If you really want to break the pattern of glass and metal rectangles, your next smartphone could be circular. Monohm Inc. is finally taking preorders for the Runcible — the smartphone-slash-pocket-watch that we first saw at Mobile World Congress in 2015.
The Runcible will start at $399, and Monohm plans to ship the devices this September. Monohm originally planned to take preorders for its funky little phone about a year ago, with the goal of shipping the devices by the end of 2015. But that was before the three-person company ran into two enormous problems.
First, Monohm built the Runcible’s entire software experience on the FirefoxOS platform, a philosophical choice meant to keep the device open to tinkerers. That involved finding a processor that would play nicely with FirefoxOS. But not long after that, the manufacturer killed production of that particular chip, hanging Monohm out to dry.
It was a disruption, but it quickly became the least of Monohm’s worries, because not long after that, Mozilla completely killed off FirefoxOS.
“I think we hit probably every possible obstacle that you can hit”
“I think we hit probably every possible obstacle that you can hit,” Monohm co-founder and CEO Aubrey Anderson tells The Verge. “Indie hardware is really damn hard, but I think we’ve had it pretty rough even in that context.”
The company was at a stopping point, Anderson says. The disruptions were enough that George Arriola, another co-founder and the company’s chief product officer, left in favor of what Anderson calls “a real job” in order to continue supporting his family. (Arriola remains an investor and is still on the company’s board.)
But Anderson and Monohm’s chief technical officer Jason Proctor decided to soldier on. “We came out of a long, possibly whiskey-fueled session with the idea that we should just do it anyway, that we should find a way to pursue this project in spite of having no operating system and no chip,” Anderson says. He and Proctor were able to stay afloat by self-funding the company, doing a lot of the heavy software lifting themselves, and hiring contractors for very specific parts of the rest of the Runcible’s development.
Wanting to stick with the open-source DNA of the project, the two decided to start rebuilding the Runcible’s operating system with Android. “I was initially a bit nervous to bet on Android because it’s such a moving target, but way down low it actually isn’t,” says Anderson. “It’s pretty stable.”
The team took Android 5.1 and built an operating system called “BuniOS” on top of it using Intel’s Crosswalk web runtime. The project is based on a web engine (Blink) that was born out of the Chromium project — the open-source bedrock that the Chrome browser is built on. Anderson says that this architecture “screams” on Android devices, and sounds well-suited for the type of light interaction that the Runcible is supposed to be all about.
That vision was originally laid out by Monohm at Mobile World Congress last year. The Runcible is not only supposed to look different from every smartphone on the market, but you’re supposed to interact with it in a completely different way. For one, Monohm wants you to use it less — in fact, the company’s press materials even go so far as to call it the “anti-smartphone.”
In practice, that means a few different things. The traditional mess of notifications gets replaced with what Monohm calls “clean summaries of our digital lives.” The Runcible’s core features are also presented in different ways, like the camera, which has gesture-based controls; or the maps application, which suggests more scenic (and less direct) travel routes. And it also means there will be less reliance on the enormous app ecosystems that power the experiences on iOS and Android. In fact, since the screen is round, the Runcible won’t have access to the Google Play Store anyway, according to Anderson.
If that makes your heart skip a beat, then the Runcible was probably never for you anyway. It’s clear that Monohm wants it to be an approachable device for anyone that picks it up, but the team’s also not catering to Twitter-obsessed power users. Its real focus with this initial preorder push is finding maker culture customers who might be willing to play around with what the Runcible can do, either on a hardware level or down at the level of the processor.
But if you’re not a tinkerer and the idea of the Runcible holds some appeal, it’s worth knowing that the device has been significantly upgraded from the version we saw last year. It now comes with a Snapdragon 410 quad core processor, an Adreno 306 GPU, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, and a 7-megapixel camera. But the best upgrade is the screen: it’s still 2.5 inches, but the resolution has been bumped up to 640 x 640, good for about 256ppi.
The company is also still stressing the ideas of sustainability and modularity. The $399 base model will come with a back made of recycled ocean plastic, and for $499, users can get one of the wooden backs we saw at MWC. (The wood was “sustainably harvested” from Mendocino County in northern California, of course.) Flip covers that could plug in to the charging port will eventually be available, as well as other accessories. And Anderson says all the hardware on the device has been designed so that, down the road, it can be repaired, or replaced for better parts.
“It has taken us a whole year to get our shit together, so now we need to sort of hedge our bets”
The biggest unknown after all this time, Anderson says, is how many people actually want to buy a Runcible. “I don’t know if we’re going to be dealing with hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands,” he says. “We have a sense of the enthusiasm and the people out there, but it has taken us a whole year to get our shit together, so now we need to sort of hedge our bets in terms of supply chain.”
Monohm will have a clear idea of that when the preorder window closes on June 30th, and at that point Anderson and Proctor will start figuring out things like what kinds of deals need to be made for LTE coverage around the world.
“We’re kind of turning that corner where we can start to operate like a more normal company,” he says, “and that means Jason and I can finally go get some sleep.”