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App maker Nextbit wants to build smartphones that 'stand out'

Richard Lai, @richardlai
July 31, 2015
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Earlier this week, mobile software startup Nextbit revealed that it's about to launch its first smartphone. The move comes as no surprise -- it'd be silly for a company to hire Scott Croyle, HTC's former head of design, just to work on some cool continuity software on Android, right? We caught up with Nextbit CEO Tom Moss at Hong Kong's RISE conference and learned that not only will Foxconn be manufacturing the phone, but the design will "easily stand out" from the crowd.

Moss, who was in charge of Google's Android business development from 2007 to 2010, said the first device will be all about solving pain points. He wouldn't get into specifics except to say the company is focusing on the cloud to improve the experience. What features can you expect? It's not clear yet, but it seems safe to assume you'll see something along the lines of Nextbit's app continuity technology and virtual storage, though Moss wouldn't confirm. Likewise, the exec was mum on whether it'll run CyanogenMod or a different Android ROM, despite the fact that he is a founding board member of Cyanogen Inc.

"There is a shift happening where the new high-end for Android is $300 to $400."

But one thing's for sure: Nextbit is aiming for the same "affordable premium" space, much like Xiaomi and OnePlus. "There is a shift happening where the new high-end for Android is $300 to $400 (off-contract). That's where there are Android consumers who are willing to spend more money for a higher-spec phone, but they're not willing to give in the extra $300 on fashion brands that iPhone consumers do."

The exec went on to explain that Apple has pretty much dominated the higher price tier, even though spec-wise the iPhones may be inferior to their Android counterparts. He'd argue that proves it's more about the experience than the specs. While Samsung manages to maintain some volume in that same space, it also spends billions of dollars in marketing each year to get there. Other mobile giants such as HTC and LG have also struggled recently, and given their scale, they simply can't afford to cut prices.

"At that price point, Android devices just can't sell, period. That price band should be off-limits for Android users."

Moss isn't afraid to admit that Nextbit's new business model has taken a page out of Xiaomi's book: cut out the middle man, actively engage with users and deeply integrate services. The CEO added that Nextbit's first phone won't be headed to a US carrier. That would cost about $4 to $5 million for the testing and certifications, not to mention it would take an extra six to nine months to get to market as well.

This is the same stage where Kirt McMaster, CEO of Cyanogen Inc., openly criticized Xiaomi for copying Apple. "If you look at what Xiaomi does, they just rip off Apple and make a semi-modified version of Android, there's really not a lot of innovation happening there." Hugo Barra, VP of International at Xiaomi, has repeatedly responded to such accusations by suggesting that Apple copied HTC's design, aka the work of Scott Croyle, who is now working with Cyanogen's founding board member at Nextbit. The circle is complete.

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