If you're sick of phones that look the same, make a Cyrcle

Two former Microsoft employees found their phones didn't do what they wanted, so they set out to make one that did.

The first-generation prototype Cyrcle comes in a 3D-printed casing with open sourced components inside. Ultimately the goal is for dual edge-to-edge screens running Android software.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Near twenty years ago, Christina Cyr and Linda Inagawa started working at Microsoft on the same day. All week they kept finding their new colleagues mixing them up, until on the Friday they finally met. They've been friends ever since -- and now, they've teamed up to change the way mobile phones are designed.

Cyr and Inagawa's company is called Dtoor -- which stands for "Designing the opposite of rectangle" -- and their first planned product is the Cyrcle, a round mobile phone.

It's been years since smartphones looked fun. The wacky looks of the teardrop-shaped Nokia 7600 or stick-like Nokia 7280 are a distant memory in this era of shiny rectangles. But the potential of a different design isn't just about novelty. With so many mainstream manufacturers using the same Android software in a crowded market, companies are desperate to differentiate their products. There's only so far they can get with incremental upgrades to the camera or gimmicky innovations like fingerprint sensors, and in fact Apple, Samsung and others are already diversifying their mobile line-up with smartwatches, wearables and virtual reality devices. So hey, maybe it's time to re-energise the smartphone itself with some more interesting designs than the boring old rectangle.

That's the goal of Dtoor. Founder Christina Cyr, who has worked on nuclear submarines, AIDS research in Los Angeles, and as a biochemist in Japan as well as working for NEC and Microsoft, went from complaining about her phone to attending maker spaces to begin work on a device that would do the things she wanted -- and not do the things she didn't want. The result is a prototype design shown this week to press and potential investors at startup conference 4 Years From Now, part of technology trade show Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

The round, flip-open Cyrcle is reminiscent of a make-up compact or pocket watch. The casing of the prototype is 3D-printed, and the innards are built from a Seeed RePhone Kit. The kit contains the open source components to knock up your own modular DIY phone.

The design might remind you of the round Monohm Runcible phone seen at last year's Mobile World Congress. But the Cyrcle is intended to be a fraction of the projected $600-odd price of the Runcible, which has yet to go on sale.

The plan is to make the first generation of Cyrcle, a simple 2G model, available via crowdfunding website Kickstarter in August at a cost of $100. An improved 4G version is then slated for the following year, August 2017. Ultimately, the goal is to create a model with dual edge-to-edge screens and Android software.

One of the driving forces behind the design of the Cyrcle was Cyr's frustration with the way her phone didn't serve her needs as well as she'd like. Cyr and Inagawa are both mothers -- their kids were born just five days apart -- and the Cyrcle is designed to address the needs of women both in features and physical design.

When I mentioned this aspect of the story to my fellow editors, almost all of them rolled their eyes. We're jaded by the tech industry's attempts to foist upon women products that range from patronising misfires at best to sexist embarrassments at worst.

But this is a device for women conceived by women. It's clearly had a bit more thought put into it than the usual "pink it and shrink it" approach adopted by tech manufacturers trying to appeal to the ladies by fobbing us off with lower-powered devices painted pink.

The Cyrcle is circular to fit into smaller and rounded pockets, or it can be clipped or dangled about your person as a wearable if you prefer, or if your outfit simply doesn't have any pockets.

If you prefer to carry your phone in your handbag or clutch, Cyr also intends the phone to be less distracting by cutting down on the less important notifications that see you constantly having to fetch your phone out of your bag only to find it's not important. Instead, the device would only alert you to messages or updates from an inner circle. In the case of full-time moms like Cyr and Inagawa, that could be the kids and family, but it's up to you who you'd include.

Whatever the state of your pockets, the Cyrcle is a neat example of a device that does things a little differently, conceived by someone who decided to change things for herself. In an industry that seems to be going in circles with all those identical rectangles, maybe we could all learn from Christina Cyr and Linda Inagawa.

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