Hardware is so hot right now. So hot, in fact, that another European hardware startup is formulating an attack on the smartphone hardware space — joining the likes of Finland’s Jolla and Spain’s Geeksphone to have a go at handset making. The newest comer stepping in with a plan to shake up the “status quo” is called Kazam: a startup co-founded by a pair of former U.K. HTC execs, Michael Coombes and James Atkins.
Coombes, who spent just over a year and a half as a U.K. head of sales for HTC, according to his LinkedIn, is Kazam’s CEO. Prior to HTC he apparently worked for mobile and telecoms companies including Nokia and Vodafone. While Atkins, Kazam’s CMO, spent just over a year as HTC’s head of marketing for U.K./Ireland, and has previously worked in U.K. marketing roles for freesat, LG and Panasonic. The pair’s professional network is clearly tied tightly to the local market, hence, presumably, Kazam’s focus on Europe first.
“Kazam will focus on Europe at the outset,” Atkins tells TechCrunch via email, adding with some typical marketingspeak embellishment: “We are currently establishing a network of regional sales and marketing offices to ensure we deliver outstanding products and customer service.” The startup has a U.K. base in Mayfair, London.
Details of how exactly Kazam plans to assault the Samsung and Apple smartphone duopoly were not forthcoming when I asked. Atkins declined to answer the bulk of my questions — including such specifics as whether Kazam’s planned smartphones will run Android and be skinned with a custom UI or keep the experience familiarly stock. Instead, he trotted out a repeated PR mantra: “Today we are just announcing that the Kazam brand is here, for the rest you will have to wait and see.”
It’s notable that this startup has already engaged a PR company (Noire) — and talks about creating a mobile brand — even before having a great deal to talk about. Which does serve to underline how smartphones have become a game of who can shout the loudest. A game of brash tones (as I have previously described it).
What did Atkins say? Not a whole lot. He declined to reveal how much funding Kazam is backed by at this point, or whether it is currently looking to raise a round. He did at least confirm it has backers, and that those backers have links into Asian mobile manufacturing companies — which suggests it’s following Jolla’s manufacturing playbook.
“Kazam Mobile has been set up by a group of private equity investors, who have previously launched and operated successful mobile telecommunications companies and technology businesses. Some of their current investments include NF Technology Limited, an R&D company specialising in developing and customising mobile phone devices and tablets and Nichefinder (S’pore) PTE Limited, a proven technology procurement and supply company,” he told TechCrunch.
He also confirmed Kazam’s plan is to launch “a range of smartphones at different prices point/specs” later this year. Asked whether it will look at other types of mobile devices, such as tablets, he said only that its initial focus is on smartphones. He added that he and Coombes left their roles at HTC earlier this year “with the desire to build a new brand that really stands out in the mobile space”.
He also declined to be drawn on the differentiation question but in Kazam’s inaugural press release today Coombes said: “We believe your smartphone is a digital reflection of who you are, and since we are all different, it’s important that we don’t adopt a one size fits all approach. Kazam’s dynamic structure and focus on local markets means we can react quickly to the ever evolving and diverging needs of today’s consumer. We aim to provide quality smartphones that are accessible to everyone.”
The release also includes a statement from Atkins hinting that aftersales service might be how Kazam attempts to stand out in a crowded market: “There is a real opportunity for a new mobile brand to disrupt the status quo. We are passionate about delivering a truly positive mobile experience that doesn’t just stop once you’ve bought the phone. Kazam is about stunning design, robust hardware and intuitive technology, underpinned by outstanding customer service.”
Further details about exactly what kind of customer service opportunity Kazam reckons it has identified were not forthcoming.
The size of Kazam’s team at this point is just Atkins and Coombes — a few more if you count the hired help from their external PR company. But Atkins also said the startup has already “established an R&D centre”. Hopefully with some staff in it, but presumably no permanent headcount yet.
Should Kazam get off the ground with its grand status quo shaking plan it will need to significantly boost its body count — if only to staff the network of regional sales and marketing offices it is currently establishing. It will also need to make decent smartphone hardware — hardware that’s worth shouting about. Whether it will be able to deliver that is clearly something to file under “wait and see”.
Asked how a startup with inevitably bounded resources can succeed in such a fiercely competitive space — when veteran players such as HTC are having such a tough time standing out despite making cracking handsets like the HTC One — Atkins’ said only: “The mobile market whilst competitive, seems to have stagnated.”
