I mentioned the John’s Phone on the studio mailing list last week. We ended up getting one to look at in the studio; it arrived this week, and I spent some time exploring it.
The John’s Phone is a simple mobile phone made by Dutch design firm John Doe. The phone came about as an attempt to take the ultra-simplicity of their From The Supermarket to a mobile phone. To quote their blogpost on the subject:
We’ve always wondered why most affordable phone looks so dull and boring. All cell phones are great high-tech product we like to use every day. Why not spend more time in designing. It’s the things we don’t see that are the most essential to creating a great design. A great design is a present. Why not make yourself happy with a present everyday in your pocket.
It’s a really immediate product: the entire front face is devoted to the keypad and physical interface. The top of the phone has an LCD display, positioned much like an old-fashioned pager; the side of the phone, which you can just see in the pictures above, has a rocker switch for volume, a SIM card slot, a switch for the ringer volume, and a power switch.
The phone makes its intention clear: the immediacy of use and that interface is more important to it than any screen or display-based interaction. It’s all about phone calls and phone numbers.
The John’s Phone is almost exactly the same size as an iPhone 4 – but its keypad takes up as much space as the touch screen does on the iPhone. The touchscreen has become a focal point of the design of smartphones, the hardware being designed around that bright rectangle. The John’s Phone is equally designed around its interface (or, at least, the “input” element of that interface) – it just happens to be a physical keypad.
There are delightful, surprising touches. There’s a biro hidden down the side, where you might expect a stylus on an old touchscreen phone. You can use it to write in the addressbook hidden in the back of the phone.
But that paper addressbook sums up some of the problems with a phone this simple. Is that simplicity for the purpose of simplification, or to support an aesthetic of simplicity?
The website for the phone claims that it’s “the world’s simplest cellphone“. That’s true – if you agree with their idea of what a cellphone is.
For instance, if you believe text messaging to be a fundamental feature of a cellphone, then the John’s Phone doesn’t even live up to your expectations of what a mobile phone is. But if all you want your mobile phone to do nothing but send and receive calls – which is true of many phone owners – then it really is a simple, satisfying expression of that goal. Satisfaction with the device comes down to what your expectations – or requirements of it – are when you first pick it up.
That aesthetic of simplicity is at times complicated by the technology the phone runs on. Whilst John Doe promote the paper addressbook as the best way to store your phone numbers, reading the manual reveals that there is a ten-number memory built into the phone.
How do you put numbers into that memory? By typing
**1*01234567890# (to put “01234 567890″ into slot “1”).
Doesn’t that, as an interface, feel totally at odds with the aesthetic the physical device is cultivating?
(Of course, “reading the manual” seems like an activity also at odds with a device already so explicit in its physical form; had I not done so, I’d have been perfectly happy not knowing about that feature.)
At first, the character-design on the “hello” and “goodbye” buttons seems at odds with the restrained, minimal physical exterior.
As you use the phone, though, you’ll get to see a lot more of that character. He’s called Fony, and he appears throughout the phone’s operation. He’ll wave hello and goodbye to you when you turn the phone on and off.
When the phone’s asleep, you might see him tucked up in bed.
When you charge the phone, he gets electrocuted from time to time (which seems curel to a character I’d imagine I was supposed to be sympathetic towards).
I can appreciate the care and attention in the realisation of Fony. He’s charming and never intrusive on the phone’s screen, often explaining what the phone’s currently doing through his appearance (rather than through text, which there’s very little space for). John Doe say (in their explanation of his design) that “Fony makes John’s a friendly phone“. I think he’s part of that friendliness – but not nearly as much as the much more immediate friendliness of the clear, simply designed hardware.
It’s important to factor the price of the product into any discussion of it. The John’s Phone costs €70 – about £50. That puts it in line with fairly cheap pay-as-you-go phones. (And: the John’s Phone is sold unlocked from any carrier, so that’s £50 without any carrier-subsidy).
