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Light Phone 2: the high hopes of the low-tech phone

Released in the spring of 2017, the Light Phone was shaped like a business card, weighed less than a stack of seven quarters, and felt like a hollow wedge of plastic. But when you pressed the phone’s only button, its tiny keypad lit up in a soft white glow. It was practically ephemeral, and it came packed inside a hardcover book of wistful photos of creeks, clouds, birds, and beaches.

The Light Phone was an object of extreme minimalism. “Going light,” founders Joe Hollier and Kai Tang stressed, was about a conscious uncoupling from our screens, rediscovering the world around us, and creating space for a slower and potentially more meaningful pace of communication. In practice, that meant a stripped-down phone that only made calls — no keyboard, T9 texting, or even a contact list. Adding a contact to speed dial meant firing up a desktop dashboard. Even then, you could only save 10 numbers at a time.

But the phone emerged at a moment of spiking anxiety about tech dependence. Business Insider suggested that the “beautiful credit-card-sized phone just might cure your smartphone addiction” and TechCrunch called Light an “incredibly inspiring company.”

For a phone that did almost nothing, the Light Phone did pretty well. The company more than doubled its $200,000 crowdfunding goal and raised millions from investors like Chinese manufacturing giant Foxconn, which also built the Light Phone 1. Light had a 50,000-person waitlist and shipped 15,000 units — crumbs compared to Apple’s yearly 200 million unit sales — but impressive enough for a phone company born on Kickstarter.

There was just one problem: Light’s marketing material suggested the phone was “designed to be used as little as possible,” and the creators had outdone themselves. In fact, very few people used the thing at all. Because it only worked on 2G networks, service was patchy; without texting, the Light Phone forced people to make calls, a tough sell in our era of phone anxiety. “The first Light Phone put aesthetics over literally everything,” Hollier later told me. More than anything, customers were buying an ethos.

The hard numbers didn’t add up either: the company couldn’t turn a profit even at $150 per phone, which is at least twice the price of a respectable feature phone.

Hollier and Tang eventually came to terms with the Light Phone’s drawbacks. Even they stopped using it. After one week on a strict Light Phone regimen, Hollier said he had missed out on too many messages and opportunities to connect with friends. “That was a kind of hard thing for me to reckon with,” he said. On their blog, the Light team confessed that “the simplicity that we initially loved became a confusing limitation.”

Still, the phone had sparked enough enthusiasm from the minimalist community that the team began exploring a follow-up device. In January 2018, they posted a promo video for the Light Phone 2, a device that would adhere to the same bare-bones aesthetics and philosophy as the original. But it would also, you know, do stuff, like save numbers, text and maybe even call a car, play music, and give directions. These would be “tools and not feeds,” that were part of “a phone that actually respects you.”

“The original Light Phone was only intended to be used as a casual ‘second phone,’” they wrote in a public manifesto a few months later. “The Light Phone 2, however, is designed with the intention of being a fully functioning simple phone, whether it’s your ‘only’ phone or ‘second’ phone.”

In March 2018, they launched an Indiegogo campaign for the Light Phone 2. Internally, they had floated an ambitious name for the project — “The Only Phone” — but their challenge was relatively simple: build a minimalist phone someone might actually use.

I first reached out to the Light team in the spring of 2018, and for the next year and a half, I followed Tang and Hollier as they brought the Light Phone 2 to life, chasing the dream of the ultimate minimalist phone.

The Light company occupies a six-cubicle office in New Lab, a cavernous Brooklyn co-working space that’s home to over 100 early-stage startups building everything from 3D-printed rocket engines to personal tracking devices and vertical farms.

That’s where I found Hollier and Tang in June 2018. By then, the Light Phone 2 campaign had more than doubled its reach goal of $1.5 million. Indiegogo VP of marketing Natasha Raja told me it was in the top 10 percent of all campaigns in terms of funds raised. Over the course of the next year, the Light team would go on to attract $3 million more from investors and VCs, including Lyft co-founder and president John Zimmer.

Hollier and Tang were anxious to make progress. It had been three months since the crowdfunding push, and they had less than a year until the phone’s scheduled ship date of April 2019. And all they had to show me were sketches, a few plastic models, and some survey results.

Light Phone 2: the high hopes of the low-tech phone 1
Light Phone founders Joe Hollier and Kai Tang photographed in Brooklyn in 2018.

The survey, sent out to Light backers, was focused on a straightforward question: What features would you like to see on the Light Phone 2? What they were really asking, though, was thornier: How minimalist should a minimalist phone be?

In a 2017 Wired story about the futility of minimalist devices, David Pierce identified it as the “this one thing” problem. Every customer has just “one thing” they absolutely need to have their minimalist phone do in order for it to replace their current device. But everyone’s “one thing” is different. In my 2018 review of the Light Phone 1, my “one thing” was texting. If only it texted, I said, the Light Phone would be an ideal minimalist device for me.

