Remember when Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky released an impassioned plea for someone, anyone, to make a small Android phone that would compete with the iPhone Mini? He’s taking matters into his own hands.
Now that Apple has stopped making new small phones, Migicovsky’s Small Android Phone petition has evolved into a “community-based project” — where that community includes a team working to design and produce the phone that Migicovsky and apparently quite a few Verge readers want. The petition got 38,700 signatures, and “almost all of that came from literally one article from The Verge,” one team member revealed in a design call.
The Small Android Phone team — it’s not a company, yet — has been doing a lot of planning right under our noses. In a small Discord, they’ve quietly revealed their efforts to source a display, choose a chip, and design thebody of thephone. They’ve even discussed how they might pay for it all. Diehard small phone enthusiasts are invited to give feedback at every step of the process as the team attempts to bend the phone market to their will.
The Pebble Time Steel — the beloved wearable that Migicovsky, Bryant, and co. helped make in 2015. Photo: The Verge
When we revealed how much we’d already learned about the project, Ben Bryant, one of the team leaders, was willing to hop on a call. So if you’re the kind of person who’d declare your interest in a phone with a sub-6.1-inch display, you’ll definitely want to hear him out.
Bryant also worked for Migicovsky on the Pebble smartwatch, and he’s far from the only Pebble alumnion the Small Android Phone meet the team page. There’s also Alex De Stasio, who’s done industrial design work at GoPro; Chris Hendel, who’s worked as a project manager at Pebble and MongoDB; and Susan Holcomb, a data scientist turned writer. Bryant and De Stasio have largely been the public faces of the project, presenting and taking questions from community members during AMA and design calls.
During one of those presentations, De Stasio laid out an idea of what the phone will look like: it’ll be small — obviously — and will feature a distinctive camera. “A lot of my sketching focuses on the camera bump,” he said on a design call. “This has a huge impact on the visual icon of the phone, so I wanted to spend some extra time on it to make sure it’s very uniquely recognizable and very iconic.” He then showed off a variety of different ways the lenses and LEDs could be laid out:
Some of the designs De Stasio showed off during a call. Don’t get too excited about the modular concept — Bryant says the team is “probably going to shy away from it” due to complexity and cost. Image: Small Android Phone project
As for the camera’s specs, Bryant says the goal is to “take good photos, which means it’s not a 100-megapixel sensor.” Instead, the main camera will probably be closer to 50MP. “Something that’s going to result in photos that look good.” Megapixels aren’t enough, of course; these days, getting “good” photos requires loads of software trickery, and it’s easy to go too far.
Bryant says the team has “a couple leads” on camera software that could let them compete, including options from a few Chinese developers and individuals who’ve worked on RAW camera apps for other phones. “I think ultimately we’ll go the route of producing our own software,” Bryant tells me but says the main priority is just getting the phone built and shipped for now.
De Stasio wants the design to seem capable, like a tool, while still being approachable. Slide: Small Android Phone Team
The rest of the phone’s body should be, in De Stasio’s words, “a nice soft slab that’s very high quality, very nicely put together, very solid feeling, and that just has very soft details that feel really nice on your fingers.”
So far, the team hasn’t decided on what the phone will be made of; they’re considering a metal frame covered in glass composite or ceramic-coated aluminum or similar with some engineering to let the cell signals and wireless charging through. While the team also name-drops forged carbon, bio-resin, and ceramic composites, Bryant predicts the team won’t be too adventurous. “We’re looking to stand out with our attention to detail, not some novel use of unusual materials.”
The team also hasn’t decided on a name for the phone, though its internal codename is “Marvin.” Bryant did share a list of potential candidates, though, with some like “Pico” and “Pip” emphasizing the phone’s smallness, others trying to sound friendly or powerful like “Howdy” or “Atlas,” and one that feels like a very intentional throwback: “Pebble.”
These are some of the phone names the team has brainstormed — the final one could be in here, according to Bryant. Slide: Small Android Phone team
It’s clear this device will be geared toward people who put a phone’s size at the top of their priority list. For example, while the team wants to make a premium flagship, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll have top-tier performance. Bryant said that they’re currently looking at two potential chipsets, the Snapdragon 8 Plus Gen 1 (a flagship chip that’s almost a year old) and “a yet-to-be-released mid-tier Qualcomm chip,” though plans could change. The team is also hoping to provide at least two years of software updates — a few years ago, that would have been a flagship-level promise, but Google, Samsung, and others have stepped up their game.
As for how much it’ll cost, Bryant has been preparing the community for what could be an $850 price tag, even though a phone from an established manufacturer with similar specs and a more standard form factor would be closer to $650-700. (The iPhone 13 Mini started at $729 when it was new, but now Apple sells it for $599.) That price isn’t final — Bryant says it’ll depend on a lot of factors, including negotiations with the manufacturer, but it’s a real possibility.
“The bet is there’s enough people willing to overpay for a phone.”
Part of the reason it’ll cost more is that the team expects to pay a premium for manufacturing, given that their initial order will probably be for tens of thousands of phones instead of millions. “We’re going to pay higher [Non-Recurring Engineering] fees upfront to essentially de-risk the project for them,” Bryant explains. “That’s why the comparable phone is likely going to be more expensive than we could get elsewhere.”
