Startup Nextbit unveils Android phone that frees up storage via the cloud

What if your smartphone knew which apps you used most often, and temporarily deleted the ones you didn't use much at all from your phone by pushing them to the cloud, freeing up storage space in the process? What if it did the same thing for your old photos you never look at? Those are the kinds of innovations that startup Nextbit hopes will win it converts in the cutthroat smartphone market as it prepares to sell its first phone, called Robin.

In addition to the software enhancements it is making to Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) Android operating system, Nextbit's next most important attributes are its pedigree and its approach to the market. The company is staffed by veterans of the Android team and Android device makers, and the firm is taking a somewhat novel approach to entering the market. It's using crowd-funding site Kickstarter.

The Robin phone is available on Kickstarter now and the campaign will run 30 days, with a funding goal of $500,000. The first 1,000 Kickstarter backers will receive a $100 discount and the price of the phone will be $299, and all other Kickstarter backers will be able to purchase Robin for $349, a $50 discount. When Robin is available for general retail sales in the first quarter of 2016 it will cost $399.

The Robin sports a 5.2-inch 1080p display.

Scott Croyle, Nextbit's chief production and design officer and formerly HTC's design chief, noted that not many handset OEMs are making money these days, especially because of the disruption caused by companies like Xiaomi and OnePlus, which are producing Android phones with higher-end specs that cost $300 to $400 on an unsubsidized basis. Croyle calls that the "affordable premium" market, a term embraced by Lenovo's Motorola Mobility, Huawei, ZTE and others.

"We think that we can actually be a little bit different and win this space," Croyle said. How does it plan to do that? The main way is through software enhancements Nextbit is making to Android itself, something it feels it can do well, given that Nextbit CEO Tom Moss was in charge of business development and strategic partnerships for Android worldwide and CTO Mike Chan was a software engineer at Google working on Android before version 1.0 launched through 3.0 (Honeycomb).

Croyle said that Nextbit wants to "actually push the ecosystem in terms of what the operating system does" by having a "cloud-first" smartphone. In practice, that means that the company is trying to solve the problem many consumers have of running out of storage space on their phones after nine months or a year, which can sometimes lead to moments where photos can't be captured because of insufficient internal storage.

Nextbit synchs users' apps and photos to the cloud using Amazon We Services and over time "shadows" or grays out apps that users do not use, but leaves the application data and credentials intact so that when users do want to access the app they can tap it and pick up like they never left off. Users can also override the intelligence by "pinning" certain apps to the phone. The same thing can be done for photos that a customer hasn't looked at in a month. The phone will push those photos off the phone and up the cloud but leave a locally cached thumbnail users can look at and click if they want to retrieve the full-sized photo.

Chan said Nextbit is tackling slightly different problems than Google is through its new Photos application, which lets users back up their photos to the cloud and search through them. "We're using the cloud to solve the local phone storage problem," he said.

Chan added that Nextbit is "future-proofing" your phone and that while 32 GB of internal memory might be is sufficient today, it might not a year from now as more phones become capable of shooting 4K video. "Undoubtedly, people with small amounts of [internal phone] storage are going to get a lot of value out of this," Croyle added.

"Ultimately, what we believe [is] you should be able to access all of your stuff on any piece of glass," Croyle said, adding that Nextbit wants a future where a person could pick up their friend's phone, log in to a cloud-based account and access all of their own apps, content and photos.  

Nextbit aims to take this approach and solve other pain points for consumers. "We've got lots of ideas," Croyle said, including setting up a new phone, battery consumption and more. Croyle said it's "disingenuous and unfair" to people to make them pay $100 or $200 more just for more internal memory that costs a fraction of that. All of the Robin phones come with 32 GB of internal storage and 100 GB of free cloud storage.

Croyle, who helped lead the trend toward metal unibody constructions popular in many high-end smartphones, said he wanted Nextbit's phone to stand out. "We have used the absence of flourishes and the reduction of detail," he said. The phone has square edges, dual front-facing speakers, and places its proximity sensor right next to the front-facing camera. The phones come in mint green or dark blue colors.

The Robin sports respectable specs, including a 5.2-inch 1080p display, Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) Snapdragon 808 processor, a fingerprint sensor in the power button, a 13-megapixel rear camera and 5-megapixel front-facing camera and a 2680 mAh battery.

Croyle admits that Nextbit faces challenges in building up its brand and earnings consumers' trust. Yet the company also thinks it will appeal to Android enthusiasts and is planning on using the Kickstarter campaign as a way to extrapolate demand for the phone so that it's not sitting with a lot of unsold inventory early next year. (Foxconn is Nextbit's manufacturing partner). Croyle said he thinks there are around 75 million to 80 million Android smartphone enthusiasts around the world, and estimates around 10 percent of them are willing to buy directly from manufacturers. 

"For people who are knowledgeable about tech, Android enthusiasts, they know that the idea of paying $700 to a carrier for any phone is absolutely outrageous," he said.  

"Having a phone that will evolve and get better over time -- that's the real promise of the cloud and I don't see why we can't do some of that stuff now," Croyle said.  

For more:
- see this Kickstarter link
- see this spec sheet

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