Nextbit’s Robin Is Another Pretty Phone—But With Infinite Storage
Nextbit spent two years assembling a heavy-hitting team of mobile veterans and all summer teasing the Internet with promises of a smartphone revolution. Today, those teasers give way to a full reveal: a new website and a grand promise to re-think how phones really work. Oh, and a new phone, called Robin, that the company is pretty sure you’re going to love.
I stopped by the company’s San Francisco office one day last month, about a week after the team got its first working Robin prototype, known as an engineering validation test or EVT. Scott Croyle, chief product and design officer, holds it in one hand, rubbing its seams with the other. “EVTs, they’re ugly,” he says. “The gaps aren’t right, the buttons aren’t flush, the paint job is crappy, it’s not the right color. From a software perspective it’s just barely running.” He turns to Josh Morenstein of Branch Creative, the design firm hired to help create Robin. “This looks like shit! You and I know we would never ship this, but you know, it’s a good first start.” It’s proof, Croyle believes, that this crazy gambit is going to work.
The founding idea of Nextbit, which everyone there explains in almost exactly the same way, is that we’re overdue for a smartphone software redesign. “When iOS started development and Android started development,” CEO Tom Moss says, “that was 10 years ago.” He’d know: He was on the Android 1.0 team at Google. So was Mike Chan, Nextbit’s CTO. “Networks were much slower,” Moss says, “Wi-Fi was much less ubiquitous, and AWS hadn’t democratized cloud to the extent that it has, right? So because of that, a lot of choices were made that result in user pain points today, which could actually be alleviated by leveraging the cloud in the way we’re doing.”
By connecting your phone to the Internet—not just through apps and notifications, but at every corner of the operating system—Nextbit believes it can make your smartphone more powerful than its spec sheet. It believes it can make your phone smarter, more personalized, infinitely extensible and expandable. Just … better. And better over time, too.
It’s all very high-minded and buzzwordy. The people at Nextbit have lots of ideas about what it could mean. For now, it means when you buy a phone from Nextbit—which you can do starting today, through Kickstarter, even though they won’t ship until early next year—you’re getting a lot more storage than your hard drive. You’re getting a phone that’s constantly backing up and synchronizing your stuff, and can intelligently delete things you don’t want to make more room for things you do. For $399 (100 bucks less if you pre-order), you get a phone with a 32 gig hard drive but 100 gigabytes of space for your apps, photos, and data. Because you’re connecting your phone to the cloud, you might one day get even more without getting a new phone. You could also, Moss says, upgrade your camera without upgrading your phone. Or improve your battery life. Or … Or … Or …
But he’s getting ahead of himself. First they have to ship this thing.
For a company looking to reinvent the smartphone, Croyle was a funny selection for product chief. He previously helmed design at HTC, where he led the teams behind critically acclaimed phones like the One and Legend. He was making metal phones before metal phones were cool, and is as responsible for the current smartphone aesthetic—chamfered edges, brushed metal, plastic strips for antennas—as anyone.
But he’s over all that. “In terms of hardware,” he says, “there’s just not that much interesting stuff out there. If we were to lay every phone on the table—Apple, every Android phone—what is the thing that’s really standing out today? There’s nothing. Actually, I feel like everyone’s gotten lazy.” The sameness feels like stagnation.
The Robin has solid specs: a 5.2-inch, 1080p screen; a Snapdragon 808 processor; USB-C and super-fast charging; a 13-megapixel camera on the back; and a fingerprint sensor built into the power button on the phone’s side. It comes in two colors, “mint” and “midnight.” Croyle ticks off the whole list, sort of dismissing it. This hardware? That’s the easy part. Building a good phone, with good specs, takes just takes a little money and a few phone calls.
This trend of direct-to-consumer sales, selling high-end devices—to people instead of carriers—for a price that makes everyone happy, is taking over the industry. A lot of this can be traced to China, from big companies like Motorola and startups like OnePlus and Xiaomi. Nextbit’s particularly interested in OnePlus; from its invite-management system to how it cultivates fans, it has become the leading example of how to do a hardware startup well. Still, the team at Nextbit thinks it’s on to something different. “More and more people can come along like us,” Croyle says, “to be more provocative and say hey, you know what, there’s actually an opportunity here to not just do more of the same.”
When Branch and Nextbit started working to design something new—something better—they went through all sorts of ideas. Morenstein shows me sketches of crazy phones with crazy backs, phones with weird materials, phones with weird shapes, phones with weird materials and weird shapes. Round and round they went. Then they landed on it: a rectangle. Made of plastic and metal.
If you were expecting Nextbit to unveil something obscenely high-end like the Vertu, or a funky diversion like the Turing Phone, forget it. The Robin is a gently-curved, thin, simple rectangle. “For our CAD guys,” Croyle says, “it’s one of the easiest things to mock up ever.” It looks like a phone—which is exactly what they were going for. “You can take this simple silhouette that everybody understands,” Morenstein says, “but it’s the way that it’s treated, the way it expresses itself.”
The subtle details of Robin are what Croyle wants to talk about. Like how the USB port, microphone, and sensor on the bottom are perfectly aligned and ordered according to size. Or that the two sensors on the front—the proximity sensor and camera lens—aren’t hidden or flanking the speaker, but are two identical circles on the left. The back is one uninterrupted color, because they painted over the metal and plastic parts the same way. The speaker grille is machined into the phone’s case, dozens of impossibly tiny holes poked above and below the display. Everything is left-justified, and feels fussed over in a way that’s hard to describe. Even the shitty EVT looks and feels better than most Android handsets. And rectangle and all, it does stand out. (The mint-green color helps.)