Stagnation is one word for it. Saturation is another. Smartphone hardware and software has achieved a very high quality bar, with Android OEMs like Samsung pushing high-end features lower and lower down the price-point range to pull up the capabilities of mid- and even budget handsets. This has resulted in a surfeit of great phones, across a very broad spectrum of price-points. Which means precious little room for anyone new to elbow in. Or stand out.
So there are huge question marks over any startup entering such a fiercely competitive space, especially with so many better resourced former mobile giants continuing to struggle. Disruption often starts small but in a market so beholden to carriers, where the bulk of phones sales occur, it’s especially hard for an upstart to get traction. Carriers tend to be risk averse and have established distribution partnerships and (incentivised) relationships with the smartphone giants so have disincentives to push anything too new. Going it alone with online retail distribution is the alternative, but that route requires a sizeable marketing budget to even get noticed.
Creating handsets for an underserved niche may be one way to carve out a business, as Geeksphone has been. Securing carrier distribution agreements to carry your hardware is another strategy, as Jolla has with Finland’s DNA. For now, it’s unclear whether Kazam has any similar moves up its sleeve, but it will certainly be hoping it has enough local telco connections — and financial backing — to give it a regional chance of inching in. To say it has its work cut out to make any kind of impact is an understatement.
There’s plenty of information swirling about the HTC One Mini thus far, especially considering it’s not an officially announced handset by any means. Still, we’ve seen pictures, learned about rumored specs, and today it would appear that we’re one step closer to confirmation.
The folks at TNW spotted a User Agent Profile that was published to a website owned by HTC, the Taiwanese htcmms.com.tw.
According to the User Profile, the new phone will be called the HTC One Mini. Not much else is glaringly obvious from the profile, save for the fact that the phone will have a 720p display and run Android 4.2.
Past that, there isn’t much else to be plucked from the page full of code. However, there have been numerous leaks and rumors that have surfaced over the past few weeks.
Just last week, we got to see a picture of the alleged device in all its glory next to an HTC One. The HTC One is the Taiwanese handset maker’s latest flagship, following on the successes of the HTC One X that came before it. The One Mini is expected to pack lesser power into a similar design, for those looking for a smaller or more affordable handset with the same style.
That leak also surfaced some rumored specs, including a dual-core Snapdragon processor and dual front-facing speakers.
Before that, early in June, we stumbled upon a whole bevy of photos of the HTC One Mini, or at least a phone that looks incredibly similar to the HTC One Mini.
Phone makers are clearly aiming to spread out the love in terms of phone sizes, with a number of “mini” handsets making their way into stores recently. The HTC One Mini, though unconfirmed, is expected to be the latest to join that category of smartphone.
Sometimes, small size matters in a big way.
The days of a standard phone size are gone. 3.5-inch? 4.3-inch? 5-inch? Phone makers are less concerned with which size is right, and clearly becoming more concerned with offering as many sizes as possible.
Case in point: Engadget has surfaced a leaked photo of what appears to be a smaller version of the HTC One, or the One Mini. Obviously, the photo itself isn’t confirmed, nor is the phone, but the picture seems to match up to some earlier leaks, so at least leak volume seems to be lending credibility.
According to Engadget’s source, the HTC One Mini has a 4.3-inch 720p display, a metallic unibody design, Android 4.2.2 complete with Sense and BlinkFeed, and all powered by a Snapdragon 400 dual-core chip. None of this is confirmed, but we do call into question the metallic unibody design, as the picture appears to show a plastic bezel on the phone.
You’ll also notice that there is Beats branding on the phone, as well as the same front-facing speakers that HTC is pushing as a key feature of the One series.
Perhaps more interesting than the phone itself, though, is the constantly evolving nature of smartphone size trends. Remember when Zoolander came out? Derek answered a phone that was the size of a mini army action figure, and finally heard the voice of God.
Before Apple ushered in the era of all-touch devices, small was the new new thing in cell phones. Clearly, that changed. Android manufacturers pushed against Apple in size, knowing that Jobs was reluctant to deviate past the 3.5-inch iPhone screen.
Galaxy devices had larger screens, Droids had larger screens, and HTC jumped on board, too. Until one day, Apple announced that the iPhone 5 would have a 4-inch display, the first time that the size of the iPhone display had ever changed. It was almost unsettling.
Zoom to today.
Android manufacturers are pulling back into 4- to 4.3-inch territory with phones like the Motorola Razr M, the Galaxy S4 Mini, and now the HTC One Mini. Meanwhile, rumors are swirling that Apple is experimenting with even larger screen sizes, according to a recent report by Reuters.
