In mid-September, the worst nightmares of AD, the company behind the ADzero bamboo phone, came true. AD's production prototypes revealed a fatal flaw: the bamboo cases — the phone's key distinguishing feature — were splintering. To make matters worse, the company was on the verge of launching a Kickstarter campaign, and the crowd-funding platform had just released a statement titled "Kickstarter is not a store," banning the use of renders (the sort of which AD was relying on). Between production hell and Kickstarter's new strict policies, the company's launch plans were, temporarily at least, terminated.
But Kieron-Scott Woodhouse and Jerry Lao are persistent. They're the pair of twenty-somethings behind AD, and they want to shake up the market with their high concept smartphone. It’s a tall order. Kickstarter has seen a handful of success stories recently, such as the Ouya Android console and Pebble smartwatch, but the ADzero isn’t creating a new market or refining a product category. Are a fresh design and unique materials enough for AD to gain a foothold in a market where established giants like Nokia and RIM are flailing? What kind of challenges does a small hardware startup face? In this series we’ll find out. We’ll track the progress of Woodhouse and Lao as they attempt to take the ADzero from sketchbook, to prototype, and onward, hopefully past production issues and onto retail shelves.
Last year, Kieron-Scott Woodhouse found himself, briefly, in the limelight. While still a product design student at Middlesex University, England, he created the Xperia LED concept. The series of renders detailed a polished black steel unibody frame with copper detailing, an edge-to-edge glass front, side-mounted LED indicators, and a ring flash surrounding its rear camera. Its defining features, however, were its angular shape and highly curved back.
The Xperia LED's harsh angles, unusual materials, and unique design flourishes intrigued a number of sites. One, concept-phones.com, caught the attention of Jerry Lao, the man who would eventually become Woodhouse’s business partner.
Lao was working for a private equity firm in China when he saw an opportunity. He saw that with a growing middle class and increasing purchasing power, the country was ready for a high-end smartphone that would capture its attention.
An easy route into the Chinese market would be to build a shell around an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) reference design. Although many laptop manufacturers make use of reference models, the approach severely limits options in cellphone design — the parts and ports have to be in a certain place, so there is little chance of having anything but a nondescript slab at the end of the process.
The other option is to go the route of Apple or Motorola, hiring an Original Device Manufacturer (ODM) to work to their exact specifications. That’s a tall order for a startup that, at the time, consisted solely of Lao, but through his time in private equity he’d gained valuable contacts in electronics manufacturing. He decided he could make it happen. Lao began looking for a product designer to help him bring an original smartphone to the Chinese market. With little-to-no precedent at the time for such a venture, it was — like many of AD’s decisions — a bold move.
Almost immediately, he discovered the Xperia LED. It was a brash, confident design, though, as Lao puts it “a little out there,” and highly unlikely to make it past the prototyping stage. Lao saw in Woodhouse a raw talent, and after seeing some of his university work, Lao decided to contact him.
It was a brash, confident design, unlikely to make it past the prototyping stage
At first, there wasn’t a business proposal; Lao told Woodhouse he was looking to launch a new smartphone in China, and wanted to see what the young designer could come up with. For Woodhouse, the timing was perfect: he'd just finished a placement at redLoop design consultancy, and saw it as an opportunity to refine his skills and build out his portfolio.
There was no planning process, and Woodhouse had free reign to explore his ideas. A long-time smartphone user, he has strong opinions on what companies get wrong and right; indeed, the Xperia LED concept came out of his frustration at the lack of originality in recent smartphone designs.
AD will have to water down what was essentially its main selling point: an all-bamboo shell
He says that smartphones are now "portals" that people use to access and organize their entire lives, and "designers have a big responsibility to get things right." He also believes smartphones are uniquely personal objects; there are few pieces of electronics that provoke such a sense of ownership, and many of his designs incorporate materials that allow each device to be unique. For example, the first concept to make it past the drawing board into prototyping was a copper and ceramic design. He chose the copper housing because the process of oxidation would, with time, make each device different, but the design was scrapped because of fears that the copper would react badly with people’s skin.
“We want to tell stories through our material selections,” says Woodhouse. “We needed a strong material that would still offer a unique finish for each user — bamboo was the perfect fit.” Although it’s far from conventional, a few product lines over the years have toyed with natural finishes, notably Asus’ U33JC laptop, Dell’s Studio Hybrid desktop, and NTT Docomo’s Touch Wood phone. None have been runaway successes, but all garnered plenty of attention, and at least proved bamboo and electronics could mix.
The ADzero prototype drew heavily from Woodhouse’s earlier designs. The ‘n’-shaped groove beneath the display came from an early, scrapped design, while the ring flash and tapered back recall the Xperia LED. Reliability issues with the groove led to another tweak: rather than being etched into the wood itself, the final product’s groove will be part of the bezel. But the idea lives on.
