Five smartphones with a different agenda

Five smartphones with a different agenda

I have written before about how tough it is for brands to remain relevant in the smartphone market, and how lack of differentiation has led to slower replacement cycles and a general belief that new devices deliver little more than minor upgrades.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see a review of the Fairphone 4 on The Verge today.  It is simple for mainstream websites to ignore niche mobile devices – particularly as that drives a lot more traffic to their sites than the big players.  But I have always had a soft spot for the underdogs in a race (must be from my lifelong burden of supporting Southampton Football Club).  And I have also got some skin in this game.  In the past I have run PR for Toshiba when that company was trying to break the European mobile market as well as working with niche players such as Danger and Planet Computers.

There are alternatives to the mainstream smartphone manufacturers, but it is hard to find them, so I decided to compile a list of some of the companies that are doing something niche and different:

  1. Fairphone: Claiming to care for people and the planet, Fairphone offers smartphones that have a five-year warranty and that are also relatively simple to upgrade – enabling the gifted technologist to replace their own battery or display relatively simply. The smartphones are neutral from electronic waste, which is a strong statement in a world where just 20 percent of electronic waste is recycled.
  2. Blackphone: this company is focused on ensuring that its users’ privacy is always protected. Smartphones go everywhere with us so they leave a constant trace of where we have been and what we have been doing.  Blackphone uses a secure version of Android to keep that information private through secure voice, messaging, and video sharing.  Blackphone claims to have an un-hackable operating system and protects users from insecure apps.  While the smartphone’s specs are hardly cutting edge, Blackphone likely scores highly with people that are concerned as to what Apple and Google does with harvested data (and the hugely paranoid!)
  3. emporia: family owned and run Austrian smartphone company emporia (and yes, the E is deliberately lower case) makes phones for people that want simplicity in communications. It aims to provide a uniquely non-technical experience to users that are sick of complex apps and upgrades.  The company has built a niche with the elderly, but the devices are not simply for older generation and aim to be non-stigmatising – coupling good design with simple functionality.
  4. CAT phones: rugged is in the DNA of the Caterpillar brand – from trucks to clothing. The company has licenced a range of ruggedised smartphones that aim to be waterproof, dustproof, and able to survive being dropped from a height.  While several brands have tried to gain traction in this market, Caterpillar seems to be the most successful to date with a range of features and smartphones that are unlikely to need a protective case.
  5. Planet Computers: I would be doing a client a disservice by not finishing with Planet Computers. Planet is not only the single remaining UK-based smartphone manufacturer but its built-in physical keyboard makes it both smartphone and mini-computer in one – ideal for anyone that does a lot of typing on the go.  The latest version launches shortly and is the company’s first 5G device.  You can see it on Indiegogo here.

While it is probably fair to say that none of the manufacturers above will be challenging for a top three smartphone manufacturing slot, it is encouraging to see niche players in the market.  Innovation is difficult in big companies, so it is inspiring to see smaller players continuing to look for space in an increasingly commoditised market.

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