You know how it feels when your phone's battery is at 9 percent?
For a moment, it's terrifying to imagine your screen going black. But it also feels sort of liberating, right? You may briefly miss out on some "important" texts or emails, but you also miss out on Twitter fights and constant news alerts. Once you settle into it, you feel freer.
Which is how I felt over Labor Day weekend, when I left my iPhone on the kitchen counter and spent three days using the Light Phone II, a new ultra-simplified phone that comes with no internet and zero notifications.
The Light was created by Joe Hollier and Kaiwei Tang in 2015 as a pared-down-yet-design-forward alternative to our demanding, distracting smart phones. As phone makers kept squeezing more apps onto their devices, the Light, which was about the size of a small stack of credit cards, could do only one thing: make and receive phone calls.
Oh, wait--it also had a clock.
"It was designed to be a supplementary phone," Tang said during a recent visit to San Francisco from Light's Brooklyn Navy Yard headquarters in New York City. "We have our smart phones. They do wonderful things," added Hollier. "But sometimes I want to spend a few hours with my little brother or something and disconnect."
Others apparently agreed. The Light I raised $415,127 from 3,187 backers on Kickstarter, more than doubling Hollier and Tang's goal of $200,000.
Hollier and Tang met in 2014 at a Google-sponsored incubator and immediately hit it off. Tang, 39, had deep experience in mobile products, having worked on phones for Motorola, Nokia, and BlackBerry; Hollier, 29, came from a fine arts and film background.
The Light II offers a few more features, including texting, contacts, and an alarm clock, with a few more coming soon--playlists, turn-by-turn directions, and ridesharing. Of course, adding these tools, even simplified versions of them, risks turning their basic phone into something closer to a smart phone, but Tang and Hollier have some hard limits: The Light will never offer social networking, email, or news.
For the second version of the phone, Hollier and Tang had to go from being the makers of a crowdfunded quasi-gimmick to running a full-fledged company able to work with huge cellular providers like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. They raised money on Indiegogo ($3.5 million from more than 10,000 backers), as well as an additional $8.4 million in seed money from investors including Lyft co-founder John Zimmer. They also struck a deal with Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturing giant that brought the iPhone and countless other products to market.
In early September, Light began taking preorders for an October delivery of the $350 phones.
Notes on Going Light
So, what it's like to use the phone--to "Go Light," in Hollier and Tang's words?
I was loaned a slate gray (or "Night," per Light) phone. Upon removing it from the black cardboard packaging that proclaims it "a phone for humans" and imploring me to "enjoy now" (poetic lowercase theirs), I found the phone extremely ... small.
It felt like half a deck of cards. It weighed less than some energy bars I've eaten. After years of carrying a bulky iPhone (with case) in my front pocket, the Light II was positively nonexistent. It fit into the change pocket inside my jeans. Not carrying my iPhone, I found myself feeling lighter (sorry) already.
The E Ink screen reminded me of a Kindle's. (Hollier and Tang have had numerous requests to include a book reading app, but they feel that reading a book on a screen smaller than a business card is less than ideal.)
I don't disagree. I found reading--and typing--texts on such a small screen challenging, which was a bug either in the design or in my aging eyes and fingertips. After some early stumbles figuring out how to navigate the simple interface, I found the minimalism sort of pleasing: no swiping, no switching between apps, no little red notifications pulling me in every direction, no photos or browsers to draw me in.
With no way of browsing the internet or responding to emails, I found myself letting my thoughts wander as I waited for my lunch order at a restaurant. The Light II just sat in my pocket doing what a phone should do when not in use: nothing.
Very little on this device demanded my attention. When I looked at it, which I didn't do much over three days, it was just a tool, not a portal into a bottomless pit of content, platforms, and distractions. (The Light II may remind users of a certain age of being on the internet in the Paleolithic days of dial-up modems and the Mosaic browser.) It was the least demanding phone I've ever had. My very first Nokia phone, back in 1999, was more distracting, because it came preinstalled with Snake, a mindless game that was--trust me--surprisingly compelling at the time.
Since I used the Light phone so sparingly, it stayed charged most of the weekend. When I did make calls, it sounded just as good as my iPhone. (This isn't saying much: Everyone knows the iPhone is great at everything other than being a phone.)
Did I miss some functionality of my iPhone? Sure. But did I absolutely need to use Slack, scan documents, or read The Washington Post during my hike? Nope.
It's hard to imagine giving up my iPhone entirely for a Light phone--or any of the other "light" options, like the relaunched Palm--but it offered me a few days' break from the feeling that my phone desperately needs me to look at it.
I probably could've had the same experience just leaving my iPhone at home for a few hours.
As if I was ever going to do that.