A year ago, Nextbit was just a small startup working on a little-known app called Baton, which was limited to Cyanogen devices. But now, Nextbit has morphed into a hardware company, complete with a successful Kickstarter campaign for its cloud-enhanced Android phone, the Robin.
We sat down with CEO and Co-founder Tom Moss, Chief Design and Product Officer Scott Croyle, and CTO and Co-founder Mike Chan, to learn more about their decision to change trajectories. Moss and Chan were both a part of the birth of the Android operating system, while Croyle spent several years designing phones at HTC. All three share the desire to bring some of that old school Android innovation back to the mobile world, and hope that someday the carriers won’t be the dominant force in determining which smartphone makes it.
Greenbot: When we first spoke to you guys last year, you were this little startup called Nextbit, and you were working on Baton, a cloud-based app that was exclusive to Cyanogen. What’s happened since then? Why shift gears to making hardware?
Moss: Our vision has always been to push Android forward to what we think mobile computing needs to look like in the future. We’re looking at the 5-10 year future horizon, where we have ubiquitous broadband networks, 5G, seamless handshakes with Wi-Fi…we’ll have better capabilities of leveraging cloud a lot deeper and a lot stronger than we do today. But we don’t want to wait those 5-10 years because a lot of the pain points that users have today. A lot of those problems can be solved already by integrating the cloud at the operating system level.
We started off with individual services. Baton was our second product. Our first product was actually a backup and restore app we did for NTT DoCoMo in Japan. That was a starting point: we took data, put in the cloud, and created this perfect backup and restore. Baton was [the evolution of that]. We took that data and synchronized it so that you have the exact same state across all of your devices.
Storage was already on the roadmap. We even teased it at Recode as the next thing we were working on. But what we really wanted to do from the beginning was build a cohesive experience for what we think mobile computing should look like. And so, [Mike Chan] and I, from the very beginning, assumed that sooner or later we’d want to do hardware. It was just a question of when, not if.
Then, last year, we managed to convince Scott [Croyle] to join us, and that really accelerated our program. We started looking at the ecosystem…and getting a sense for where the industry was going, and we saw this trend starting a little over a year ago that the current Android smartphone OEMs were going to have a lot of problems, specifically because the high-end Android device ($700-$800) is really not sustainable for anybody—except for Samsung, which is pumping billions into marketing. And so, the prices are going to have to come down. They’re getting exposed by OnePlus, Xiaomi, and these other competitors. But for the most part, if you’re LG, HTC, and Sony, structurally it’s really hard for you make money with a $300-$400 high-end device.
Greenbot: How does Nextbit plan to position the Robin in the US smartphone market?
Moss: I think it’s a different type of consumer. In mainland China, spec-to-dollar ratio is the deciding factor for the consumers buying high end android phones there…Xiaomi had this great rise in the beginning where they were the first to really capitalize on this by cutting out margin from retail. What you’re seeing is that other people are just playing the same game in China.
For the West, that’s not the end-all be-all. It’s not going to be about who can make that ratio the best; it’s really going to be about the total experience. Part of the total experience for a saturated market like the U.S. is industrial design. You gotta still like how a phone looks and you wanna have something in your hand that looks cool. Scott [Croyle]’s done a great job of putting some zing back into it. I think that’s going to help us tremendously.
Greenbot: The Robin has a particularly outstanding design compared to its competitors. It has corners!
Moss: That’s part of the answer. You’ve got to stand out. You’ve got to be a little bit different and get people excited.
Also, it’s about the software. I think if we were just doing a high-spec, affordably-priced phone, with a great design…it wouldn’t be the opportunity that would get us super psyched to do this. It’s the software—it’s this vision—of solving the pain points of the cloud, and moving computing forward in general. I think that speaks to a lot of consumers and they’re really excited. In hardware, nothing really stands out anymore. In software, between iOS and Android, they basically all do the same things—there’s a lot of parity between the platforms, and there’s been a lot of innovation in terms of the UI and apps and services, but the core fundamentals of the operating system haven’t really evolved in years.
Croyle: That brings up the third point: brand. One of the things we see the opportunity out there is, ‘What is brand?’ It’s about storytelling and design, and about the value you bring to the consumer. We think there’s an opportunity not just to throw out another Android phone, but to make something that’s meaningful, that provides a vision of what the future should be, and that people can relate to. One of the great things about Kickstarter is having a two-way dialogue with people. How amazing is it to hear from people tell us what they want on their next device and have that direct feedback?
Moss: Traditionally, how it’s worked over the years, it’s literally carriers going out and saying, ‘Okay, we think we need this kind of overall portfolio. We’re going to have this many different phones.’ Then they go to the OEMs, ‘Hey OEMs, show us phones in this range.’ Then [the OEM] will scramble while the carrier puts in its input. What is happening now is this shift in consumers being willing to buy devices online.
This is something we pushed hard with the original Google Nexus program, but I think a lot of things had to happened before that was possible. One: price points had to come down. It’s very simple basic economics. There’s more people who will buy a phone online for $399 than there are at $699. Two: people are a lot more educated and they are a lot more trusting now of influencers [like bloggers and journalists]. They don’t necessarily need to go into a store and feel it as much as they did before. We’ve had carriers tell us flat out that they can no longer influence the person’s decision. Consumers, by and large, when they come to the store, already know what phone they want to buy.
Croyle: That’s because they’re highly educated. They’re already well informed.
Moss: But that’s a huge shift, right? They used to be the ones that decided which phones were going to do well, and now it’s the consumers deciding that. That’s super empowering, so we really believe this was an opportunity for us to make phones for the consumers directly—not for the carriers. We started by thinking about what we would want in a phone: an unlockable bootloader, awesome performance in terms of specs…and something that looks a little different—that expresses my personality and identifies me as a member of a tribe.
Greenbot: This ideal sounds very much like Xiaomi, by the way.
Moss: I think it probably is very similar, but our consumer base is very different.
Croyle: I think the core DNA of the software is very different than Xiaomi. Mike and Tom just come from a totally different mindset. When I first met Tom, I asked what he was doing, and he mentioned this cloud operating system. The idea was big. The idea was we can actually move Android more towards this cloud operating system, leveraging the original thought that there’s this cloud up there and it actually can be utilized in a very simple way in a native app operating system. I think that DNA just doesn’t exist at Xiaomi.
Greenbot: Mike, you haven’t spoken much. Where do you want to take Nextbit?
Chan: Hardware was actually something that Tom and I had both entertained in the earlier days. Tom would always shoot my ideas down for hardware, saying that it was too expensive, or not feasible. Though to be honest, two or three years ago, that was the case. Before all this cloud stuff, I was telling Tom we could be a better OEM.
Moss: He did.
Chan: In terms of Nextbit…it’s interesting, in this move into hardware, everyone loves a good underdog. In a way, too, I feel like when you talk to us, it does feel like you’re taking to ex-Googlers, but my hope is that we bring some of the early Android vibe to Nextbit in a sense that when we were working on Android 1.0, even before the Dream or the G1, we were underdogs not just in the industry, but within Google.
Greenbot: That was so long ago. The market was so different back then.
Chan: But I remember the days: We were working on Android, it was a secret project, and people caught wind of that and it would come up in the Google TGIFs, and people would ask, “Why are we building Android? There’s iOS and there’s iPhone. There’s something that’s even better.”
Fast forward to where we are today: one of the big reasons why Android was so important for Google is if Google didn’t have Android, you’d run into a scenario where the next wave of computing was only run by one manufacturer—all the innovation was only done by one company. That was one of the reasons why Google kept Android and we grew. Today, the reality is that all the innovation is driven by two big companies in mobile.
From a software and technology perspective, my hope is that we can still continue to innovate and bring that original spirit of Android, but do it outside of Google. You’ll see it in the problems we tap, like storage. Just because Google hasn’t done [something about it], that doesn’t mean it should prevent other people from trying it. Why wait for that future? We built it before, so let’s do it again.
Croyle: And Hiroshi [Lockheimer] is on the record, he wants to support new ideas. That’s the whole ethos of the way Android started. I think there’s lot of opportunity to innovate there.
Greenbot: What differentiates you guys from Cyanogen? Or any other third-party Android fork?
Moss: But we’re not. That’s the thing. One of the biggest differences from us and companies like Xiaomi is that China is a Google-less market for Android. Android in China is not Google Android. [Google Mobile Services] is not officially available—of course, it is massively utilized through people ripping the binaries—but it’s not officially available. Most importantly, there’s 40+ app stores with massive amounts of inventory in China that control a bunch of shares and it’s just this different ecosystem where people tend to fork more and play more in areas that are directly competitive with Google.
For us, this phone (the Robin) is essentially 99.9 percent stock Google. We’re not trying to play specifically in anything Google is doing…we’re not trying to build an app store. What we’re trying to achieve is—again—being the western version of Xiaomi if you will, and figuring out what pain points we can solve and services can we bring that’s actually complementary?
I actually wrote the Anti Fragmentation Agreement. I am the person who got everybody who originally signed it, to sign it. I did all the stuff for the Open Handset Alliance. I signed all of our first OEM and carrier partnerships to Android. I think we have a very good understanding of the ecosystem. What we see is that a lot of OEMs have essentially tried to create some stickiness with users by building redundant services that already exist and are already popular from Google, and then preinstalling that and hoping that will be the way to do it. It doesn’t help consumers, it’s not what’s best for consumers, and it’s not the game we want to be in.
We want to actually do good things for consumers that keep us a good citizen in the Android ecosystem, and we helped build an ecosystem where this is possible. Part of our reason for doing Nextbit is the frustration that people haven’t been leveraging Android the way we had hoped. The whole point of making Android open source under Apache was so it would be an industry-friendly open source licensing scheme where we’d see a ton of innovation. And frankly, it’s actually been a lot of this…partly the carrier control, and partly the OEMs investing in the wrong places that has actually prevented this kind of Darwinian evolution of species.