Hardware

One man’s quest to bring back the small phone

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Small Android Phone
Image Credits: Brian Heater

In 2017, we noted that smartphone screen sizes had settled into a sweet spot between five and six inches. In hindsight, that may well have been wishful thinking. A brief respite aside, it seems that phones have only continued to embiggen, driven by a continued spec war and panel manufacturers like Samsung.

Heck, even Steve Jobs famously missed the boat when he declared the 3.5-inch a platonic ideal a dozen years ago. “You can’t get your hand around it,” he noted about the four- to five-inch being manufactured by Samsung, “no one’s going to buy that.”

Now, the comparison isn’t entirely Apples to apples, as it were. For one thing, hardware makers have gotten much better at shrinking the phone around the screen in the intervening decade. That is to say that a five-inch phone in 2010 is a very different beast than a 2022 version. Even so, big phones are big. They’re so big, in fact, that folding the screen in half seems like the only reasonable exit ramp.

Where, Eric Migicovsky wonders, did all the small phones go? The man behind Pebble and Beeper (who also serves as a Y Combinator partner), is talking things into his own (self-described large) hands. Or, perhaps more accurately, he’s nudging it in someone’s direction in hopes that he doesn’t have to do the famously hard work of launching yet another hardware startup.

Noting that the dream of a premium, sub-six-inch Android handset is dying or dead, Migicovsky launched Small Android Phone. “My hope is that we can gather support from the community and convince Google (ideally) or another Android manufacturer to build this phone,” he writes on the site. Google may well have been the tipping point here, as the company notably abandoned smaller phones with hardware restructuring that gave us the Pixel 6.

He noted in an email to TechCrunch that he’s already had conversations with hardware companies and launched the site/petition in hopes of getting them to see things his way. “I am busy and happy running Beeper. My goal is to encourage someone else [to] make one.”

The petition cites the following bullets as driving factors in returning to a simpler, smaller, safer time:

  • Fits nicely in pocket
  • Are much lighter
  • Are easy to use one-handed without dropping
  • Won’t fall out of my pocket while bicycling

Currently around 20,000, Migicovsky believes 50,000 is the sweet spot for convincing a manufacture to go all in on small. “Just back-of-the-napkin math, but it feels right,” he says. “Probably ~$10 million [non-recurring engineering], means 50K units makes a decent profit at [an] $800 selling price.”

One wonders, ultimately, why the proliferation of the smartphone and increased competition have seemingly resulted in homogeneity. Certainly it’s not for lack of trying. When I mention the Palm Phone, he retorts, “I love that they tried! Also the Light Phone 2 is really interesting, but not great as primary phones.” He adds that — at the very least — he needs a good camera. That certainly doesn’t seem like too much to ask for these days.

Launching a new phone company isn’t an impossibility. We’ve got a close eye on Nothing and OSOM’s efforts. But one certainly questions the soundness of doing so in 2022, based entirely on a potentially niche corner of the market. On his site, Migicovsky makes it clear that he’d rather someone else do it.

“If no one else makes one I guess I will be forced to make it myself,” he writes, “but I really, really don’t want it to come to that.”

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