Some Light Phone 2 survey respondents indicated that their “one things” were basic tools like directions, maps, or a notes app. But others had maximalist requests: emojis, podcasts, encrypted messaging, additional micro SD slots, even WhatsApp and a Facebook app. The Light team had to tread a fine line.

And Hollier was adamant about not repeating the mistakes of the first device. “Obviously, I love things that are conceptual and beautiful, but it has to work,” Hollier said.

In July and August, Hollier and Tang made slow but steady progress on manufacturing, traveling to China and Taiwan, and choosing a factory. Picking the right factory is a critical decision for a small gadget maker: factories often over-promise their capabilities to secure a lucrative contract, only to underdeliver later on. That kind of snafu will bankrupt a young company.

“That’s the nightmare,” Hollier told me, sitting in their office.

“It’s going to kill you,” Tang nodded.

Then there was the work of managing backer expectations. By its nature, crowdfunding incentivizes founders to hype their projects. “Crowdfunding makes you pitch the dream,” Hollier told me when we spoke in the fall. “And then when you start building it, you’re basically going backwards a bunch of steps to make it real.”

As a startup founder, having to appease a few VCs and investors is challenging, but meeting the demands of thousands of backers can be crushing. Meanwhile, backers face the very real risk of founders stalling indefinitely and one day vanishing into thin air.

Indiegogo’s Raja says that’s why her team encourages maximum communication between project owners and backers. Hollier embraced transparency, doggedly responding to practically every one of the 2,000 queries and suggestions left on their crowdfunding page.

In a post titled “Joe Hollier is the most patient person on the planet” on the r/lightphone subreddit, one observer wrote, “Have been reading the indiegogo comments for the light phone 2 over the last few months and if I had to answer the same 6 questions over and over I would lose the fucking plot. Even Buddha would have lost his shit by now.”

Hollier also published monthly updates to the Indiegogo page, detailing the team’s progress. Most of these were met with appreciation and enthusiasm. Others, less so.

In September 2018, the team shared pictures of the most recent prototype — and it was the backers who lost their shit. In the phone’s original renderings, the Light Phone 2 looked identical to the Light Phone 1 but with a clean, snappy keyboard. The screen blended perfectly with the body of the phone, giving it the same seamless quality as the original device.

But in the September update photos, the E Ink screen didn’t match the color of the casing; instead, the whole thing looked clunky and cheap. There were other disappointments, too: in their manifesto, Light promised an aluminum casing and a USB-C port. But now, the phone had a plastic case and used Micro USB. And the original’s flat silhouette had been replaced with a hunched back in order to fit a larger battery.

“I understand that the look form promo video and pictures are not to be expected in final version of the product,” wrote one backer, “but this looks like something totally different.” Dozens asked for refunds.

A few days after the September post, I asked Hollier if he was over-communicating. They had sold the dream and stumbled on the path back to reality.

“It’s a balance,” he said. “This time around, I wanted to share much more of the process. But I’m reminded of just how tricky that is. These are customers with high expectations — which I love — and they’re holding us to that.”

In January 2019, the Light team announced they were pushing back their ship date as they kept honing the design. “We are more eager than ever for all of us to begin using the Light Phone 2 and this change in glass really takes us much closer to the initial vision,” they wrote in their monthly update. “Thank you for your continued support and patience with us through this process :)”

The launch was pushed to mid-summer, then early fall, costing a few more Light backers. “I am tired of waiting. Please let me know how I refund this,“ one backer wrote on their Indiegogo page, just a month out from launch.

In June 2019, one year after my first visit, I came back to the Light office. The phone was in its final development stages, and I wanted to know whether Tang and Hollier were happy with how it had turned out.

Though Tang cut his teeth working on the Motorola Razr, Hollier had no technical experience before starting Light. Hollier, who is tall and lanky with a sheet of long red hair, grew up in New Jersey skateboarding, shooting videos, and shooting videos of people skateboarding. In 2014, he found his way to 30 Weeks, a design and technology incubator sponsored by Google, where he met Tang.

A number of people on the Light Phone team described Hollier to me as the embodiment of the project’s ethos. “If there was a spirit animal for the Light phone, it’s Joe,” said Hugh Francis of Sanctuary Computer, the design firm Light had hired to do software development. Hollier shot all of the photos in the Light Phone 1 book and made every accompanying video. It’s his handwriting that appears on the phone’s packaging. On the inside of his right arm, he has a tattoo that reads “let’s be human beings.”

In the spring of 2019, Hollier stashed his iPhone SE into his car’s glove compartment and switched over entirely to the Light Phone 2. It was easier for him than it might have been for most people. Hollier is the type who revels in the frictions of minimalism: when he wants to share a picture, he sends it over email. Because the current Light Phone doesn’t support ride-share, he walks. In his eyes, the Light Phone 2 is a success.

