card (which most new phones no longer support in any case), you’d get 100 gigabytes of online storage when your local storage is maxed out.
Founded by veterans of Google and HTC, Nextbit announced its Robin phone Sept. 1 and promptly had a Kickstarter campaign zip past a $500,000 goal. At press time, backers had pledged more than $936,000, with the first 1,000 getting a $100 discount and everybody else $50 off.
CEO Tom Moss and chief design officer Scott Croyle came to the wireless trade group CTIA’s Super Mobility Week show in Las Vegas to demonstrate their phone. I sat down with them for an hour Wednesday evening.
With its mint-green or midnight-blue plastic accents above and below its 5.2-inch screen, the Robin doesn’t look like your average Android phone. Each end has a speaker to provide stereo sound, an echo of the design of some HTC models Croyle worked on.
Another unusual feature: The four LEDs below a cloud symbol on the Robin’s metal back that indicate whether the phone is syncing (see the photo above).
Offload, reload, repeat
Nextbit’s system works by watching which apps and data haven’t been used lately and offloading them to the cloud when you need more room. You can then restore them with a simple tap.
On a Nexus 5 running a build of Nextbit’s version of Android, the offloaded apps appear grayed out in their usual spots on the screen. Tapping one caused its color to return as the system reloaded it, settings intact; maybe 10 seconds later, it was ready.
Photos also get the same background offloading, much the way Google Photos does it.
The idea here is not so much to minimize what’s kept in the phone’s 32 GB of onboard storage as it is to ensure that a lack of room won’t stop you from taking pictures or recording video. If a Nextbit phone runs low on space while you’re doing either, it should offload apps automatically and invisibly. By default this happens only on WiFi, although if you’re shooting lots of video outdoors, you can opt to swap out data using 4G.
Other than that feature, Nextbit’s version of Android looks quite similar to the stock version.
“We’ve taken a very light touch to the UI,” Croyle said.
The rest of this phone’s hardware also generally matches what you’d expect in a 2015-vintage smartphone. There’s a 13-megapixel camera on the back and a five-megapixel one on the front, an NFC wireless chip inside, a USB-C port on the bottom (but no wireless charging), and a fingerprint sensor integrated in the power button much like the one on the Xperia Z5 phones Sony introduced at the IFA trade show in Berlin last week.
Like most new phones, the Robin doesn’t have the microSD card slot that allows you to expand the handset’s storage without bothering with complicated cloud syncing. But being just 7 millimeters thick, the Robin really doesn’t have room for one.
Direct sales only
Unlike most phones, the Robin won’t show up in any of the wireless carriers’ stores. Moss said selling direct to customers will save $4 million or so in certification-testing expenses and avoid any need to monkey with the phone’s design.
The problem with selling phones via the carriers is “You have to preinstall some apps, [and] you might have to cut some features,” Moss said. “You might have to be more conservative in terms of industrial design.
But making money on a smartphone remains difficult for any company, let alone a startup, Recon Analytics founder Roger Entner said in a phone conversation.
“All of the handset profits are concentrated in the hands of Apple and Samsung,” he said Thursday. “It’s a tough, tough market to be a handset vendor.“
And the basic concept here may not resonate with many customers. While Apple may think 16 GB is enough storage for a smartphone, Samsung’s latest Galaxy S6 Edge+ and Galaxy Note 5 each include 32 GB.
Meanwhile, making a habit of using the Robin’s vast cloud storage via a 4G connection could max out your data plan and ask more than your carrier’s network can deliver.
“They’re taking connectivity and data for granted,” Entner said. If you had both unlimited data and consistently excellent coverage? “Then it becomes a very interesting model.”
And that’s when—I swear I’m not making this up—the call dropped. So you can add total reliability to the list of things you wish your smartphone offered, but doesn’t.