In other words, they’re covering all the bases they can. Perhaps I’m annoyed that my 4-inch iPhone 5 doesn’t fit as snuggly in the pocket of my jeans, whereas a friend of mine could be downright obsessed with the video viewing and gaming experience on his giant Galaxy Note 2.
People are different, and so must their phones be. But it also seems clear that phone makers, while spreading a variety of sizes out in front of consumers, are still looking for the sweet spot.
So where will we land? Your guess is as good as mine, but be prepared for some more back and forth before phone makers have figured out how to please our eyes, our hands, and our pants pockets all at the same time.
Children’s entertainment studio Roam & Wander wants spark children’s imaginations by bridging the gap between touchscreens and real-life toys. The Hong Kong and Taipei-based startup’s top-selling iOS app, Sticker Games, allows kids to earn real stickers sent through postal mail. Now its first stuffed animal, a pink bunny named TuTu that comes with a set of touch-enabled accessories for iPhones and iPod Touches, is seeking funding on Kickstarter.
Roam & Wander, which has received Series A funding from venture firms WI Harper and TMI Ventures, is not the first company to design stuffed animals as child-friendly cases for mobile devices. But TuTu is not just a gadget holder. The TuTu app and toy set was designed by Roam & Wander founder Jason Warren to give children growing up in the digital age a more engaging and tactile way of interacting with mobile devices.
“I love video games, everyone in my family is a hardcore gamer–my wife, my sister, all the females in my family,” says Warren. As his daughter grew older, Warren was delighted to see her start taking up the family pastime. But then he began to worry about the stretches of time she and her friends spent engrossed in tablets and smartphones, silently tapping away at the screen.
“They didn’t have a strong connection to physical games. They were literally living in a digital world,” says Warren, who was a general manager at HTC before founding his startup. “I didn’t feel that was super healthy, so I thought there has to be a way to use the creative canvas provided by smartphones and embed them in toys to make them more fun and engaging.”
TuTu’s expressive face is powered by an iPhone or iPod Touch screen and kids can play with her using a set of plastic toys with touch-enabled sensors, including a milk box, carrot and toothbrush. After TuTu has been fed and groomed, she can be rocked to sleep with the device’s motion sensor. In TuTu’s dream state, kids play a series of games that allow them to learn new skills while getting a glimpse into the bunny’s backstory.
Roam & Wander hopes to raise $25,000 on Kickstarter by July 11, which will fund the production tooling of TuTu’s plastic accessories and the completion of safety testing and certification to U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission standards. Roam & Wander plan to follow TuTu with the release of their second character DiDi, a teddy bear powered by the iPad mini.
Heads up Android keyboard aficionados — if your handset runs Android 4.0 or later and you’re just not thrilled with the keyboard you already have, you can now download Google’s stock keyboard app from the Google Play store.
According to a post on the official Android Google+ page, the app has launched in certain English-speaking markets with a wider rollout to follow shortly. But that’s not to say that people in those launch markets are restricted to pecking out missives in English. The app comes with libraries for 26 languages, as well as the ability to select next word suggestions and swipe across the keyboard to form words. In the event you haven’t played around with it yet, it’s really quite good — far better than what I’ve experienced in Samsung and HTC’s custom skins, anyway.
Yeah, fine, I know — who gets hot and bothered about keyboards? Well, quite a few people if the number of replacement keyboard apps in the Google Play store is any indication. Nearly every Android OEM under the sun feels the bizarre compulsion to fiddle with the keyboard as they make their (arguably unnecessary) changes to the Android experience, and the end results aren’t always what the end-user had in mind. It’s no surprise then that some people have been clamoring for a cleaner way to type, and developers have been eager to fill that gap.
So what does this mean for the countless replacement keyboards that have already carved out their niches in the Google Play Store? Well, it depends on who you’re concerned about — prominent developers like Swype and SwiftKey already have deals in place with device OEMs like Samsung (and last year the latter started to focus on the health-care market of all things) so they’ll almost certainly continue chugging along just fine.
The picture gets hazier when you consider the smaller players in the space — at least a few developers (like this guy, or this guy, or this guy) have been selling replacement keyboard apps that aim to replicate the stock typing experience on non-Nexus devices, and Google has basically just made them all obsolete. Those guys weren’t exactly raking in the downloads to start with, and it’s obviously in Google’s best interest not to alienate developers that have pledged allegiance to their mobile platform, but I suspect some of those smaller keyboard app creators may soon feel the pinch.
As a brief aside, feel free to tweet at Darrell (@drizzled) to tell him to clean out his notifications shade (seen above). It’s just shameful.