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business models, strategies and technologies

Rethinking the smartphone continuum, with the Runcible

All smartphones basically look the same and can do the same things, steamrollering along a tech-driven path of legacy incrementalism. Where’s the customer-centricity?

On 27 February 2015, San Francisco design company Monohm Inc. announced the Runcible, which they called the first personal device for the post-smartphone era. It looks like no other communication device, and it seems like a radical rethink of pretty much every premise for smartphone design, breaking with a long tradition of inexorable tech-driven incrementalism.

The Runcible back and user panel

The Runcible doesn’t only throw away the playbook in terms of shape. It also revolutionises the user experience. Runcible design is modelled on the pocket watch and features a round high-resolution screen. It has all the standard phone, WiFi and Bluetooth connections you need (and a gesture-controlled camera), but it won’t keep you up-to-date with your email inbox or Facebook posts. It doesn’t beep or notify you of anything, and it isn’t even meant to run apps – just to provide web access to our shared reservoir of everything. There will be much less reliance on the huge ecosystems of apps that drive the user experiences on iOS and Android. All the features and capabilities of the Runcible are designed to be unobtrusive and to help users keep their attention focused on real people and the real world, without techy distraction.

Rethinking the basics

According to the company website, the Monohm team see themselves as makers of “heirloom electronics and technology.” In a world drowning in container-loads of designed-for-dumping consumer electronics, these are two words rarely seen in the same sentence, indicative of a radically different agenda and design mindset.

The Runcible face

According to the company, Runcible is built to keep and to last, not to throw away. It was designed with replaceable components, so you don’t have to chuck it when the next fancy tech standard rolls in.

Your offspring may indeed be able to inherit it from you, and – more importantly, perhaps– they may want to. The unobtrusive, classic timelessness and organic, beach-pebble shape of the design, modelled on devices that humans have used and treasured for centuries – like the pocket watch, the makeup compact and the compass – will help see to that. The Monohm designers also use BuniOS as an Open Web, low-hassle alternative to current overloaded smart device OS options.

The name seems quirkily appropriate, too – more re-assuring and Middle Earth-ish than mainstream technospeak – and its almost olde-worlde charm seems to be an unusually good fit for a consumer electronics product with paradigm-tweaking intentions.

Rethinking the role of the smartphone

According to Aubrey Anderson, CEO and co-founder of Monohm Inc., “People need something to let them control their digital lives in clean, quiet, simple ways. Runcible is the alternative to the increasingly invasive and commodified smartphone whose app-centric approach distracts us from our lives instead of helping us live them.”

And that is the point – the Runcible idea is customer-centric, rather than app-centric and technology-centric. They themselves call it an anti-smartphone, and the traditional mess of notifications has been replaced with what Monohm describes as “clean summaries of our digital lives”. There seems to be a new mindset involved that can give a signpost for a way of dealing with the digital explosion while not getting drowned or tsunami’ed by it.

Third-wave electronics?

Monohm sounds like an ambitious company with a big dose of serious rethinking in its conceptual genome, and their mission to design and build products that dovetail form, function and technology to provide people with a less obtrusive, gentler relationship with our digital surroundings makes the company and its ideas more interesting than this launch product.

The vast majority of consumer electronics are deeply rooted in an old-school mindset of tech-driven innovation driven by engineers and manufacturing constraints – giving us what they think we should have, with some spectacular snafus, environmental disasters and market misconceptions to follow.

Perhaps Monohm is on to a new, third-wave approach to electronics, shifting focus from tech-driven to user-driven and from seller-centric to customer-centric. That is a radical change in perspective, evocatively hinted at by the design.

I have a feeling, however, that the idea may be more attractive than the commercial realities in the lemming-like world of consumer electronics. This seemed to be confirmed by later developments, with near-death software and development snags resulting in the Runcible idea only emerging for pre-order in June 2016, apparently with the hardware of the new version considerably upgraded from the device originally planned for introduction.



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