BARCELONA -- Forget what you know about smartphones, put on your top hat and monocle, and pretend it's the year 1515. Reach into your pocket, take out your nifty pocket watch, then stare at its gorgeous high-resolution display and make a phone call.
That's the plan with the Runcible, anyhow. Designed by Monohm, a company founded by alumni from both Apple and Sony, the stunning, circular smartphone with the nonsensical name stands out amidst a constant drone of rectangular devices. CNET spoke to Monohm ahead of the Runcible's MWC debut and got the full fascinating story behind this intriguing device.
I popped by the Firefox booth earlier to meet up with the founders, George Arriola and Jason Proctor, who were on hand to demo the Runcible prototype. However, because it's just a prototype, I wasn't able to get the full experience (or even the specs!), but I'm told the phone will be ready for sale by the end of the year in Japan through Japanese telco KDDI. Prices should be around unlocked iPhone 6 territory -- around $600 -- which converts to around £390 and AU$770.
From the moment I laid eyes on the Firefox OS-powered Runcible prototype, however, I was immediately smitten by the beautiful wood finish and circular shape. I've seen plenty of phones in my time, and this is the first round one I've seen (analog dialer phones don't count).
It feels solid in the hands, but you won't be lifting the Runcible up to your ear to answer calls. I'm told you have to use a Bluetooth headset, as the Runcible won't have microphones or speakers. The primitive connection is deliberate. Runcible wants you to use the phone as mostly a timepiece, but there will be apps that will take advantage of the hardware.
Monohm's Arriola showed me a social clock face, which comes with color coded bubbles that map to popular social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Tapping on one of the bubbles lets you view how much activity is happening on your personal networks.
Another cool feature has you holding up the Runcible to take a picture with the rear camera. Instead of pinching the screen to zoom in and out, you twist the Runcible like a camera lens. That sounds pretty cool, but alas, no working demo. Photos will also take on circular form, another bold move given that most camera sensors are rectangular or square.
Besides these built-in apps, Runcible will also feature curated third-party programs based on Monohm's guidelines for working within the unusual dimensions.
While the prototype's working display looked low-resolution, I'm told that the final devices will contain a 244ppi display with clear and crisp text. Monohm also said that the screen is fully round; it's not hiding a square display under the bezel. However, that same bezel is pretty thick due to those custom-built screen components.
Lastly, the wooden rear cover is customisable, and Monohm will have a whole bunch of different wood designs when it hits the market. Almost all of these covers will have a matte finish, but the bamboo version is one notable exception. A special "Japanese" treatment to strengthen the materials also makes it glossy.
Runcible has already stirred up plenty of interest from the media, and for good reason. It's the first phone in ages to break the rectangular mold and it's downright wacky. Monohm's take is fresh and interesting, but time will tell if this return to a more simpler watchlike design will ever come to be.