As he explains its origins, Croyle surveys 15 mockups. Each is subtly different, with different sensors in different places surrounding displays of different sizes. Next to them is a 3D-printed brick with 10 different button-feels around the edges. “I like the idea of demystifying design,” he says. “The idea that I’m going to sit up there—and I’ve done these videos, don’t get me wrong—I’m going to sit up there in my black T-shirt with my whiteboard, talking about how hard design is, how hard we drove to get some detail in. Yeah. We do that. Actually it’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get to any product design. But I like the idea of demystifying that.”
Croyle and Morenstein together are prone to flights of designer-isms, talking about “honest” designs and the character of the device. Through it all, you get the clear sense they want Robin to have a personality—but they don’t want to pick one. They imagine the phone as a sort of blank slate onto which you project your hopes and dreams. Consider the name, Robin: What does it make you think of? Maybe a superhero sidekick, or a bird. It could be Robin Williams, Robin Wright, Robin Hood, or even Robin Zander. That ambiguity is catnip to the designers; it’s personal, it’s emotional, it’s totally vague. The first name choice was Dolly, but that didn’t work. It makes people think of clones. Lucy felt sexist and odd. Then, one night late at the office, an engineer wondered aloud, What about Robin? It stuck.
Robin was supposed to be shipping by now, but Nextbit is working with Foxconn to make the device, and the process has taken longer than anyone expected. And there’s a lot of work left to do. The next step: Chan has to steal that prototype from Croyle and put Nextbit’s latest software build on it. Only then can he finally stop testing everything on his Nexus 5.
Head in the Clouds
“You’re going to notice something’s a little different on this screen,” Chan says, gesturing toward that Nexus 5. At first glance, the phone looks like any other—there’s a seafoam green aesthetic to the wallpaper, and Nextbit has redesigned some of the icons, but it’s just an Android phone. Chan leans in, and points at the Spotify and TED icons, which are both a soft shade of gray. They’re what Chan calls “a shadow icon.” Neither app is currently installed on the phone, but they’re there. As soon as I tap the Spotify icon, it re-downloads, opens, and logs me in automatically.
Here’s what’s happening: Every time your phone is charging and on Wi-Fi, it’s constantly being synced to Nextbit’s servers. The phone is also paying attention to your habits, so it knows you haven’t played Two Dots in six months and that you’re more into Pandora than Spotify. When your phone needs space—you’re recording a big video, say, or installing a huge software update—it’ll automatically get rid of things you don’t need. Instead of keeping the full-res picture on your phone, it’ll store a 1080-pixel-wide version and only download the rest when you want to look at it again. It’ll delete apps, but keep your data.
Right now, all the back-end software does is pay attention to which apps you use and how often. Soon, though, it could do much more. It could figure out how your Monday routine differs from your Fridays, or see from your activity that you’re traveling this weekend and make sure the Delta app is there and ready. “We’ve been working on that internally,” Chan says, “and we just want to make sure it’s right before we roll it out.” The whole idea is that you don’t think about what the hell “cloud storage” means, you just use your phone. Only difference is, you never run out of storage.
Unlike most devices, which are developed to a certain level of done-ness and then shipped so the company can make some money and move on to the next one, Nextbit’s set up a system that could make all of its phones better over time, and it already is pondering what comes next. It’s doing a Kickstarter campaign mostly to figure out what users want (and how many of them want a Robin). Android enthusiasts, it turns out, aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. “There are several things we already have on our roadmap,” Moss says. Things like camera, battery life, maybe improving the setup process on a new phone. “We’ve already gotten one request for a drone that would come and pick up your phone if you left it at home, and then deliver it to where you are.”
It’s easy to be cynical about Nextbit’s chances, and to roll your eyes at the designers who talk about their rectangle like it’s fundamentally different from everybody else’s rectangle. I’ve done both at times. The effortless-storage thing is smart, and cleverly executed. But it’s like Croyle says: Just about anyone can make a pretty good smartphone for $400. Without the clout or marketing budget of some of its competitors, or the first-mover advantage of OnePlus or Xiaomi, you might wonder if a few beautifully machined speaker holes and some extra space for photos will be enough to stand out.
Moss thinks so, obviously. He loves this phone—but mostly he hopes Nextbit is given the chance to get where it’s really going.
“You on any piece of glass,” he says. That’s the motto. They’re building a phone, sure, but they’re also building something bigger. “There’s some built-in transience to it,” Morenstein says of Robin. “It’s lighter. You’re taking away some of the feeling of, oh fuck—if I drop this into a pond, I still exist.” In a world where our identity is stored inside our devices, Nextbit wants to make the phone bigger than its 5.2-inch screen.
“You should be able to really quickly authenticate to any piece of smart glass,” Moss says, “and really have your stuff available to you as you need it. The stuff we think you need for that particular form factor, at that particular time.” It’s a big vision, and Chan—the guy responsible for building this stuff—says it’s a ways away. But that’s the idea. Nextbit is building a bridge between the mobile world and the one that comes next, the ambient one where everything is technology.
Moss and Chan walk me out through the office littered with West Elm boxes and the same brand of couch Chan’s friend let him sit on to write the beginning of the Nextbit code. Through the sterile office suites, out the door and down the elevator. Past the Safeway, past the sign about the cheese choices, and out onto the street. I take out my iPhone, and I look at it for a minute. It seems great. Do I really need something more than this? I don’t know.
Of course, I really loved my BlackBerry back in the day. Then, too, the guys upstairs figured there was a better way. So who knows? Maybe there’s something left to do with rectangles after all.