The MV1 is a cute and capable smartphone made for emerging markets

The next billion people are coming online, and Obi wants them


Obi Worldphone, the company started by former Apple CEO John Sculley, is adding a new phone to its lineup for emerging markets. The MV1 is an unlocked, dual-sim LTE smartphone with a 5-inch display that can run either Android 5.1 Lollipop or Cyanogen OS.

Recently, the tech industry has been full of talk about the "next billion" people coming online. Obi itself released two phones last year that were squarely aimed at this market. But instead of selling supremely modest phones at bargain bin prices, like Mozilla once tried, Scully wanted to offer high-touch design at an affordable, if not completely cheap, cost.

"In other parts of the world where mobile phone usage is still on the rise, especially with a younger audience, there's this big gap between what people have the means to buy and what they aspire to own," Robert Brunner tells The Verge. Brunner is the founder of Ammunition, which helped design the Beats Pill+ for Apple and is the design firm behind Obi's phones. "What you do have access to [in emerging markets] is pretty derivative, cheap stuff, in this sort of sub-$200 range."

Unfortunately, that noble idea is a little harder to execute than it sounds. Mozilla killed off its Firefox OS phones in December, and even Obi's new phone looks like it's full of compromises.

The MV1 is something of a mixture of those two phones Obi released in 2015. It shares the same design language as the "top-tier" SF1; the screen is still 5 inches, and it's also still slightly raised up from the rectangular polycarbonate body, which makes it look a bit like an iPhone that's been shoved into an ill-fitting case. The phone's speakers are also similarly equipped with Dolby Audio and dual noise-canceling microphones.

It's clearly a compromise between Obi's previous phones

The rest of the phone is more reminiscent of Obi's less expensive SJ1.5. The MV1 uses the 720x1280 display found on that lower-end phone, and the company has also swapped out the SF1's 13-megapixel Sony Exmor sensor for an 8-megapixel shooter from OmniVision. (The front-facing camera has also been downgraded from a 5 megapixels to 2.) The battery has a smaller capacity, too — just 2,500 mAh instead of the 3,000 found on both of Obi's previous phones. The phone is also equipped with a 1.3Ghz quad-core Qualcomm 212 processor and comes with either 1 or 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage (which can be expanded up to 64GB using a microSD card.)

The compromises aren't all bad, though. Because of them, the MV1 also splits the difference in price between the SF1 and the SJ1.5 — the cheapest model starts at $149. The Gorilla Glass screen has a UV coating this time around, which should make it more readable in daylight. And it still looks cool enough to hang alongside most Android phones.

Mobile World Congress (and most big trade shows, for that matter) is full of big companies their newest and best flagship phones, and they tend to muscle out companies like Obi. The MV1 is a reminder that $700 smartphones aren't for everyone, and that sub-$200 phones don't have to be dismal to use. The Obi MV1 is coming to Asia and Africa immediately, and will be sold in Latin America and Europe starting in March.