The year is 2016. I am accompanying a friend of mine to an Apple Store to buy an Apple Watch. As she is talking to the sales associate talking about different options I pull out my phone to check if I had any messages. It was an unusual phone, very different looking from the iPhones and Samsung phones that most people are accustomed to seeing. Immediately upon starting to use it the sales associate stopped talking to my friend and looked at me asking about my phone and commenting about how interesting it looked. After I was finished explaining what the phone was to the associate and my friend picked out the watch that she wanted, she leaned in and told me “I bet you loved every minute of that”. And she was absolutely right, I have always loved having gadgets that make people say “what is that”. In this case, it was a phone that did not receive enough time to make an impact, a phone that I think may have been ahead of its time. This phone was the Nextbit Robin.
Online in an Offline Time
I remember reading about the Robin before it launched when it was a Kickstarter campaign. The promise was simple, every Robin phone had 32 GB of internal storage with an additional 100 GB of cloud backup through the Nextbit Cloud. The idea that differentiated this from other backup solutions was that the cloud backup system on the Robin worked on apps in addition to files. The way it worked was that once the internal storage was almost filled up, the phone would automatically backup apps to the cloud account to be archived and used when needed. The practical application of this was that if you had a game that you enjoy playing periodically that may take up a lot of space that it can be archived to make more room for documents, photos, and music files.
Spoken in the context of today with fast WiFi networks and the emergence of 5G technology, this sounds like a great idea. Being able to leverage the cloud in an age where expandable storage seems to be an endangered species, is a storage backup solution that feels appropriate for the way that we use our smartphones today. It was not this was a mere 5 years ago in 2016 when the Robin launched. In his review of the Robin, Marques Brownlee suggested that while the cloud backup of the device was a good idea it was not a replacement for having a microSD card that was found on virtually all Android phones at the time. Fast forward to today and most smartphone owners do not have a MicroSD card in their phones, pay for a monthly cloud subscription from Google or Apple, and use an online photo backup solution like Google Photos to preserve their memories.
In essence, Robin offered shelving of apps ideology to step away from an app but not to completely remove it. An idea that anyone that has had to take a break from any of the seemingly endless pool of addictive mobile games can attest to. On top of the cloud foundation of this phone, the Robin was part of the first wave of phones to offer a compelling experience at the $400 price point, a legacy that we have seen carried by phones like the iPhone SE and Google Pixel 4a.
The design of the Robin was quite unusual back in 2016 and is even more unusual when looking back at it today. A boxy phone that makes even Sony Xperia phones feel round and a color palette that is a bold contradiction to stale colors of the time. The Robin’s main color variant featured a mint green and white combination that was inspired by robin eggs. This design was such a departure from the rather drab iPhones of the day with their muted colors and rounded corners. A daring design that is as refreshing today as it was back in 2016.
The Robin also featured hardware that has made a resurgence recently in many of our favorite phones. The phone featured dual front-facing speakers for good audio quality at a time of mono speakers in the iPhone and Galaxy phones. Since then companies have implemented a version of this to create stereo sound. The Nextbit Robin also featured USB-C charging at a time when the Galaxy S7 still used micro-USB. Additionally, the phone featured a side-mounted fingerprint sensor that companies like Samsung and Sony would later implement in some of their phones.
The body of the Robin was a full polycarbonate shell, that was proven to not be the most durable (as shown here by JerryRigEverything’s durability test). But the company making a phone out of polycarbonate as opposed to plastic looking like glass or merely putting the glass back and charging more for a premium feel deserves a bit of credit here. This past year, plastic construction on phones has seen a resurgence through phones like the Galaxy S21, Pixel 4a 5G, and others. These features were prominent on the Robin in addition to its cloud-focused software that seemingly came four years too soon.
Gone in 60 Seconds
So with these forward-thinking ideas why is it that Nextbit never made a second phone? The simple truth is that they fell victim to the modern consumer gadget reality. This reality is that a small upstart with interesting ideas will not last long before one of the larger players buys them out to reduce potential competition. We have seen this with Apple, Google, and Facebook buying companies like Shazam, Fitbit, and Oculus to bolster their own efforts. Nextbit was no different. Razer, a gaming laptop company, saw an opportunity to make gaming phones and decided to purchase Nextbit not even a year after the Robin launched to bolster its phone-making ambitions.
What this resulted in was the Razer Phone and Razer Phone 2, two devices that were clearly using Robin’s hardware design but took the cloud ideas and instead replaced them with high refresh rate displays and liquid cooling to help establish the gaming phone market. While the Razer Phone may have looked like a Robin with a black paint job, the spirit of the idea was vanquished and instead replaced a device that felt like another spec-loaded device. Where the Robin offered a good value for $400 the Razer Phone went for a more flagship price starting at $700.
After two generations, plans for the third generation of the Razer Phone have been canceled. On top of this, the Nextbit cloud was shut down completely back in 2018 one year after Razer acquired the company. Effectively the legacy of Robin has been wiped away by the ambitions of a company looking to expand its portfolio. If Robin as an idea was designed today, I think that the success and the reaction to the phone would have been much different. In a world that has increased its reliance on the cloud and where well-designed $400 phones are en vogue. As I survey a smartphone marketplace where phones like the Google Pixel 4a, OnePlus Nord N100, iPhone SE, and Nokia 7.2 I see a lot of the spirit of the Nextbit Robin. In the story of the device on its Kickstarter page, Nextbit described a future that was “cloud-first”. If that sounds familiar, that’s because Google and Microsoft have said similar things over the years and have taken that idea as the basis of their whole mobile strategy. The idea of the Robin is very much alive and well, and it is a shame that they aren’t appreciated for their contributions.
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