I want to talk about weird tech for a minute. A lot of strange and wonderful pieces of technology have come across our desks over the years. More often that not, they’re the purview of the startup. Small companies are more nimble and willing to take risks. That’s a big part of the reason the entire smartphone industry converged on the smartphone factor. It’s also why a lot of laptops seem to look like MacBooks these days.
With shareholders and boards holding their feet to the fire, corporations are less willing to take big risks. Such ideas also tend to get gummed up in layers of bureaucratic red tape. It’s a bit like attempting an evasive maneuver with a giant ship. It’s difficult, ill-advised and can end very badly.
That’s why it’s always nice to see a company get a little weird with it. Try something new and not particularly practical. Earlier this week at MWC, I spent a bit of time with the Motorola Rizr. It’s that phone with the rolling screen that extends from five to 6.5 inches, depending on orientation, apps and other inputs. Will it ever come to market? Probably not. But Moto parent Lenovo is the king of mass-producing someone’s strange idea, from the foldable laptop it demonstrated at this year’s show to all of the weird and not especially practical deployments of e ink.
A concept device primarily serves to gauge consumer interest and demonstrate that a company is still innovating. Scaling for manufacturing and ensuring your device can stand up to reasonable consumer wear and tear is another thing entirely.
And, of course, there were those who had their doubts that foldable screens would ever come to market, and look at where we are now. Samsung claims to have sold north of 10 million devices, and this MWC saw even more players getting into the act. I recognize that MWC attendees are an extremely skewed and very small sample size, but it’s kind of wild seeing so many people using them in the wild in Barcelona this week.
OnePlus offered their own concept device. The 11 Concept is intended as a gaming handset. As of yet, I’m not convinced there’s all that much market for gaming-first phones. Given boosts in processing power, it seems likely that consumers will be interested in mainstream flagships with gaming capability, rather than those entirely centered on the functionality.
That said, it was a fun reveal, tiny pumps moving cooling fluid up and down the device. That comes with its own light show, illuminating the fluid along its path. Early teases of the concept understandably drew comparison to Nothing’s first phone (the OnePlus connection certainly didn’t hurt), but ultimately it was clear that the 11 Concept represents a wholly different direction.
The Phone (1) does, however, shine a light on an interesting phenomenon in its own right. A light-up back isn’t some earth-shaking revelation, it’s an interesting design choice. But in a world that’s gone from breakthrough to stale and samey over the course of a decade, it doesn’t take a lot to shake things up.
Before departing the Barcelona Fira for a final time this year, I made a point to check out Huawei Watch Buds. I’m a sucker for weird gadgets — and this is nothing if not that. Practical? No. Logical? Not really. Destined to be a huge hit? No way. Weird? Definitely yeah. It’s a contrast with the Watch D. The wearable has a band that tightens to give blood pressure readings. Again, it seems a ways off from mainstream adoption, but it’s easy to imagine blood pressure being the next major wave for smartwatch health, along with glucose measuring.
The Watch Buds, on the other hand, are just straight-up fun. I would never buy them and wouldn’t recommend others do, but the idea of a smartwatch face that flips up to reveal a charging case underneath is nothing if not fun. I appreciate anything that gives me one fewer piece of technology to carry around, but man is that a thick watch. If you really want to consolidate, something like the Power 1 AirPods charging iPhone case makes a lot more sense on the face of it.
The truth is that being a giant company is a double-edged sword when it comes to experimenting. On one side is the earlier giant ship analogy. On the other are tremendous resources that allow for such experimentation. Though, as we’ve seen with the recent round of mass layoffs, it’s precisely those projects that are often the first to get the ax.