Bryant also wants to build the phone at a “Tier 1” manufacturer, he says: “The lead candidate for the OEM that we are working with is among the largest phone producers in the world.” He wouldn’t tell me which manufacturer he was referring to. “In terms of negotiations, I don’t necessarily want to show up on their radar right now,” he said.
While the higher price almost certainly won’t be appealing to everyone, Bryant says “the bet is there’s enough people willing to overpay for a phone. That can get it out the door, and then we’ll move down to the market price for the phone.” He also tells me that the more people who order the phone, the less it’s likely to cost. The current math is based on 50,000 people preordering a phone. “If we double that order quantity, that would give me a healthy budget to probably reduce the cost for everyone.”
If it seems like none of this is actually set in stone, that’s because it’s not. And a lot is riding on which parts the team can get — especially the screen. “The entire form factor of the phone is dictated by the display,” said Bryant. “We can’t lay out boards, we can’t look at what the battery capacity is and so forth, without knowing the volume of the phone itself.”
Finding a small phone screen has been particularly difficult. Bryant says they asked one manufacturer for data sheets on their displays, only to see the company discontinue all its sub-six-inch displays before it sent the info over. Another option was perhaps too similar to the iPhone Mini’s 5.4-inch display, with a very familiar notch cut out at the top. “I would like something a little more Android-y,” Bryant tells me.
He says there’s “definitely a possibility” they’ll have to get a custom display made for the phone. “Screen building is a well-known process, but you have to go through and kind of create the dies and masks for doing the lithography on them, and those are quite expensive.” He says that having to go that route would both add “a substantive cost” and potentially delay the phone’s debut.
For the rest of the hardware, the team plans to find as many parts as they can that are already being manufactured instead of having to custom-design everything from the ground up. “It’s not going to be a fresh architecture,” Bryant says. “We’re going to be leveraging various aspects of the phone that are already built, that are shared within the design at the manufacturers, and then put our look and form factor on it.”
That could help speed up the process between when the crowdfunding campaign ends and shipments begin — Bryant has predicted a six- to nine-month production cycle — but which parts they’ll be able to borrow is, like a lot of other things, still up in the air. “If I could get to the factory that makes the [Asus] Zenfone 9 and pull their board, that’d be awesome,” Bryant said before explaining he’s not sure it’s possible. (He tells me that currently, the team doesn’t have any direct relationship with Asus.)
The Zenfone 9 is relatively hand-holdable — but there are already rumors that its successor will have a bigger, 6.3-inch screen. Image: Allison Johnson / The Verge
The Zenfone 9, a relatively compact Android phone with a 5.9-inch screen, is referenced a lot in community discussions, and Bryant has explained it’s a proof of concept that you can have a small phone with enough battery to get through a day. “If you look at the internals for the Zenfone, they still pack in 4300 mAh. You could just chop 10mm off the battery, and still be doing fine,” he wrote.
Assuming they’re able to nail down a design, the next hurdle is raising the money. Pebble was one of the first big Kickstarter success stories, and the team’s looking at crowdfunding this time, too — $40 to $50 million to cover engineering, manufacturing, shipping, operations, support, and all the other costs that come with shipping a consumer product. (However, Bryant says this campaign likely won’t be run through Kickstarter, as doing so could knock out “a very substantial chunk” of budget — if the company raised $50 million, Kickstarter’s cut would run $2.5 million before accounting for payment processing fees.)
Rallying 50,000 small phone enthusiasts who want Android may not be a straightforward task. At the moment, the petition’s 38,000 signatures are well short of the goal. It’s also worth noting that virtually raising your hand to say you’d at least consider buying something is a very different level of commitment than paying hundreds of dollars in cold, hard cash, especially without a guarantee that it’ll actually get built. We’ve seen many promising teams buckle under the challenge of building a phone, and even some that got one out the door (Nextbit, Essential, and Red) were bought or folded without producing any follow-ups. And while Pebble managed to produce several watches, it’s no longer considered a success story — even Migicovsky wound up calling it a failure after it sold most of its assets to Fitbit, which wound up getting acquired by Google.
The 2017 Essential Phone had a 5.7-inch screen — big for the time (to its left is an iPhone 7 Plus), but it’d be relatively compact today now. It also had a big focus on premium design and materials. Image: The Verge
Bryant also admits that crowdfunding could be extra difficult these days when people are concerned about the economy. “But we’re also selling participation in a project,” he says. “And the thing that people really get behind is that participation. This phone is their phone.”
Even with the caveats, I can’t help but personally be excited about the project. As a small phone devotee myself, I love that people are banding together to be the change they want to see in the world, especially since they seem like they have at least half a shot at pulling it off. I’m crossing my fingers for the best-case scenario where a group of people gets together to successfully make a phone that big companies won’t because I want to live in a world where that’s possible.
This article originally appeared on https://www.theverge.com/2023/3/22/23595159/pebble-small-android-phone-project-crowdfunding-migicovsky