Sorry boss, my new phone has neither data nor apps

Sorry boss, my new phone has neither data nor apps
The Light Phone, with its lack of a touch screen and buttons, is ‘less of a phone and more a way of life’ and is designed to not be used much at all. Photo:

Sorry boss, my new phone has neither data nor apps

In six years of reviewing mobile devices, I have never tested one that polarised opinion as much as the Light Phone. It looks so innocent. In fact, it does not even look like a phone — in the sense of having a touch screen and buttons.

Instead, the Light Phone shines; its numbers glowing warmly, briefly, on the slight, feather-light slice of perspex. What seems to be particularly painful for people is when I describe it as less of a phone, and more a way of life.

For this phone is specifically designed to be not much use in the modern world. In fact, this product of Mr Joe Hollier, a New York-based skater-turned-tech entrepreneur, and his co-founder Kaiwei Tang, is designed to not be used much at all.

Which is a lot to take in for a phone that costs US$150 (S$211).

The Light Phone folk want to offer the user an alternative to today’s digital distractions by removing not just all the smart elements of a smartphone — apps, Internet and so on — but even the sort of features you might find on the most basic of Nokia phones.

The Light Phone makes and takes calls. That is it. It can store 10 numbers — probably enough for essential contacts.

An app helps forward calls from an existing smartphone, which you can then leave behind so that, not often perhaps but occasionally, you can switch off from the digital world, tune out from the digital noise of emails and messages, and focus on who and what is around you.

This is the Waiting for Godot of the mobile industry.

The lack of distraction allows consideration of life’s bigger questions: The meaning of human existence (without access to emails or Facebook), the absurdity of life (without Twitter), why no one is calling me, why no one ever calls me, why am I so bored, is this damn thing on?

Yet, there is something appealing in the simplicity of the form and function of the Light Phone.

I like that when I open the packaging for the device — expecting to see the usual lump of metal and plastic — I instead find a hardback book, etched simply with the words: “Light: Designed to be used as little as possible.”

In this book are pages of trees, the surf, some sky — calming, happy images. At the back of the book, lodged into the hardback cover, is a slip of credit card-sized plastic — the phone.

Now here is the tricky bit.

I work surrounded by media: Banks of television screens always in my peripheral vision; two monitors of rolling news pegged to the desk in front of me; and I have not one, but two smartphones — both iOS and Android, of course — which sit on either side of my keyboard; and I sit an easy hearing distance from the eddies of newsflow from the FT’s central newsdesk.

On the way home, I impatiently wait between tube stations so I can use the underground Wi-Fi to greedily update Twitter, emails and messages. I sleep within reaching distance of at least four ways to access the Internet. And I consider myself reasonably normal.

This is not some sort of digital cri de coeur, however.

I like having the ability to make an instant connection to everything and everyone that a smartphone brings. I like knowing about stuff, and quickly. So I am sceptical about the Light Phone (picture). First, a fairly obvious discovery: It is practically impossible to use during the week.

Work, in any modern sense, means being on the grid.

But over a weekend, the Light Phone makes more sense. Like many modern parents, I spend much of the time holding a child with one hand, juggling a smartphone in the other, while a second child plays Pokemon Go on my other phone.

So leaving devices at home for a day in town was rather nice. Making conversation with a three-year-old is not always easy, but infinitely more fun without the dull rumble of notifications and the nagging feeling that it might be worth checking the football scores.

The eight-year-old had never had so much attention. There is a sense of anxiety — a sort of communications fomo — simply because most people I know use some sort of instant messaging to chat.

But that is easy to ignore, and there is a sort of Christmas-like excitement about getting home to find out what is going on in the world. Nostalgia is a powerful weapon.

The deprivations of the Light Phone remind me of the days when my battered old contact book carried numbers for pretty much everyone I had ever met, like a pocket-sized diary of the past.

And switching off — to go for a quiet walk, spend time with family and friends, play sports — has its attractions. If people need you, they can call. Otherwise you can enjoy your day.

The battery life is up to four days on standby — so if I ever go to the Burning Man festival, then this is the phone to take with me.

Set against the wider dumb phone revival — led by the recent relaunch of Nokia’s classic 3310 — this is a stylish addition that will appeal to hipsters and technophobes alike.

But, for me, it is too expensive for a device that ultimately is defined by what it cannot do. If time is a luxury, this might help you, but at a big price given a simpler way would be just to have no phone at all. In a modern sense of communications, the Light Phone is almost useless. But that is sort of the point. FINANCIAL TIMES


Daniel Thomas is the Financial Times’ deputy companies editor.