20 Feb 2016

Niche Smartphones

When a market becomes big enough, specialised options become available for those who want them. For example, while many of us commute by car, you can get an electric longboard, a kayak or a helicopter. Few people would want a kayak, but it’s there for people who want it.

How would this apply to smartphones? Smartphones are a huge market, bigger than the PC market, bigger than cameras, bigger than TVs, and so on. Instead of trying to design a smartphone that appeals to everyone, you might design one that’s great for a subset of people. Those users will be happy with having a phone that works better for them than a least common denominator phone. And an OEM can succeed in a medium-sized market, and have most of it to itself, rather than trying to appeal to everyone and end in a bloodbath.

Here are some examples of what I mean. 


Niche: Battery Life

One niche is people who value battery life over all else. Think of a phone that lasts the whole day no matter how heavily you use it, like turn-by-turn navigation for 16 hours, or shooting thousands of photos and hours of Ultra HD video. This would be a thick phone, as thick as needed to achieve the above goals [1].


Niche: Payments

Another niche market for smartphones is for people who sell or deliver things. These people currently tell customers to pay cash. Or they use a hacky external reader that needs to be plugged in to the phone and often doesn’t work:

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Or they have to carry a self-contained wireless credit card reader, which is bulky:

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Why can’t a phone have a built-in credit card reader? You’d insert the card at the bottom of the phone [2], as with the reader in the above photo. It would also support Tap and Pay to work with systems like Apple Pay and with contactless cards.

This would be useful for delivery guys from e-commerce sites or from neighbourhood shops. And for the shopkeepers themselves, who don’t need a separate machine in their shops. And maybe a doctor or a chartered accountant with her own practice can accept payments from clients [3].

Would such a phone be suitable for everyone? No, because it will be bulkier (both thicker and wider) and costlier than a phone that didn’t have a credit card reader. And you’d need to register for a service that lets you process payments. So, someone who doesn’t care about accepting payments wouldn’t want such  a phone. But that’s exactly the point of a niche — if most users don’t want your product, that’s when you know you have a niche product.

Keep in mind that “niche” is a relative term. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are either self-employed or accept payments from customers. This is a huge market by itself.


Niche: Photographers

Phone manufacturers try to put as good a camera as they can into a phone without making it too bulky and turning off average users. But if you were to design a phone specifically for people who want a great camera and are wiling to make tradeoffs for it, how would you do it?

Maybe you could give it a bigger sensor, like a 1-inch sensor, so that the phone can take sharper photos, have more dynamic range, greater color depth, and work well in a wider range of situations, like darkness. The screen would have the same aspect ratio as the sensor, usually 3:2, because otherwise you’re wasting screen space by letterboxing or pillarboxing. The screen would be as big as you can get away with, so that you get a great preview.

A bigger sensor would make the phone thicker, maybe up to an inch thick, which is the limit of pocketability. It needn’t be an inch thick everywhere — perhaps only on one side, where the lens and sensor are, tapering to a thinner profile at the other side.

You’d have a lens that has higher quality than one that fits in to a thin phone. Or you could have a bright lens, like F1.4.

Or, instead of a 1-inch sensor, you could have a standard ½.3-inch sensor with a 12x zoom. This fits in a 1 inch-thick body. There are phones available today that have zoom lenses, but they have a poor quality due to compromises made in fitting it into a thin body. With a 1 inch-thick body, you don’t need to make those compromises. You can have a camera with a better photo quality than the best camera phone today, but with zoom.

No matter the sensor and whether it’s a zoom, it would have a manual mode where you can control the ISO, shutter speed and aperture. It would support long exposures up to a few minutes. It would support different types of focus like manual focus, focus peaking, focus assist, setting a minimum or a maximum focus distance, and so on.

Or you could have an immersive camera. This would capture all 360 degrees around the phone, like a panorama, but with a single click, and without artifacts caused by people moving or camera shake. This would have 2-4 lenses arranged in a circle. This could even herald a new genre of photography, immersive photography, where you capture the world around you (along with yourself in it, if you want). People would enjoy such photos on a large-screen TV or monitor, or perhaps in VR, which would be amazing. This could be to conventional photography what color photography was to black-and-white photography.

Or one could have a second camera on a conventional phone, which shoots infrared or ultraviolet. How would it be to see the world in ultraviolet?

There are so many ways to make phones better for photographers [4].


Niche: e-ink

Another niche is smartphones with an e-ink display, for people who read text a lot. Start with e-books. Think of it as a Kindle that fits in your pocket and takes calls. For extended reading, it would have a larger screen size, like 5.5 inches. There’s tons of reading material besides books: blog posts, email newsletters, web pages, news and magazine apps, “read later” apps like Instapaper, and so on. Such a phone wouldn’t be the best fit for color, animations, videos, games, or apps with a lot of interaction, like a calendar app. But any app or use case that mostly involves reading text works better on such a phone than on today’s smartphones.


Niche: PC

Another niche is a phone that doubles as a PC, with good performance. This would have a Core M processor (the one in the 12-inch Macbook), 4 or 8 GB of memory, a 128 or 256 GB SSD, and four USB type-C ports. You’ll be able to plug an external monitor into a USB port, which the phone will be able to drive with great performance at 1080p resolution. Since phones already drive internal 1080p screens, this is no problem.

These components require more power than the ones in a typical phone, so you need a bigger battery to maintain battery life, which in turn calls for a thicker phone. A thicker phone also has more space for these components, which may be bigger than the ones used in a phone.

The body would be made of aluminium to dissipate heat better than plastic. It may also have a fan, like the Intel Compute Stick:

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Though the CPU doesn’t need a fan, putting a laptop-class CPU in a phone makes it harder to dissipate heat, since a phone has far less surface area than a 12-inch Macbook. This can be solved with a fan.


Would the average smartphone user want one of these niche phones? Maybe not, but that’s the whole point of a catering to a niche. You are successful in catering to a niche only if the average user would say that what you’re building is a bad idea. But while each niche above may individually cater to only a small fraction of users, they may in aggregate cater to a significant fraction of users. If each niche appeals to only 8% of users, since I’ve outlined 5 niches, they in aggregate appeal to 40% of users. That’s so high as to potentially change the entire smartphone market.

Freed from having to be a jack of all trades, you make a phone that works great for one segment of the market. People who care a lot about one use case can get a phone that works better for them than a lowest common denominator phone.


[1] Thick phones should probably have small screens, like 4-4.5 inches. A thick phone with a big screen may become too bulky to fit in people’s pockets.

[2] To save space, it probably wouldn’t support the magnetic stripe, and those have been or are being phased out anyway.

[3] There are alternatives like Apple Pay and Paytm, but if you’re in the business of selling products or services, you need to accept payments from everyone, not just the few who use a next-generation payment method.

[4] A niche within a niche is a phone for videographers. This would have an Ultra HD sensor (3840 x 2160), a ½.3-inch sensor, 12x zoom, zebra stripes, S-log2. It should be able to connect an external headphone for better sound, perhaps using the USB type-C port. It should have a range of frame rates, like 24FPS at Ultra HD, 30FPS at Ultra HD, 60FPS at 1080p, 120FPS at 1080p, 240FPS at 720p, and 480p and 960p, like the Sony RX100 IV.

Many cameras impose a limit of 5 minutes or so on how long you can record Ultra HD video. This one shouldn’t. And it should have a battery that can take a few hours of Ultra HD video.

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