Pebble founder: it’s your “last chance” to make a small Android phone happen

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Eric Migicovsky, who founded and helmed the Pebble smartwatch company and who’s working on a chat app that will bring iMessage to Android, has a new quest: getting someone, anyone, to make an Android phone you can actually use in one hand. He wants to, as he put it in an interview with The Verge“unionize” a community of small phone lovers to get sway with phone manufacturers and suppliers.

To do that, he’s built a site — smallandroidphone.com — that explains his dream phone. Basically, he wants a flagship that’s the size and shape of the iPhone Mini but running stock Android. The site argues that small phones are good, actually, and it asks like-minded people to essentially sign a petition. Migicovsky says he’s looking for 50,000 or more people to help prove to manufacturers it’d be worth their time and money to make an Android flagship with a sub-6-inch screen. Within 12 hours of the site being up, it passed over 6,000 signatures. By Wednesday, that number was over 10,000.

After talking to him, I’m not entirely convinced that he has a sure-fire plan for turning signatures into a real product — convincing companies to invest in a niche phone instead of trying to make the next big thing is tough (though not impossible ), even if you prove that that audience is relatively sizable and willing to pay. However, I came away from my conversation with Migicovsky absolutely sure that he’s an ardent fan of small phones, getting out the good word on why they should make a comeback.

“I got the idea because I was watching the Pixel 7 announcement and was like, ‘Holy shit, they’re just making another gigantic phone,’ and that really pissed me off,” Migicovsky says. That’s almost exactly how I felt when I heard the “smallest” phone in the Pixel 6 lineup now has a 6.4-inch screen.

On his website, Migicovsky shows how much the Pixel grew over a single generation.
Image: Eric Migicovsky

At first blush, it seems unrealistic that such a small number of people could convince a company like Google or Samsung to invest in this phone, and Migicovsky tells me that his 50,000-signature goal is based on some “very, very back of the napkin ” math. “If you look at the upfront costs in a very rough manner, it’s like 10 million bucks to get your first phone made. And then the other ones cost whatever the cost components are.”

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His goal today is simply to suggest to anybody who’d consider making a compact Android phone that there’s a market there, one that could be profitable. “It’s hard to make money in phones, let alone making money in the world’s smallest segment. So my pitch is: charge more. We’re all here yelling that we want this. We should be willing to pay a little bit more.” If 50,000 people would actually buy the phone, based on the $700–800 price he suggests on his website, a company could stand to make tens of millions in profit off of his estimated $10 million investment. Again, very back of the napkin.

At that price point, though, I don’t think his dream phone would be a hard sell to enthusiasts. He says he’s looking for a phone that looks “as close as possible” to the iPhone Mini and that has:

5.4”-ish 1080p OLED display (60hz ok)

Cameras must be as good as Pixel 5

must have great low light performance

Stock Android OS

Snapdragon 8 (or other flagship processor equivalent)

5G world phone

Hole punch front camera

2 rear cameras (regular and wide angle)

8GB RAM

128/256GB Storage

4 hours Screen On Time (SOT)

Unlockable bootloader

NFC

For what it’s worth, I’m absolutely clicking the button on his site to say that I’d be interested in buying this. Especially if it had one or two of the features on his “nice to have” list, which are:

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Rugged enough to not need a case

IP68 water resistance

Fingerprint sensor on power button

Hardware mute switch

Wireless charging

eSIM

However, even with a ton of signatures — and I’m not entirely convinced 50,000 people count as a ton — it’s still a very tough pitch to a company like Samsung, Google, or even a more boutique manufacturer. (Migicovsky admits he’s not sure what size company would be best to take on this project, but he’s willing to hear anyone out at this point.) Making phones isn’t easy in the best of times, and the history of smartphones is littered with well-meaning companies like RED, Nextbit (which was folded into Razer), and Essentialwhich all tried to make phones to serve some niche audience and all failed in some way.

Making matters worse, we’re not in the best of times. Chips are hard for anyone to get their hands onand supply chains are a mess, Who in their right mind would want to go through the hassle of building a niche phone when the people clamoring for them may decide to settle for a big phone in the meantime? Even for established companies, the opportunity cost of putting scarce chips and components into even a “small” batch of reasonably sized phones could be huge; no product manager wants to risk putting scarce hardware into small phones that might not sell instead of having them go into the big, cheap phones that the public seems to love

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Migicovsky thinks he has a solution that would deal with the riskiness of investing in a niche project and the difficulty of buying chips. “One of the things that I would do is I would pre-sell these ahead of time,” he says. “I have somewhat of a Kickstarter history, and my premise is the people who want a small phone know they want a small phone. And if you put it in front of them — say, ‘Okay, we’re going to build a small phone, do you want one?’ — I would put money at it if you’re trustworthy and knowledgeable and you knew your shit.”

Obviously, though, having money in hand doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to make things work. It can be hard to know who’s trustworthyand even companies with previous success can take way longer than expected to actually ship a product, That’s not to say that it’s never worked before (you can buy the Unihertz Jelly 2 if you want a really small phone), but it’s not as simple as preorders = profit.

