Flashback: the phones that weren’t, part 5: rectangles are bad

4 minutes, 23 seconds Read

Look at your phone – it’s a rectangle with rounded corners, isn’t it? While this was established as the prevailing shape early on, there were those that knew in their hearts there are better, more natural shapes.

In 2015 Monohm showcased the Runcible – described as an “heirloom smart pocket device”, this was both a smartphone and not a smartphone. And its circular shape can’t have escaped your notice.

Runcible Babbage
Runcible Lovelace

Runcible Babbage • Runcible Lovelace

The Runcible had a round screen and smoothly curved back, imitating natural objects like a smooth pebble. The nature theme was supported by the choice of materials – from plastic reclaimed from the ocean to sustainable wood (Madrone, Black Acacia or Sinker Redwood). The backs were user-replaceable and the company planned to use a variety of materials so that you could customize your Runcible to your taste.

Reclaimed and sustainable materials for the Runcible
Reclaimed and sustainable materials for the Runcible

This was on the small side for a phone, but too large to be a part of the emerging smartwatch market. Instead, it was described as a “pocket watch” and with some of the accessories that the design team had planned you could wear it just like one.

Even back in 2015 the Monohm team was preaching the importance of digital well-being, something that big phone makers only recently picked up. The Runcible was designed to minimize distractions and to ward off the addictive online networks.

The Runcible in its natural habitat - nature
The Runcible in its natural habitat - nature
The Runcible in its natural habitat - nature
The Runcible in its natural habitat - nature

The Runcible in its natural habitat – nature

But this was a phone too and you could do phone things – calls over a Bluetooth headset (complete with a rotary dial, of course), send and receive texts, navigate to your destination (again making use of the round display to show a compass) and take photos (round photos, naturally).

The Runcible had some really cool interface ideas. For example, the bezel around the display was touch-sensitive too, even the housing could track your fingers. All of this allowed you to scroll and swipe without blocking the screen.

Speaking of, it was a 2.5” screen with 640 x 640px resolution (256dpi) with Gorilla Glass 3. It had capacitive multi-touch too, in fact, it was billed as the first round touch display.

After the 2015 introduction, the Monohm team turned to IndieGoGo in mid-2016 to fund the production of the non-smartphone smartphone. The explanation of exactly what that means is an inherent part of what this device was trying to be and (more importantly) what became of it.

The campaign eventually raised $294,052 from 695 backers. Here is a look at the pricing. Note that “Babbage” is the model with reclaimed plastic, “Lovelace” used Madrone wood and “Faraday” had a Sinker Redwood back instead.

Flashback: phones that weren’t, part 5: rectangles are bad

Okay, now we can talk about the non-smartphone smartphone thing. Initially, the team wanted to use Firefox OS. This fit well with their mission as they wanted the Runcible to be different and the lack of apps (compared to Android) wasn’t much of a concern since those were digital distractions anyway.

So the team set off to find a chipset that could run Firefox OS well – and they did find one. Unfortunately, as Android Authority reported back in 2016, the manufacturer of the chip discontinued it just as the Runcible project was getting off the ground. Then worse came to worst as Mozilla killed off Firefox OS at the end of 2015. No chipset, no OS. What now?

Flashback: phones that weren’t, part 5: rectangles are bad

Note that this all happened before the 2016 crowdfunding campaign, so the team found a way – despite avoiding it initially, they settled on Android. A highly customized version of Android called “BuniOS”.

BuniOS didn’t include the Google Play Store since the Android apps in there couldn’t handle the round display. It could run apps (and Monohm recruited developers to make them), both native APKs and web-based apps. We’re not sure why Wear OS wasn’t an option, that one did natively support round displays and had apps made for such displays.

It wasn’t so much the software that was the problem, anyway, building new hardware is difficult – especially one as unique as the Runcible. Ultimately, hardware manufacturers work with much bigger orders so they put Runcible on the back burner. Monohm tried to secure extra funding but none was forthcoming.

The last update came in May of 2019 and it illustrates how hard it is to get small scale projects made:

Our board maker, in order to make fewer than 3000 boards for us, is insisting on charging us almost double their quoted price per board. It’s very close to the same price to make 3000 boards as it is to make 1000. We have only budgeted for 1000 boards at the quoted prices, though, and after trying several strategies, we can’t get them to budge.

There have been no news on the Runcible since then and any hardware and software work done on it would be obsolete now, even for a non-smartphone. Like with the original chipset, parts go out of production, so they have to be replaced, so the whole thing has to be redesigned – it’s not something that you can pick back up after 7 years.

What do you think about the Runcible? Is a pocket smart watch/non-smartphone/digital heirloom something that you would love to have?

PS. If you’re interested, we could continue the saga of round phones with the Cyrcle:

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply