Meet Runcible, a smartphone that looks like a pocket watch

At least one company says smartphones don't have to be rectangular slabs.

Could Runcible's circular, wood-backed device be the future of smartphones? Monohm

To find the future of the smartphone, a startup is reaching 500 years into the past when the most advanced gadget told you only the time.

Monohm, based in Berkeley, Calif., plans next week to officially introduce a device dubbed Runcible. Named after a nonsense word by an English poet, Runcible was created by Apple and Sony alumni Aubrey Anderson, George Arriola and Jason Proctor.

Its standout feature is its shape. Runcible is circular, with a convex wooden back designed to nestle in your palm. It's got a screen on the front, a camera on the back and a heft that makes it feel substantial. By eschewing a conventional rectangular, slab-like design and app-centric software, the startup is hoping to draw attention as a funky alternative for people who don't live on their smartphones.

Despite such differences, Runcible can still do most things a standard smartphone can, including making calls, surfing the Web, sending texts and taking photos. It doesn't, however, run apps or have a home screen -- it's point of stasis is, as you'd expect, a watch face. After all, Runcible is designed to be a pocket watch for the iPhone age.

"The form factor has a long history -- magic stones in your hand, compasses, women's compacts," said Anderson, Monohm's CEO. Runcible is designed to return smartphones to the "social niceties of pocket watches."

Runcible represents more than merely an interesting sideshow to the mobile device industry. For years, companies have launched radical, new designs. And just like those devices, Runcible could ultimately influence industry design, even if it may not succeed on its own.

Remember the Motorola Razr? When it was released more than a decade ago, it was billed as one of the thinnest phones on the market. Its striking profile and metal casing stood out, something you see in modern smartphones like the iPhone 6. The Razr was wildly popular, selling by the scores of millions. In contrast, there was the Palm Pre . Its most prominent feature was its software, which allowed you to juggle multiple applications as "cards" you could shuffle around -- a technique that eventually made its way to Google's Android software (along with some of Palm's brightest talent). Despite wide acclaim and initial interest, the Pre ultimately flopped.

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Aubrey Anderson, Monohm's CEO, sold a previous startup, Particle, to Apple in 2012. Monohm

The Runcible, however, isn't in the same league. Monohm -- which comes from the combination of the Japanese word "mono," which means "object," and "ohm," a unit for electrical resistance -- lacks the marketing reach or brand awareness of Motorola or even Palm, and its product could just as easily disappear like many other other forgotten smartphones.

Runcible is banking on its retro appeal and is serious about bringing pocket watch designs into the 21st century. The gadget can be attached to a chain and and can even support a third-party clasp cover to flick open when you want to check the time, just like your great-grandfather probably did.

The brainchild of longtime friends Anderson, Arriola and Proctor, it took them only nine months to design, source and build the Runcible and secure a mobile carrier contract. Runcible is slated to debut next week at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, where it will be announced as an exclusive launch partner for Japanese carrier KDDI. Monohm is in talks with other carriers.

Monohm will sell the device online for a little less than the typical full-priced smartphone when it is released later this year. Arriola said he expects it to have a battery life of four days.

Arriola and Anderson say they've designed the Runcible to last for years, if not decades. How? You'll just replace its innards when they need an upgrade. Its curved back can be swapped with one of Monohm's selection of high-end woods with fanciful-sounding names like swamp ash and maple burl -- or with 3D-printed alternatives. They're calling it an "heirloom" electronic device and are introducing it just weeks before Apple is set to debut a high-end smartwatch that has many wondering how long it will last before requiring a replacement.

Runcible faces tremendous hurdles. It's a strange-looking device with an anachronistic appearance. It's also built on the idea that consumers don't need to upgrade their smartphone every two years. Monohm's founders want it to be the anti-smartphone -- an outlier when every successful device to date closely mimics the original iPhone.

The Runcible's inability to run apps like Instagram or Snapchat is another way it distinguishes itself -- although many consumers would be turned off by such a deficiency. Instead, it relies on websites designed for mobile devices. However, Anderson and Arriola say that they plan on making photography a major feature of the device -- think of rotating Runcible to focus your shot. On the technical end, Runcible runs on Mozilla's Firefox mobile operating system, although Monohm is taking some liberties with aspects of the software like the Firefox browser to customize it for Runcible's circular face.

Monohm is calling Runcible an "heirloom" electronic device, meaning it's meant to be held onto for years and even passed down while the computer parts inside are replaced. Monohm

Even the familiar things a smartphone does won't be the same on Runcible. For example, its map won't display a typical top-down grid of streets. Instead, the device displays a compass with a red arrow pointing toward your destination. When it's time to turn, the arrow blinks and adjusts its orientation, leaving you to figure out the rest. Anderson is even considering having the device divert you to interesting landmarks and notable points of interest along the way. "We're trying to facilitate adventure," he said.

Rather than the rings and buzzes your phone emits when you're called or receive a text, notifications appear on the screen as swelling bubbles instead of the familiar red numeric badges clamoring for your attention.

While Anderson said he loves his Apple iPhone 6 and uses it for work "all the time," he believes that smartphones have become too distracting. "I'm at max beeping right now," he said.

By 2016, more than 2 billion people -- or more than a quarter of the world's population -- will have a smartphone, according to eMarketer. And the worldwide market for wearable devices, including fitness bands and smartwatches, is expected to surge to $52.3 billion by 2019, up from about $4.5 billion last year, with shipments north of 110 million units, according to market tracker Juniper Research. The end result is a sea of screens that will provide an even easier, more seamless gateway to our digital lives -- and away from the real world.

Runcible, Anderson said, could help customers to reject the notification-laden devices of modern life.

"Right now, your smartphone provides great connectivity, but your work comes into your personal life all the time," Anderson said. "Runcible is designed to put your head back out in the world and your mind in conversation."

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