The default phone used to be ultra-pocketable. Now, that size class is hard to find.
Image: Dan Seifert / The Verge

As for getting people to invest, Migicovsky doesn’t think it would be particularly difficult since no one else is going to make a small phone. I have to agree. I know myself enough to know I’d do almost anything for a compact and comfortable device. “And then that solves the component problem,” he says, “because you just go to the manufacturer and say, ‘Hey, give me the components. Here’s the money.’” He also says that if a smaller company were to take the project on, their best bet would be to work with an OEM that already makes phones, rather than trying to set up manufacturing themselves.

If Migicovsky’s poll does end up convincing a manufacturer to take on the project — if someone sees all the names he’s gathered and agrees there should be a small phone unbound by the constraints of iOS — he does have one piece of advice for them: stay focused .

“As someone who’s built a lot of hardware, it’s a slippery slope,” he says, explaining that people might immediately start thinking about adding an SD card reader or headphone jack if they’re already asking for a niche phone. I admitted that my immediate thought after hearing about his idea was “this phone should have a 3.5mm jack,” and he laughed.

Instead of adding every enthusiast feature, though, he thinks manufacturers should instead just focus on making a good small phone with great cameras — though he admits that’s no small task. (Plus, great cameras aren’t automatically equal to great success, as Pixel market share estimates can attest.) The site, he says, is him “planting a line in the sand and saying, ‘I think I know what’s right. And if you agree with me, push this button. But if you don’t agree with me, don’t push the button.’”

Migicovsky thinks the window of opportunity to demand a small Android phone may be closing. “This might be the last chance for us to take a stand and show support for small phones,” he said in an email. “If Apple kills the iPhone Mini then every single OEM will say ‘even Apple couldn’t do it’ and have an easy excuse as to why they’re not making one.”

It’s a valid concern, though no matter how fast he gets his signatures it feels unlikely that anybody’s going to come out with what he’s looking for before that happens. The rumors almost universally point to Apple ditching the Mini from its lineup when it announces the iPhone 14 this fall (though we’ve argued that it could absolutely live on as an SE model,

The Mini is a great phone, and both Migicovsky and I use it. But it’s not perfect — I and many others have taken issue with its battery life, and I’ve heard from several colleagues that they stopped living the Mini lifestyle because they had to charge it too often.

The Apple MagSafe Battery Pack on an iPhone 12 Mini

Migicovsky says he uses a magnetic battery pack to help keep his Mini charged, which is one way to do it.
Dieter Bohn / The Verge

It could be very difficult for a company to navigate the potential churn, especially when it comes time to launch a second small phone. Even with his experience, it was a tough question for Migicovsky to answer when I asked him about it. “I don’t know the answer there. I’m currently not planning on building this myself. I already had my fun building hardware.” He did have one piece of advice though: “just make it thicker until the battery is bigger.”

There is a limit to that, though. Migicovsky says he likes the height and width of the Oppo Find N, which is a folding phone. But he also says it’s just too thick and heavy. (He’s not a fan of the Z Flip, either, saying that he can’t open it with one hand.)

Apple’s not the only company to try and make compact phones happen. Migicovsky specifically calls out the Sony Xperia Compact series on his website, and when I ask him how he thinks Sony can improve on it, he says the biggest issue is that the last one was made in 2018.

In 2015 we gave the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact a higher score than the big version,

But out of all the things you could criticize about Sony’s approach to compact phones, persistence isn’t really what leaps to mind; it made several compact models over the years, many of which received great reviews. Despite not sharing some of the issues Migicovsky came up with for other small phones (he says the Essential phone wasn’t particularly focused, the Asus Zenfone was too big, and Nokia’s 2018 small phones cut out too many features), Sony seemingly couldn’ t justify continuing to make compact models.

Hearing his plea, and reading his website, it might be easy to think, “Hey. You made the Pebble and spent a bunch of years working with venture capitalists. If you want this so badly, why don’t you just do it yourself?”

Migicovsky says he hasn’t ruled that idea out as an absolute last resort, but that he “really hopes someone else makes this.” I understand his trepidation about it. Pebble was a good idea before that appealed to enthusiasts, and he’s admitted that even that wasn’t enough. “We failed to create a sustainable, profitable business,” he wrote in a post last month that looked back at the smartwatch company a decade after it launched on Kickstarter.

Instead of being the person who has to bring back the small Android phone, he’s looking more to be the spark that gets enough people to demand one from the market. “There’s 7 billion people on Earth. We’re not all the same. Everyone has slightly different habits and peculiarities. Some of us like these small phones,” he says. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to rally enough troops together.” As someone who would rather give up smartphones — perhaps trading my iPhone in for something fun like the “banana phone” Migicovsky mentioned to me — than get RSI from using something that almost classifies as a tablet, I’m trying to hold out hope he’s right.





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