Beat the System: They met at a Google incubator — now they’re trying to destroy the smartphone

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My Uber was held up on Canal Street, in downtown Manhattan, on a busy weekday afternoon by a small flock of tourists too busy with their smartphones to notice the traffic snarled up around them. Several were slouching slowly across the street while staring down at their hand-held devices. Another stopped, right in the middle of the busy thoroughfare, to use his phone to take a picture of an ordinary-looking building.

As it happens, I was on my way to meet two young entrepreneurs in SoHo who are trying to break our smartphone addiction. Thanks to the spaced-out, hooked-up, swiping, bent-over, oblivious smartphone addicts crossing the road, I was a minute or two late.

Joe Hollier and Kaiwei (“Kai”) Tang are classic technology industry disrupters. Joe Hollier, 29, is an artist and skateboarder who studied graphic design at New York’s School of Visual Arts and once ran a skateboard company. Tang is a tech expert who used to help design mobile phones. Tang, age 39, came to America from Taiwan when he was 20. He studied at the Institute of Design in Chicago, and used to work as a contractor in the mobile phone business.

They met on a Google-backed GOOG, -0.50%  program in 2014 — in Manhattan’s Tribeca — that was aimed at attracting some fresh minds to the company’s Android smartphone platform. “It was a pretty vague program,” recalls Hollier. “We went in without knowing what we were trying to do,” says Tang.

“Very quickly we learned they wanted us to develop smartphone applications,” says Hollier. “Kai and I said, ‘Jeez, the last thing world needs is another smartphone application.’”

The pair hit it off and began socializing after work. They found they were both disillusioned with the whole smartphone business model. Venture capitalists were looking for applications to be “sticky,” so that users would spend as much time on them as possible. “It seemed very wrong to us,” says Tang. They didn’t have an “a-ha moment,” recalls Hollier. “It was more a ‘Should I quit this?’ moment.”

So they hit on a radical idea. Instead of trying to design a new smartphone application, they decided to launch a counterstrike against the whole multi-trillion-dollar smartphone industry.

See also: 6 ways to make smartphones more humane — and less addictive

And so they created the Light Phone, arguably the world’s smartest dumbphone. Their company, launched with a fundraising campaign in 2015 on Kickstarter, has raised $8.4 million in total so far. And they’re just rolling out the new Light Phone 2.0.

It costs $350.

It doesn’t do very much.

And it’s sold out. The first models are shipping right now, but if you order one online you’ll be lucky to get one before November.

Naturally you could also buy a regular feature phone, like a flip phone, from someone else for a lot less. But I can testify personally that there are surprisingly few around that will work well on today’s mobile phone networks. And, say Light Phone’s founders, there are some subtle differences.

“They actually come with Facebook FB, +0.50%  and Twitter TWTR, -0.19%, ” says Hollier. “They’re not trying to be a ‘limited’ phone. They’re just a nostalgic form factor. There’s not a lot of good, simple phones around.”

“We don’t think this is a ‘dumb phone,’” adds Tang. “We think this is a step forward. This is not a Luddite thing.”

The Light Phone 2.0 looks pretty neat, actually. It’s small, with a low-power, black-and-white E Ink screen. And the company is customizing it so that they can add limited applications that you may want, while completely excluding apps that are addictive.

For example, whenever I’ve tried to carry just a flip phone I’ve found the biggest drawback is that I lost access to Uber UBER, +1.16%  and Lyft LYFT, -0.06%  . Hollier and Tang say they expect to add those services to the Light Phone by year-end. They’re open to adding some other services that users have asked for as well, such as location and directions, and even a Wi-Fi hot spot. Hollier and Tang are giving a lot of thought to where to draw the dividing line.

“We’re open to utility tools,” says Tang, but “nothing infinite, no infinite feeds.” By that he means, mainly, no social media, email, or web browsing — things that can draw you in endlessly. “It’s like a toolbox,” he says of the phone. “You wouldn’t check your toolbox for two hours.”

They are not alone in their concerns. A growing number of studies suggest that smartphones may be addictive to many, and that overuse can lead to depression and other social problems. Even Apple AAPL, +1.36%  CEO Tim Cook is warning publicly that people are spending too much time staring at their smartphones

But the whole technology industry is built on a business model of sucking up our time. They need us online, staring at our screens, for hours at a time — even when crossing busy streets in downtown Manhattan. That’s when we see the adverts.

The guys behind Light Phone say they aren’t “anti-technology,” they’re just “anti-smartphone.” They believe something fundamental and insidious changed when computing jumped from our desks to our pockets and began following us everywhere.

“There’s no separation,” says Kai. “When you get on a subway train or an a restaurant, everyone is on their phones. That seems so wrong, and these companies are getting all these profits from everyone’s time and data. I enjoy FaceTime-ing with my family thousands of miles away. But there’s a time and a place for everything.”

Early on in the process, adds Hollier, he reflected on how his smartphone intruded into his life. He realized, “When I’m skateboarding I don’t carry my phone — and those are the happiest days.”

The pair began by handing out flip phones to colleagues on the Android program back in 2014 and asking them to use them, instead of their smartphones, for the weekend. Initially they encountered a lot of hostility and resistance. But afterwards they found that those who had participated had barely used their phones.

“There’s an initial friction, an anxiety,” when you first give up your smartphone, says Hollier. “I think, man, I can’t stop tapping my pocket. It’s really a nervous tick at this point.”