The ADzero was essentially finalized back in August, but major manufacturing issues forced Woodhouse to dramatically rethink his design and production process. The prototype features a unibody casing machined from a single block of bamboo. A thin plastic inner-frame that houses the internal electronic components then locks into the shaped casing before the glass front is placed over it. The system requires precise machining and miniscule tolerances to work. For what was supposed to be its production prototype, AD switched to using mass-manufacturing processes, and the results weren’t good enough. They were unable to get the precise fit needed without machining the inside of the casing, which led to “major weaknesses” in the bamboo itself. We’re told that the current unibody bamboo version is now “very stable,” but there is no way to scale up production to mass-manufacturing levels. Woodhouse maintains that it wasn’t down to an inherent weakness in the materials, but rather the limited manufacturing tools available to a small startup. AD will still offer the unibody model, but it’s unlikely to ever be manufactured on a grand scale.
So what was AD’s solution? Plastic. The new design incorporates two pieces of “eco-plastic” at the top and bottom of the phone that strengthen the structural integrity of the assembled device. The plastic looks almost like a cap, and now houses the headphone and charging ports as well as its microphone. It’s a shame that the company will have to water down what was essentially its main selling point: an all-bamboo shell. The new design has only recently been finalized and prototypes are currently in production, but from the early renders we've seen it doesn't look like the addition compromises the ADzero’s design too much. We’ll have to see how the bamboo and plastic sit together once we’ve spent some time with the new prototypes.
The birth of AD
The birth of the ADzero was the birth of AD, the company. It’s an acronym for Anno Domini, literally ‘the year of our Lord’ in Latin, but it’s used by the pair to signify the dawning of a “new age in mobile phone innovation and material development”. Pretentious? Perhaps, but it gives them a simple and strong brand. It’s a 50 / 50 partnership between Woodhouse and Lao, and one into which Lao has sunk tens of thousands of dollars — essentially all of his money — into.
AD has benefited immensely from Lao’s manufacturing connections. Rather than use 3D printing, the company has had all of its prototypes made in China. According to Woodhouse, the price difference is negligible between creating true-material prototypes and buying and maintaining even a basic 3D printer, and with material so important to the design, it’s essential to have access to cheap and accurate prototypes.
In September, AD took the bamboo prototype, along with a pair of the copper designs, to TENT, the yearly London design exhibition. They wanted to gauge the design community's reaction, which was overwhelmingly positive: Woodhouse says “there were tons of people interested.” AD went to TENT proud of their achievements, but with the blessing of their peers, the pair decided to go even bigger. They’d try to sell the phone outside of China.
Rather than use 3D printing, the company has had all of its prototypes made in China
Around the same time as TENT, Xiaomi, another untested startup, released the MiOne, a powerful Android device meant to compete with the world's best, albeit only within its native China. By January, Xiaomi had sold over 500,000 MiOnes, and in May a cheaper variant, the Youth Edition, quickly sold over 150,000 through preorders alone. Lao feels vindicated by Xiaomi's success — it's proved that the immature Chinese smartphone market is receptive to startups with a good product, and users aren't afraid to spend money on an unknown entity. Xiaomi, however, has recently launched a pair of successors, the inspiringly-named Mi2 and Mi1S, which look set to take the Chinese market by storm again. Although the company would never admit to it, there must be the concern that Xiaomi is eating into what was supposed to be AD’s primary market.
Xiaomi made a name for itself — despite never selling its devices outside of Asia — by offering the highest specs around at shockingly low prices. AD can’t match Xiaomi on price, but will do their best to compete on specs. Up front there’ll be a 4.5-inch, 720p LCD display, and inside the well-documented bamboo shell, AD is essentially throwing in the guts of an international Galaxy S III. Samsung’s quad-core Exynos 4412 processor performs exceptionally well, and sits close to the top of current benchmark tables. The quad-core processor will be paired with 1GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, and a 2,500mAh battery — standard fare, but if its enough to satiate the needs of the average Galaxy S III user, it’ll surely suffice here. AD has some interesting plans for the camera: it’s an 8-megapixel unit, but the company is touting a “dual-LED distributed ring flash” that it says will produce evenly-lit photos at night.
Whether thanks to the these impressive specs or as a part of a trend toward larger smartphones, the ADzero has put on some bulk since we first saw it. It's a little thicker than the initial prototypes, and its screen has increased from 4.3 to 4.5 inches. The materials remain its killer feature: the bamboo, and in particular the stark contrast between the wood and the deep black bezel, still impresses. While it may seem completely unique in the smartphone world, its simple flowing lines and curves aren’t so far removed from something from Samsung, Apple, or HTC’s design houses.
But no one has ever questioned the aesthetic prowess of the ADzero, and a smartphone isn't a smartphone without the right software. On paper, everything seems to have been taken care of: the ADzero runs Android 4.0 underneath. Ice Cream Sandwich was a massive leap forward in both design and function for Android — so why is AD skinning it?
This isn’t the first startup to think it can improve Google’s software
For the ADzero Kickstarter campaign to be successful, it's going to have to attract "phone nerds.” AD's chosen sales medium requires people to pay for a device off-contract, and therefore without carrier subsidies — a tall order for anyone but a smartphone aficionado. It's this very crowd — and perhaps only this crowd — that cares deeply about the sanctity of Android, and pushing a skin on them is yet another counter-intuitive move from AD. As head designer, it was Woodhouse's call, and he feels his remodelled Android will appeal to both power users and those new to the OS. “We recognize that some users might not like it,” says Woodhouse, “and we’ll keep it very open: we’ll release the ADAOS source code before the phone’s release, and also give users the option to boot into stock Android or load their own ROMs onto the phone.”