Price changes the the relationship to a product. At £150, this would be a premium product designed for a wealthy few as a provocative statement – but likely a “second phone”.
At the current price, it’s a much more relevant purchase for a wider audience. If that price were even lower, new – and larger – audiences become available.
It’s only fair, in the end, to criticise the John’s Phone in light of that initial quotation from John Doe, which serves as a kind of design brief:
A great design is a present. Why not make yourself happy with a present everyday in your pocket.
A device that makes you happy; a device that is a delight every time you pick it up. By those criteria, the John’s Phone is clearly a success. Everyone who’s seen ours wants to pick it up and take a look; everyone who picks it up smiles, and plays with it, explores its secrets; everyone wants to answer the question “is it really a phone”?
Yes, it is. And it’s not just an ultra-simple phone; it’s an affordable ultra-simple phone, that you can buy right now. All credit to John Doe for taking their vision of what a mobile phone could be, and making it real, at the right price.
1. Alex said on 26 November 2010...
I believe you intended to link to: http://www.johnsphones.com/ in the first link of the post.
2. Tijs Teulings said on 26 November 2010...
I’ve taken the phone with me to Mexico as i figured the 1 day battery for my iPhone wouldn’t cut it here, and i was correct about that. But i must admit i’m a bit disappointed in the john’s phone as a ‘holiday mobile’. I missed the SMS function more than i had expected. The simple ‘landed safely’ type messages i usually send now require an email, actual phone calls seem like an expensive effort for such things. Also the phone doesn’t feel very sturdy, the plasticky feel of the knobs and levers seem like they would break off when handled roughly.
As a gimmick it’s fun for a bit and i guess for some people the use case could simply be the statement. But what kind of a statement are you making when you buy a phone to make a statement?
I do think it has a niche as a grandma phone though. When i return i’ll be giving it to my mother who does not use SMS and does not have the patience to figure out how to store phone numbers in memory anyway. The combination of paper address book and super simple interface is perfect for her.
For myself i’ll simply get a super basic pre-paid, or one of those ‘nokia africa’ models for 15 euro at the local telecom shop that might look ugly but is smaller, nimbler and does do SMS. When traveling tools trump ‘presents’.
3. Corvad said on 27 November 2010...
I’ve read that this phone is booming. They sell a phone every minute. And I think it’s because of the battery life and that it is unlocked. People traveling the world know how buying a local phone in a country is a pain in the ass. This phone works with every provider worldwide(…)
I bought two John’s phones.one for me and one for my father and he is absolutely no hipster.
John’s Phone is the Linux system in the mobile phone market.
For a new phone brand they did a very good job!
I look forward to their second phone. I am a fan now.
4. Dan Burzo said on 27 November 2010...
While I could live without the SMS feature, I think this phone lacks a fundamental feature of mobile phones: the fact that you know who’s calling. For me, it’s a big shift from landline phones where you would pick up just to see what it’s about.
I can imagine that in time you will memorize the number patterns and will sometimes deduce who’s calling, but I remained skeptical.
The Motorola Motofone F3 was a previous example of this aesthetic:
I used it and I kind of liked the minimal set of feature (as opposed to the Nokia Menu Hell), but it was not simplicity in the sense that everything just worked, it was simplicity for aesthetics.
The F3 was very slim and light and had this e-ink display which proved that they were not trying to leverage the ‘crappy old phone’ aesthetic by which John’s phone seems to be informed (does it really have to be that big and chunky?)
The reception indicates that people are indeed tired of crappy, bloated phones.
I don’t see why simple, capable and usable can’t work together. John’s phone is simple, period.
5. ANDY said on 29 November 2010...
I thought this would be a good idea for my aging father in law. They are out of stock at the moment and I have sent them an e-mail asking a question but Johns phones haven’t had the courtesey to reply. Have they got any customer services
6. Lisa said on 30 November 2010...
There are a few advantages.
