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Is a Brooklyn startup’s minimalist phone the answer to smartphone addiction?

The makers of the ultra-minimalist phone have released a second version with added apps, but say users won’t get sucked into a “void” of distraction.

November 12, 2019 Michael Stahl
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The newest cure for smartphone addiction is starting to take shape — and it looks, well, a lot like a smartphone.

After releasing the first iteration of the Light Phone in January 2017 — a minimalist phone that fits into a wallet’s credit card slot, with just a clock and a nine-entry contact list for phone calls — creators Joe Hollier and Kaiwei Tang faced a company existential crisis. They wanted to improve their product and grow their company. But to do so, they first had to answer a two-pronged question: Which smartphone apps are useful, and which are insidious?

Hollier, a graphic designer, was inspired to create the Light Phone after checking his smartphone one night while out to eat with his girlfriend. He fielded a work-related email that quickly frustrated him, as he began thinking about his client instead of remaining in the moment on his date.

He’d met Tang in 2014 at a Google-sponsored program that connected designers with entrepreneurs, and, after hitting it off, the two decided to build the phone together.

For about a year, they worked out of a now-defunct Bushwick community workspace. Then, through mutual friends, Tang — originally from Taipei, Taiwan, now living in East Williamsburg — and Hollier — a Bushwick resident who grew up in New Jersey — met Scott Cohen and David Belt, founders of New Lab, the community office space for startups in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Joe Hollier, left, and Kaiwei Tang, right, founders of Light. Image courtesy of Light

Like the Light Phone, New Lab was in beta mode at the time. However, according to Tang and Hollier, the New Lab co-founders liked what they heard about the emerging product, and offered the entrepreneurs office space at a friendly rate.

Tang and Hollier moved into New Lab in July 2016, taking advantage of the onsite resources and shipping the first Light Phones within six months.

The duo told the Brooklyn Eagle that the New Lab prioritizes community throughout the space, organizing happy hours and other events, which provide opportunities for not just networking but collaboration with other startups.

“Most of the companies here are hardware companies that make physical products, so we’re going through the same challenges: sourcing parts from Asia, getting engineers, fundraising,” Tang said. “I think it’s really cool that the space gives us this opportunity to somehow collaborate.”

Marketing their initial product as “your phone away from phone,” the twosome found eager-to-disconnect consumers embracing the gadget, leaving their smartphones at home during weekend getaways in favor of Light Phones. Customers even gifted Light Phones to their young children for emergencies, calling it their kids’ “first phone,” a use unanticipated by the creators.

Still, as Hollier told the Eagle, many of the Light Phone’s most enthusiastic subscribers offered feedback that sounded like, “If only this thing had a full phone book and maybe text messaging, I could really see myself not going back to my smartphone.”

He recalled a story about a married couple who’d brought only a Light Phone out with them on a date, with their kids staying at home. At one point the pair remarked how refreshing it was to be without their smartphones, but near the end of the evening, with no access to Uber, they got into an argument over the best street on which to hail a cab.

With hopes of bettering their product — while keeping their original mission of digital-addiction mindfulness intact — Hollier and Tang wondered how tech heavy they might make a new Light Phone.

“We really started thinking about what is a utility and what is a distraction,” Hollier said. He and Tang began to try and make those distinctions.

Before they could do anything, though, they’d need more funding. An Indiegogo campaign in April 2018 for the Light Phone 2 netted the company — which Tang and Hollier simply call “Light” — more than $3.5 million. (Tang also told the Eagle that, since its founding five years ago, Light has raised $8.4 million from investors, including Lyft co-founder John Zimmer and Foxconn, the Taiwan-based electronics manufacturing giant.)

They began shipping the new phones out in September, settling on a model where users customize the functionality of their Light Phones with what the company calls “tools.” With a “thoughtful interface,” the all-black or all-light gray Light Phone 2’s built-in tools allow for phone calls and texting, and also include an alarm. Additional tools will soon be rolled out, available on a web “dashboard,” and will include a calculator, calendar, notepad, ride-sharing, music, turn-by-turn directions, and a “find my phone” tool to help parents locate their kids.

Users can also turn the phone into a hotspot so as to connect other devices, like a laptop, to the WiFi it generates.

Remaining true to the spirit of the first Light Phone, the second generation, according to Light’s website, “will never have feeds, social media, advertisements, news or email. … There is no infinity, just intention.”

“We are getting certified with all the major carriers, including AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile,” Tang told the Eagle, “and we’re working with them to offer people options to do second phones and numbers.”

Tang also said his company has already sold “tens of thousands” of Light Phone 2 units.

But more important to the team than sales is the users’ awareness of smartphone addiction, its degradating psychological impact on them — including the stoking of anxiety and depression, as well as the deterioration of attention spans — and their willingness to at least take a break from being “plugged in” every second of every day, or even discarding their smartphones for good.

“It feels like some sort of tipping point has happened,” Hollier said, observing the cultural conversation shift about digital technology, as well as the overwhelmingly positive response to the Light Phone, which he says now comes from some celebrities, too, though he stopped short of naming them.

Light Phone fans have also told him that they’re “sick” over the loss of privacy from smartphone use, upset about data breaches, the detrimental environmental effects of smartphone manufacturing and other issues.

“There’s just so many reasons that people come to the Light Phone,” Hollier said. “It feels like we’re really onto something.”

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and editor. A former high school English teacher, he has written for Rolling Stone, Vice, the Village Voice, Narratively, Splitsider, Outside Magazine and other publications.

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