Unlike Sony or Samsung, AD has no third-party services to hawk, nor is it looking to drastically alter the look and feel of Android. Instead, Woodhouse says he has removed “layers of complexity” he sees as turning-off those used to the "simplicity" of Apple's iOS. The software team brought to the fore those functions people use most, creating a single-layer experience. The app drawer and settings are now accessed by swiping left from the homescreen, rather than in separate layers, while swiping right takes you to Android's familiar pages of shortcuts and widgets.
This isn’t the first startup to think it can improve Google’s software. Perhaps the most famous example is Fusion Garage, who, after failing with the JooJoo, a tablet that received just 90 preorders, launched the ill-fated Grid smartphone and tablet, which ran a heavily reworked version of Android. While it’s unfair to draw comparisons between AD and a startup that ended in controversy, the fact remains that there’s no precedent for any company, let alone a startup, dramatically rethinking the way you navigate Android, at least for the western market.
AD has also created a grid system that it hopes will help third-party application icons sit better with their stock counterparts. The grid highlights your most-used applications and works as a subtle notification system, and Woodhouse says it also helps third-party application icons to sit better alongside their stock counterparts. It’s a solid premise, but time will tell if AD's gamble will pay off.
AD has certainly come a long way since February. When we first saw it, the ADzero was just a shaped block of bamboo with an opaque piece of glass in place of a screen. But the device captured the public’s imagination, and was covered by both the tech and mainstream press. The news cycle may have abandoned the startup in recent months, but AD is hoping to reignite that early enthusiasm and — they hope — channel it into a Kickstarter campaign at the end of this month.
The campaign was supposed to launch a month ago, but while the ADzero was waiting for approval, Kickstarter banned the use of renders to advertise projects. As its production prototypes failed at the same time, the startup decided to delay the launch rather than use an earlier unit. Although it set the company’s plans back considerably, Woodhouse says he’s happy that the company didn’t accidentally “betray people’s trust” with the promise of an all-bamboo shell that wouldn’t have been fulfilled.
Regardless of design issues and Kickstarter success, we’re told that the ADzero smartphone will definitely make it to market — as far as the official line goes, that’s a certainty. Woodhouse and Lao have the backing of a number of angel investors from within the industry, and AD has already signed a major ODM to develop, manufacture, and assemble the devices — something we’ll be taking a closer look at in the future if everything goes as planned.
Kickstarter, to AD, isn't a way to bring their product to market. At least not in the traditional sense. By utilizing crowd-funding, the company gets to see if there's a genuine desire for its product, while at the same time securing the sort of cash that would usually be gained through a funding round, all without giving away any of the company to investors. If it surpasses its funding goal, it'll also be able to lower the average manufacturing cost per unit thanks the economies of scale — something extremely important to such a small company.
Of course, it's one thing for people to gush about a device on an internet comments thread, and another to go out and spend their cash on it. AD should benefit, in the UK at least, from the buzz around the launch of a new UK Kickstarter site. Like its US counterpart, the products on sale on the UK site will be available to customers worldwide, but the launch is bound to attract attention from the local press; getting its phone on the front page on launch day would be a big help.
The bespoke bamboo ADzero will cost $500 through Kickstarter, and, like most international devices, will not be compatible with Verizon’s network. There’s also going to be a $300 pre-order option for those unwilling to part with all their cash at once. A special designer edition with laser-engraved artwork will set you back $700, and there will also be the usual lower tiers for anyone that wants to pledge their support in exchange for a trinket or message of thanks.
The company's Kickstarter funding goal is set at just $350,000, so just 700 sales would make for a successful campaign, but they're hoping to overshoot its target by a huge margin. AD is keen to point out that full retail price (for the bamboo and plastic hybrid) will be $699.99, which makes the $500 Kickstarter model look like a steal. Lao hopes that, as consumer interest picks up, talks with carriers will progress, allowing AD to ship the ADzero at a lower price.
In a closed industry dominated by a few major players, success for AD could pave the way for other aspiring phone designers. The likes of Apple and Samsung are unlikely to be fazed even if AD surpasses its targets, but consumers embracing the idea of bespoke smartphones from independent companies could make for a far more interesting marketplace.
For AD, however, disrupting the market on a grand scale isn’t important right now. Woodhouse and Lao need a successful phone launch, a foot in the door. Failure doesn’t seem to be a word in the young duo’s vocabulary, but recent design challenges have presented hurdles that have sunk many hardware startups, and AD’s not in the clear yet. We’ll soon be able to gauge public opinion on the redesigned plastic-and-bamboo ADzero and, more importantly, discover whether people are willing to buy a premium smartphone from a startup.
We’ll be keeping tabs on AD’s progress throughout the campaign, and potential product launch, so stay tuned for more updates.
Will consumers embrace the idea of bespoke smartphones from independent companies?