John’s Phone has a better reception then most phones out there. It’s battery life is much longer and it’s unlocked and works with every operator worldwide.
Now THAT is what I call usable!
And then there is the esthetics thing. People with an eye for design love this phone. But I can imagine when you don’t have any feel for design or art you won’t care. I think it’s great that the makers of the phone made also something that has a great look and feel.
Btw, the John’s Phone is smaller as an iPhone…
7. Jeanette McCreery said on 21 December 2010...
I have just bought John’s phone but can’t get a 3 sim card
to work. I would appreciate any suggestions as other sim cards do
8. Sawyer said on 31 December 2010...
Jeanette: Your 3 card won’t work, I’m afraid. John’s Phone only works on GSM (2G) networks, not the 3G network offered by 3. According to the website, the reason for this is that John’s Phone doesn’t need a fast connection as it doesn’t have internet or data features, and you get better battery life on 2G connections.
9. Gary said on 13 January 2011...
If you care at all about the environment, and the endless mountain of new plastic products being churned into landfill, you would just buy a second-hand basic phone from eBay, as I did.
10. gary o said on 25 April 2011...
I bought a John’s phone for Canada. What carrier has SIM cards that will work here? Anyone know?
11. Stomme poes said on 22 May 2011...
I bought mine, got it a little over a month ago and am finally happy. I had tried “simple” phones to buy, but they came still with screens, they did mail and clock and alarms and I was always setting these off and getting strange messages from the provider (Vodafone) which I couldn’t figure out how to erase… everything was still too difficult and I stopped using it because it was too much. I Don’t Want Mail! I Want A Telephone! But there seemed to be nothing out there that was just a phone.
Later I got the old Samsung phone of my mother-in-law’s… same problem. It did everything, I kept bumping something (WHAT??) that tried to hook me up to the internet, it kept ringing because it got spam messages from Vodafone (nobody knew why this was, everyone around me has Vodafone and did not get so much spam as I did), and I couldn’t keep track of which buttons did what because they were all multi-functional (they changed what they did based on your menu). The batteries lasted from a few hours to a day, likely because every time you breathed on a button, the bright screen would light up and start a bunch of programs (doing who knows what). This was still way too complicated for me. ARG all I want is a phone! Not a clock! Not an alarm! Not a mail thing! No internet! No camera! No stupid texting (I simply can’t figure out how to type messages on the other phone’s tiny buttons and impossible screens).
Now, I have a phone that I use. A phone that does what I tell it to. Each button generally does just one thing, and I can keep track of that. I actually carry this phone around me, because I understand it and it doesn’t do strange things on me.
This phone is for people like me. I looked for “senior phones” (I’m 30) and they were all over 100-200 euros for some reason. This phone is a godsend for those of us who cannot figure out complicated garbage. A second-hand phone would not have helped, unless it was a second-hand John’s phone or similar. People make phones do 5000 things more than a telephone does.
I have no trouble recognising who’s calling me by the numbers, and some people have their names in their accounts (I don’t know how) so their name appears instead of their number.
Since I never got in the habit of carrying a mobile phone around in my pocket all day, the size of the John’s (which is very very light, lighter than the smaller other two phones I had) is never a problem. It’s not clunky: the large buttons and the clear *beep* when you press one is reassuring, clear, and easy for my fingers to use.
12. shafi said on 5 July 2011...
for gary who asked about usability in Canada – This phone will should work with rogers and fido at least (maybe others?). Carriers like telus and bell who went from their old 2g cdma up to 3g umts won’t work for the phone even though they have sim cards that will fit. The phone is a 2g only gsm phone.
13. Valerie said on 18 October 2011...
I WANT one of these phones. The phone I have is the simplest one available but it does everything except make the coffee and walk the dog.
What SIM cards does the John’s phone work with please, and can they be bought and topped up like other mobile phones? Please reply to me privately at email@example.com
14. Antonie said on 2 December 2011...
I just switched from my iPhone to a John’s Phone this week. Specifically for three reasons.
