I was gifted a toy phone as a child, which began my love for communication devices. I constantly sought new ways to stay connected, leading me to own my first mobile phone in 1996, when Bouygues, a french telecom operator launched its services as the third national mobile services provider. I got my first iPhone, 11 years later, in 2007, with the iPhone 1 and my first Android, in 2009, with the HTC Hero.
This love for communications drove my whole professional career. In 2004, I was running a small telecom operator in Paris. During a meeting with one of the Skype founders, Niklas Zennström, I was convinced to head to London to help his team launch their first monetization service (SkypeOut) by enabling calls to the PSTN. A few years later, in 2007, I was marketing free phone numbers online, enabling anyone to book a phone number on the web that would ring for free to more than 70 destinations.
It has always been in my DNA to free communications. One could argue that it makes us human.
In 2009, after several years building web, mobile and VoIP applications, I was demoing “Callbyname” a mobile app that would use your friends’ common name to place or receive a call from a web browser or mobile application by leveraging your Facebook social graph or a domain name.
After several failures, full of ambitions and filled with the dream of building my next startup in Silicon Valley, I moved to San Francisco in 2011. I was fascinated by the power of peer to peer networks and saw the opportunity to apply these principles to mobile devices. Taylor Ongaro (my co-founder at the time) and I found an open source code that enabled you to share your mobile data for free by turning your smartphone into a hotspot. Back then, telcos charged $50 a month to enable the feature, and we were providing it for free. After a few weeks of work, we redesigned the UI, applied our brand, and refactored the code. We published the app and quickly reached three hundred thousand monthly active users. A couple of months later, we reached two million users.
With enough phones on the network, it would be possible to replace cell towers entirely, bringing connectivity to the furthest reaches of the globe. It was a great way to start executing our vision of building a decentralized peer-to-peer mesh network of mobile devices. The idea was to extend the Internet’s original architecture to anyone.
We called it the “internet of us”.
Our dreams were briefly slowed down when AT&T banned the app from the Google Play store, but it didn’t stop us and the application available on Android, Mac, and PC evolved to the point it was creating mesh networks on the fly. We consider it the ancestor of the current Apple feature that enables your Macbook or iPad to connect automatically to your iPhone when there is no Wifi available or to share content with other devices nearby.
In 2014, the company had to pivot in the second half of 2013 as Google started to break some of the techniques we used to build our mesh network. At the same time we refused to advance discussions for an acquisition offer. We had to start thinking about using our technology and knowledge for something new.
More and more friends were asking if the technology could enable phones to exchange and share messages without cellular or internet access. These were our friends who went to BurningMan as back then; there was no satellite, cellular and or wifi network available. At the same time we were entertaining discussions with Apple, which was working on its multipeer connectivity framework. Our work at Open Garden directly inspired it; it is what enables you today to discover your iPhone hotspot and connect to it easily, as well as what is powering the famous Airdrop feature.
I often have a strong instinct for what is coming next in tech, and this time, I almost had an epiphany. One day in the fall of 2013, under the shower, I came up with the name FireChat for the off-the-grid messaging app we wanted to release. To surprise the market and to maximize momentum, we decided to release first on iOS by leveraging the Apple multipeer connectivity framework. There was a lot of tension among co-founders since we only had a few months of runway (until mid-April 2014), and we rushed to release a beta on March 21st. Every decision was important, and a week before the launch, one of my co-founders Stanislav Shalunov and I had heated debates on whether we needed to add a separate chat room to chat only with people nearby. This was when my current co-founder in Nodle, Garrett Kinsman, joined the company as an intern.
Looking backward, I explain the success of our launch by the right timing (one month after the acquisition of Whatsapp by Facebook); messaging apps were trendy. We had also built a large community over the past three years, and the world needed a communication tool that would work off the grid. Ten days after the launch, we released an Android version, and reached 1 million installations. It was mind-blowing! 🤯
I won’t tell the whole story of Firechat here, but some of can be found in my previous posts, by researching online, and in a book I recommend called “Stealing Fire” by Jamie Wheal and Steven Kohler. You can also watch the short movie that aired on HBO “Spark” which describes a similar application helping students in Venezuela. It was a thrilling experience… 18 months after the launch, I was pushed out of the company and gave a TEDx talk in Hong Kong to explain how I believed peer-to-peer mesh would someday enable fast and long distance communications between phones.
During this time, my Co-Founder Garrett moved to India, and we began thinking about ways to incentivize mesh networks to form.
The Ethereum Mainnet went live.