The Light Phone 2, which will retail for $350, measures less than four inches in length, weighs 78 grams, and comes in two colors (black and light gray). It has a 2.84-inch E Ink touch display, Bluetooth capabilities, and a battery that supports two hours of talk time and 13 days standby. It has a Micro USB port, works with every major network apart from Sprint, and features hot spot and tethering capabilities. The team plans on producing 20,000 units. At launch, the phone will only have three “tools”: calls, texting, and an alarm. Ride-share, directions, and music tools are in the works. The screen is not perfectly seamless, but it looks very good.

Hollier and Tang are excited about the phone’s potential, but they’re also forthright with its shortcomings. When I told them that even $250 was a lot for what amounted to a feature phone, they agreed but said that manufacturing at their scale was unavoidably expensive: they’d spent a couple million dollars on their hardware team in China and a couple million more on software development. That’s pocket lint to a major phone maker, but it’s a large portion of the funds Light had available.

To me, it was still unclear whether Light had built a phone someone would want to use. We might say we want to kick our tech addictions, but who among us is ready to shell out $350 for a gadget that does so little?

The previous summer, I asked Hollier whether minimalist phones are a bit like gym memberships and self-help books — aspirational purchases that signal an effort to be someone better than who we are. We don’t actually want a minimalist phone; we just want to want one.

“The probability of that is way higher than you might think,” he said after considering the question. “The Light Phone is not a solution. It takes a lot of effort on the part of the user to really overcome these things.”

For two weeks, I tried to find someone who really did want a Light Phone 2. Everyone I showed it to loved the idea and the design. But after a few minutes of poking around on the phone, their enthusiasm often faded.

I had dinner at the home of an architect who wears weird hats, grows his own psychedelic drugs, and enjoys woodworking — the type of Burning Man-esque character who might be interested in a minimalist device. But he’s a practical type, too, and he balked at the price tag.

I sent a picture of the phone to my cousin who works in the music industry. “Need,” he texted back. “I am down to try and battle my phone addiction.” But when he saw it in person, he was noticeably less down. “I wish it had a keyboard,” he said. “I wish it cost $100.”

I showed it to my partner, who called me a snob. She had a point: in 2019, you can purchase a respectable smartphone for less than $200. So choosing to spend as much, if not more, on a device that does much less can seem ridiculous or pretentious.

The only promising response I got was from a friend who works for New York City Parks, a crunchy character who brews his own kombucha, deleted his Instagram account, and dresses as if he’s just stepped off a hiking trail. He liked the phone and said that if it came prepackaged alongside his smartphone, he could see himself using it in the field.

They were all valid criticisms. Still, over the two weeks I spent with the device, I couldn’t help but come around to liking the Light Phone 2.

Sure, it’s tricky to use. When I gave the phone to a Gen Zer, I watched her struggle with the stripped-down OS, looking for a home screen that doesn’t exist. When the dial pad popped up, she thought she’d accidentally locked herself out.

And yes, it’s limiting in ways you may not even expect. The phone has a tiny keyboard and no autocorrect, so my texts were full of typos. The E Ink screen isn’t molasses-slow, but there’s enough delay to make you reconsider corrections. “Whete u,” I texted a friend one night. When he asked me what I was doing in response, I told him I was “Fonishing din.”

Still, there was something liberating about visiting the library on a Saturday afternoon or going for a bike ride and leaving my iPhone behind. After a while, I got the hang of the OS, and the phone became a reliable tether to the wider world if I needed it. Over time, my neurotic impulse to check for notifications began to wane. Going Light didn’t transform me, but it was refreshing to develop a different relationship with the device in my pocket.

Before the smartphone era, phones were launched on the idea that different communities had individual needs. As a result, some of these phones were weird as hell, and many were outright bad: the Nokia 7600, launched in 2003, was shaped like a box cutter crossed with a tape measure, and the 2002 Motorola V70 looked like an extraterrestrial baby rattle. They weren’t for everyone, but they offered unique experiences, tailored to their owners. The Light Phone 2, in a lot of ways, is banking on the same premise: our phones don’t have to be uniform slabs of bezel-less glass.

There may not be a mass market for minimalist phones — they’re expensive, they’re superfluous, they’re extra — but there could be niche markets for the Light Phone: well-to-do campers, weekend warriors, the hyper-wired looking for relief. That could also include, as one friend put it, “people who shouldn’t be trusted with smartphones”: children, old people, and bad teens.

The Light Phone 2, which begins shipping to backers today, comes packaged inside a recycled cardboard box. An inscription in the packaging — written in Hollier’s handwriting — reads, “Appreciate your time, Life is right now.”

The back of the box has another inscription, which also functions as the company’s tagline: “a phone for humans.” For Hollier and Tang, the question now lingers — for how many?

This content was originally published here.

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