1: It can’t do anything. I was getting sick and tired of always having the urge to ‘do something’ with my phone. Check my twitter, my e-mail, the news, browse websites, play games etc. etc. No longer do I have that option and it feels like Freedom.
2: The aesthetics of it. Having a simple phone was necessary (see point 1). But, being a gadget lover, I knew it had to be something ‘gadgety’, not really really ugly.
3: The long battery life
Having said that, there are some basic flaws in the design of the product. I will list them.
* The design looks great. From a distance.
If you get close up, the buttons on the side look & feel like cheap plastic. Mostly because they *are* cheap plastic with a little chrome paint layer. Also, it is very big compared to it’s weight, so it feels like a cheap plastic toy as well.
* The volume is nowhere near loud enough. Though reception is fine, the speaker in the phone itself just won’t go very loud. Generally speaking not a problem, but if you’re in a conference call with a bunch of people, you sometimes want to be able to up the volume.
* The earpiece provided (surprising seeing the price) is far too big. You need elephant’s ears to be able to fit it in your ears. A pretty big hassle, since the connection is micro-usb, not a standard headphones, so you can’t connect a ‘normal’ set of headphones to it.
That aside, it’s a great – and liberating – phone.
15. Rygarion said on 3 February 2012...
What happens to sms sent to your number?
Are they blocked? Is the sender notified that you can’T be reached via sms?
Can you read but not send sms?
Because: I ask myself what happens when you get a message from someone who doesn’t know that you probably can’t read messages.
16. Peter Davies said on 17 February 2012...
My problem with it is that it’s not simple enough to make a bold statement, and the phone actually looks a little patronising.
Consequently, I’ve always hesitated to buy one, even for an elderly relative — I worry that they’d be offended.
17. Jimbalaya! said on 20 March 2012...
Would love to hear a response to Rygarion’s question.
I too wonder about this, because at the very least you’d want the sender of an SMS to be notified that the SMS was NOT sent, rather than them believing it was and then get shitty that you didn’t reply.
Can someone answer this question??
18. Matt Webb said on 20 March 2012...
Hi Rygarion, Jimbalaya — you might be better off getting in contact with John’s Phones directly. Try contacting them through their support page on their website: https://www.johnsphones.com/gb/en/
This page is part of a blog by BERG. We’re a design studio with no relation to the company that manufactures John’s Phone, we just reviewed it back in 2010!
Matt (from BERG)
19. Karen Kowalenko-Evjen said on 15 May 2012...
I am frustrated and soon to become angry as I cannot get any answers from the people from whom I purchased a phone online months ago. Every e-mail I’ve sent has bounced back. What is going on? Do I have to get a lawyer to help me with this?
20. Matt Webb said on 15 May 2012...
Hi Karen — you know this isn’t the John’s Phone company page? This is a product review by an unaffiliated company. Good luck getting in contact with the company directly!
21. adam beard said on 18 August 2012...
Re: Stomme poes
“I have no trouble recognising who’s calling me by the numbers, and some people have their names in their accounts (I don’t know how) so their name appears instead of their number. ”
names are displayed if they’re stored on the sim card (from use in a previous phone).
22. Vanessa said on 7 November 2012...
I also ordered and paid for their phone months ago and now can’t get hold of them!!!!
Karen, did you have any luck?? Does anyone have a number or email for them??
23. Ozgur said on 28 November 2012...
Cool looking phone but unfortunetaly missing a huge target market, how?
by not having sms, because it means
-no online banking passwords
-no online sms activation
-no PNR/reservation codes for flights
-no little notes
Also phone book function and synch would be cool, for people to switch to this phone. and 3g sim and music player would make him even more popular:)
24. Ryan said on 13 May 2013...
So, since the phone is unlocked, that means you can use it with major providers, ATT, Sprint, Verizon, etc.?