On the face of it, startup Nextbit’s first smartphone looks a little blockier and more stylish than the average black slab, but otherwise pretty normal. Turn it over, however, and there’s something unusual: four LED dots that light up whenever the phone is backing up data to a cloud-based server.
The phone, called Robin, is Nextbit’s attempt to shake up the mobile industry by focusing largely on storage, which it thinks is a big problem for consumers. It runs on Google’s Android operating software, but also has an extra layer of software that monitors things like how often you use apps and look at photos. This way, it can remove and remotely store stuff you don’t use much—a travel app you haven’t opened in six months, for instance—to preserve space. You can get that app back later on by tapping on a gray icon left behind on the handset; Robin will re-download it in the same state you last used it.
“The more you use it, the longer you use it, your user model starts to develop on the device and it can start to tailor the storage experience for you in particular,” says cofounder and chief technology officer Mike Chan.
The startup is trying to take better advantage of the increasing ubiquity of wireless networks that most of us are already using. Apps, photos, videos, and music can pile up and take up available space on your phone, and Nextbit thinks the solution is to use the Internet to unobtrusively back up and remotely store some of that stuff. By default, the phone does this when it’s plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi, though users can change this.
Robin is slated to be generally available online in January or February and will include 32 gigabytes of storage on the phone and another 68 online. It will cost $399, and Nextbit has already raised $18 million in venture funding from Accel Partners for the phone’s development. In an effort to publicize its brand with consumers and drum up early sales, Nextbit also started a Kickstarter campaign on Tuesday through which it’s hoping to raise $500,000 and will sell the handsets for $349 (some of the earliest backers on the crowdfunding site will be able to buy it for $299).
The handset will be unlocked, and in the U.S. it will work with wireless carriers T-Mobile and AT&T.
Chan, who worked as an engineer at Google on the first several versions of Android, and Scott Croyle, Nextbit’s product and design chief (and formerly HTC’s design and user experience head), showed me Robin up close in their office last week. There, they had both a functional prototype of the phone—still needing lots of work, they explained—and a separate smartphone running their software atop the Lollipop version of Android.
Robin has a 5.2-inch HD display, two speakers, and a five-megapixel camera on the front. A fingerprint sensor embedded in the power button on the phone’s side will let you wake it by placing a finger on it, and it also includes a 13-megapixel rear camera and near-field communication chip for things like mobile payments.
The phone’s software is similar to the stock Android software, with a few notable changes. When you start using the phone, it synchronizes with Nextbit’s servers, backing up all your apps and content like photos and videos and keeping an eye on your usage over time to figure out what to punt to the cloud (similar to how it treats apps it removes, the software keeps a screen-resolution image of photos on the phone if they’ve been moved online).
That might sound appealing to some users, but the dependence on cloud-based servers could slow things down at times when you want to, say, quickly open and use an app that you haven’t used in several months.
And Nextbit is entering a mature market in the U.S., so grabbing a share of it is likely to be a struggle. Ramon Llamas, a mobile and wearables analyst with technology market researcher IDC, says that most of the growth in the smartphone market is now coming from consumers buying entry- and mid-level phones. As he notes, there are already some good mid-level devices out there that cost less than what Nextbit plans to charge, and at the high end of the market, Samsung and Apple already hold a tight grip.