Google, HTC vets prep 'friggin' awesome' smartphone for Sept. 1 launch

Nextbit makes the bold claim that its smartphone will actually get better over time thanks to software tweaks. It plans to sell it for $300 to $400.

Nextbit is already shifting from software to hardware. Screenshot by Roger Cheng/CNET

You would normally laugh off any no-name company's attempt to jump into the brutally competitive smartphone business. But given the pedigree of the members at startup Nextbit, you have to at least be curious.

Nextbit, which began life as a secretive software startup focused on a cloud-based tool that allowed you to move files and settings between Android devices, has shifted gears into hardware and intends to launch its own smartphone. The company, which boasts Google Ventures as a backer, Android veterans Tom Moss and Mike Chan and former HTC design chief Scott Croyle, plans to unveil its smartphone on September 1, Moss said in an interview.

"It's going to be friggin' awesome," said Moss, the chief executive of Nextbit.

Nextbit is bucking the trend and taking a bet on smartphones at a time when Microsoft is drastically cutting its mobile devices operation and Samsung continues to see falling profits from its once powerhouse smartphone business. In an industry where seemingly only Apple can turn a consistent profit, Nextbit hopes to stand out through its staff's intimate knowledge of Android and its HTC-inspired design chops.

"Phone fatigue is a real thing," Moss said. "That's why we're doing something different."

While Moss wouldn't comment on the price, he said the device would cost in the new "premium tier" of Android smartphones, which he said ranged between $300 and $400.

Better over time

Nextbit's biggest boast is that its smartphone will actually get better over time. That's a bold claim considering that the current crop of smartphones seem to become obsolete weeks after you purchase one when the next flashier smartphone arrives.

Nextbit CEO Tom Moss talks a big game about his first smartphone. Nextbit

The company believes it will be able to achieve its goals by noodling through the Android operating system. "Your phone will perform better over time and function at a higher level because of this software enhancement."

While the Nextbit team was short on details, Chan, the chief technology officer of Nextbit, said the first smartphone would address the annoyance of storage limits. The company will use cloud technology to boost the storage level, allowing you to carry as many apps, photos and videos as you want. "We're focusing on a device that can adapt to you," Chan said.

Future products will tackle other issues, including the potential for a longer lasting smartphone, through software, he said.

Moss and Chan were among the early members of the Android team, and they believe they're the best-suited to use the operating system to enhance the hardware. But that doesn't mean going so far as to radically alter Android so that it won't have access to key Google apps, like the approach Amazon took with its Fire tablets and smartphone.

"We're supercharging it," Moss said, adding that it was the vision of the original Android team for handset makers to tinker with the software for a better experience.

Hardware chops

Another thing Nextbit has going for it is Croyle, one of the key HTC designers behind the successful metal-clad HTC One (as well as its follow-up, the well regarded One M8).

The HTC One M8 was designed by Scott Croyle. Sarah Tew/CNET

Chan pointed to Croyle's hiring last year as proof that Nextbit had planned to move into hardware all along. "Hardware is not an all-of-a-sudden thing," he said. "It's been in the plans for some time."

How does Nextbit hope to stand out in a sea of me-too Android smartphones? The company was vague on specifics.

"There's a lot you have to do to have a provocative design," Moss said, noting that Croyle helped drive the current wave of metallic smartphones.

That trend, however, has gotten stale, Moss said, and the company is looking to move forward with a different kind of premium device.

A pricey strategy

A move into the smartphone business can be far costlier than software. The company will have to work with manufacturers to build up inventory, as well as retailers and carrier partners to offer its products. The Nextbit brand isn't well known either; the company would have to spend a fortune to get its name out to the public.

Nextbit will be able to establish more of a relationship with potential customers using the Internet and social media, Moss said. The shifts in the smartphone business present an opportunity for new brands to emerge, he added.

Beyond the startup funds, Nextbit generated a few million dollars in revenue by shipping its software back-up tool to millions of Android devices sold by Japan's NTT Docomo, according to Chan.

Nextbit will likely go after consumers directly, similar to China's hot startup Xiaomi, or more recently, Motorola and its Moto X Pure Edition in the US.

Nextbit enters a crowded field, occupied by Chinese vendors such as Huawei, ZTE and Alcatel, which are each trying to breach the mid-tier market with affordable smartphones with quality parts. They're also all going after consumers directly with their own websites and ties to retailers such as Amazon.

Nextbit hopes to standout because it's so different from the rest of the pack.

"We're trying to push the boundaries," Moss said.

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