Bitcoin reached $1,000.
An election happened in the United States.
In 2017 Garrett moved back to California, and with a couple of friends we started Nodle out of a coffee shop in Palo Alto. We had this crazy idea to use smartphones as nodes to keep a Mesh Network alive, but this time it wouldn’t be for messaging; it would be for general purpose.
A couple of years later, in October 2018 with a new team, we launched the Nodle App on the first blockchain phone from HTC, the HTC Exodus 1. The app, inspired by the success of Firechat during the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong, rewards you for maintaining a node active on your phone.
The first Dapp leveraged a network of smartphones to build a decentralized Bluetooth Network. We used this network to locate Bluetooth smart devices and smart tags. In 2019, after several communications to understand and test our network density, Apple launched its Bluetooth network; Apple Find My. More recently, and after years of discussions, Samsung finally shipped its own BLE network. Silicon Valley is ruthless when it comes to shipping innovations that have the potential to generate a lot of value and revenue. But these solutions remain closed, with almost no enterprise adoption. This is where decentralization becomes so important for adoption, giving enterprises and individuals control over their data.
Within a few months, Nodle’s decentralized network of nodes will be directly programmable through “Smart Missions.” They are the equivalent of smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain but this time for the mobile computing platform. The important difference is they can leverage all the capabilities of the mobile computing platform: CPU, storage, GPS, sensors, cameras, and wireless radios, and interact with the person who owns the smartphone.
Before jumping into the manifesto of the ideal mobile phone, I thought this short preface was important to explain the thought process and some of the required technical specifications that could make the launch of a new mobile phone a real success.
Elon Musk made a great point when tweeting about the 30% cut that Apple and Android take on their application stores for every in-app purchase that happens. This is a large pain for many developers, adding to the restrictions that new policies from these two giants impose to maintain or avoid certain bad behaviors. While sometimes necessary to protect younger users, it is certainly limiting the freedom of innovation and any user’s freedom. For example, side-loading an app as you would normally do on a PC or a Mac is prohibited on iOS.
For someone who started to code at age 8 in Basic and remembers saving and sharing code on cassettes, it feels like a whole range of possibilities motivated by total freedom of creativity is taken away from you.
The same can be said about telecom operators or smartphone manufacturers, who usually have a say on what apps should be enabled on one’s smartphone. If, luckily, the store doesn’t do anything to restrict your app, the manufacturer can decide to limit its capabilities just because they have a competitive product.
That’s why there is a need for a completely new phone that will give back to their owners and the developer community real freedom.
Why So Many Attempts At Building A Phone Failed?
Numerous phones have failed and flopped. Essential, from Andy Rubin; the Firefox phone, from Mozilla; Exodus, from HTC, etc.
Each one of them brought something new or a valuable feature, but none of these were enough to make a difference.
The difference will come from a more fundamental, architectural, and lower-ground hardware level. A phone is primarily a communication device, and as long as there is not a significant advancement as a communication device, there won’t be a real leap forward. Additionally, modern OS players have locked developers into their ecosystems. If you don’t play by their rules and give them data, they can degrade user experience by making some apps or features not work.
Some Great Initiatives
One of the most compelling attempts to build a smartphone was Project Ara from Google. Ara was a modular phone that highlighted the need to recycle as many phone parts as possible while not compromising performance by enabling any part to be upgraded.
Project Ara originally connected me to my co-founder Garrett, who was designing Ara modules. Ara worked, we heard of units running over a full day on an internal battery, and the bugs ironed out. Unfortunately, Ara was ultimately killed by Google management to cut costs. A “disposable” form factor like the Pixel is cheaper to build.
Modular phones live on in the FairPhone initiative, a successful company today. Fairphone opted for user-replaceable parts and a different OS than the traditional Google Android. Murena OS offers an excellent alternative to the standard Google Android OS and provides solutions similar to Google Cloud services. They even sell a Fairphone version.
Another great initiative is the Carbon Mobile phone. Made in Germany with high-tech carbon fiber material, it is 25% thinner (6.3mm) and lighter (125g). Beautifully designed the phone is a commitment to sustainability. It is a demonstration that it is possible to innovate while keeping sustainability and miniaturization at the top of priorities.
Solana has announced a phone planned to go on sale this month, but they may face significant challenges without a robust ecosystem to use Solana on Mobile.
The Ideal Mobile Phone combines open decentralized hardware with Web 3.0 native software you can truly control. This is why we introduce our concept vision of the Web 3.0 Phone.