Can these minimalist phones save us from our smartphone obsession?

Approaches include a smaller smartphone, an attractively designed minimalist phone, and bringing more sophisticated apps to feature phones.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

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While phones such as Apple's iPhone 8 and Samsung's Galaxy S9 come in large "plus" options, even their standard versions are much larger than some of their early predecessors. Average phone sizes have grown so that they have cut into sales of tablets on one end of their device spectrum. On the other, vendors sell smartwatches in part on the promise of accessing app functionality without having to drag the slab.

Also: This is why Apple needs a cheaper iPhone

Of course, flip phones that do little more than handle voice calls are still available; some of these have been shrunk down to the size of a credit card. But yesterday's technology is often a poor match for today's needs even if you can easily afford any phone on the market. Hence, a number of companies have introduced phones that offer varying degrees of functionality beyond the call, but are designed for when one wants to take a break from the bulk of a full smartphone experience. They come at the issue of both physical and psychological smartphone imposition form different angles.


Makers of large-screen smartphones tout the advantages more real estate can bring to web browsing, video, maps, and games. But there are also many popular smartphone applications such as playing music, looking at photos, and browsing social media that don't need such an expanse. Jelly Pro is an inexpensive ($125) small-screen (2.45-inch) Android 7 Nougat device that strives for something the size of a compact flip phone -- but which can run nearly all Android apps (if not all of them equally well).

Read also: This credit-card-size phone does one thing, and one thing only

Jelly is not the first Android device to sport so modest a display. In 2012, for example, Samsung released phones such as the Galaxy Pocket with a 2.8-inch display. But those devices, designed for markets outside the US, saw their official upgrade path end before Lollipop. As for the Jelly Pro, you'll want to stay away from anything requiring too much text entry. And while its cameras can't compete with those of flagships, it's fine for an impromptu selfie in decent light. Once you get over the hump of whether you're interested in a second phone instead of opting for a sole model that's more moderately sized, the question becomes whether you want to shrink down to a display the size of Jelly's.


If Jelly starts at the modern smartphone and works its way down, Light begins from the premise of a plain cellphone -- with an even more minimalist form function -- and works its way up. According to co-founder Kaiwei Tang, the idea for Light came when the company was in an incubator program rife with app-centric startups that had to keep luring users' attention. In contrast, the first Light phone only made calls and was a 2G device. It implemented call forwarding to minimize the hassle of a separate number.

Light is starting to walk the tightrope with the Light Phone 2, which is in the final days of an Indiegogo campaign that has raised over a million dollars. The 4G e-paper wafer integrates texting and may even include some integrated tasks such as calling a car service. Tang says that voice agents like Alexa would be a great way to add functionality without cluttering up a user interface, but he believes the technology is not yet mature enough to launch a phone based on such an interface.

TechRepublic: Amazon Alexa: The smart person's guide

The creators of the Light phone are committed to keeping such pestering presences as games and social media off the device, but one longtime mobile presence that has also been passed over is a camera. Of course, lacking a display would make it more difficult to frame a perfect shot, and there's a valid argument that capturing a moment removes one from wholly enjoying it. But smartphone cameras have become a utilitarian way to capture bits of useful information far beyond memory making. Perhaps one could take along a Light camera (from a separate company named Light).


You can expect more phones to appear that straddle the line between feature phones and smartphones. KaiOS is an app store-driven experience for feature phones. While its technical ancestry derives from the abandoned effort to create a Firefox-based mobile operating system, its spiritual ancestor is the BREW feature phone app system with which Qualcomm enjoyed a strong if limited run starting in 2001. One of the strongest endorsements of the operating system has come from a surprising source in Google, which has made Google Maps an early application -- even as it has sought to pare down many of its leading apps for its own Android Go initiative for low-cost phones.

While smartphone apps have far eclipsed the capabilities of BREW, feature phones have also evolved since those days, and KaiOS apps take advantage of larger displays, more powerful processors, Wi-Fi, and LTE. A key focus area for KaiOS is emerging economies; the platform is available in the latest Nokia 8110 banana feature phone announced at Mobile World Congress. However, we can expect it to expand beyond its first few US handsets, which include the Alcatel GoFlip on AT&T.

The most resonant marketing Microsoft ever created for Windows Phone was a commercial that positioned devices based on its mobile operating systems as "a phone to save us from our phones." Unfortunately for Microsoft, Windows Phones fell short of that salvation even as the humorous distractions shown in in the ads rang true. But as these phones attempt the same goal, those wishing to avoid being distracted by smartphones can use a feature integrated into every such device: The power button.


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