In today's free market, there are only two companies making money making mobile phones. According to analysts, Apple and Samsung swept up more than 100% of mobile phone earnings in the third quarter last year, subtracting losses from other vendors. That's some funny math. It's also revealing: While Steve Jobs' legacy has been labeled iconoclastic, his vision has also become the dominant new norm.
Indie Phone, a mobile phone with new hardware, an original operating system, and an individual server for each user, could provide an alternative. The goal, says Indie Phone creator Aral Balkan, is twofold: To make a beautiful user experience and empower users to own their data.
Balkan used to create apps for a living, such as the iOS Twitter app Feathers. But he was also slowly realizing how deeply uncomfortable he was with how many of those platforms made their money—by gathering and selling off troves of user data. When the Edward Snowden revelations pushed him over the edge, Balkan decided to strike out on his own.
"I came to realize that if you don't own the tools, if you don't own the data that you're sharing by these experiences, then these experiences are very shallow," Balkan says. "They might empower you in the short term, but they'll enfeeble you in the long term, by jeopardizing your privacy, and arising out of that, your civil liberties."
Balkan still respects Apple. The real danger, he thinks, comes from tech giants like Google, whose business relies not on selling hardware, but on making money from advertising and user data. "This is a business model that leads to corporate surveillance. They make money from data," Balkan says. "They need as much data as possible about as many things and as many people as possible. It is a simple business model, but it has quite dangerous ramifications."
On the top floor of a commercial building in the old maritime city of Brighton, England, Balkan has been quietly hacking away at Indie Phone for the last several months with the rest of his team—Victor Johansson, an industrial designer, Laura Kalbag, a professional web designer (and Balkan's partner), and her Husky, Oskar. In order to devote all their energy to the project, which will start raising money through crowdfunding later this year, Balkan's now selling a family home in Turkey to pay for the enterprise. Indie Phone is a risk, but he also feels an alternative smartphone "needs" to exist.
Part of making Indie Phone a true alternative, however, will mean selling it at a competitive price. Balkan doesn't yet have a figure for the phone, but that's a big goal for a small operation that will need to have its own apps, manufacturing set-up, and individual servers for each customer.
That's not to say that other entrepreneurs haven't seen similar opportunities for more privacy-minded tools. In January, the New Yorker called Blackphone, a new vehicle for secure messaging services like Silent Circle, a phone for the "age of Snowden." But while Blackphone's creators have advertised the phone as "unhackable" and NSA-proof, Indie Phone doesn't quite make those promises. Its creators have a slightly different strategy in mind.
Instead of just going for iron-clad layers of encryption (though it will encrypt user data), Indiephone aims to decentralize personal information. By giving Indie Phone users their own servers (along with apps like email and a social timeline built into those clouds), surveillance would ostensibly become much more expensive if enough people started using these tools. If the world's personal data stores looked more like a constellation of millions instead of consolidated in a handful of massive databases, the cost of gathering data from all those bins would theoretically rise.
Which is why making the thing easy to use—for anyone, not just nerds—is paramount. Right now, Indie Phone's primary challenge will be an industrial design that can compete with the best already on the market. How can a newcomer plan to compete with Apple's legendary design?
"The assumption people have is that good design or great design is what great designers do. And that's really not true," Balkan says. "You might have a whole roster of great designers, but if they don't have the organizational structure—the budgets, the processes, the iterative work schedules—you're just not going to get great design. We're creating a design-led organization, iteratively, starting with the user, and working from there."
That's what the Indie Phone team will be working on until mid-2014, when the team has gotten far enough to launch a fundraising campaign. Balkan is also in talks with Fairphone, a smartphone company that puts supply chain ethics above all else, to see if they can collaborate.
"Will we be able to match every feature of a seven-year-old operating system in version one? Probably not, but that's not the goal either," Balkan says. "It is to get the core services right. It is to create this alternative that's easy to use. I want this to be my main phone, my only phone in two years time."