On February 23, 2023, I published an article titled The ideal phone, e-ink and QWERTY. The headline was not misleading. My ideal phone would have an e-ink display and a QWERTY keyboard. For that reason, you can imagine that I was intrigued when I saw a new post in my Hacker News RSS feed titled Minimal phone gets back to basics with E ink display and real keyboard. The Hacker News post shared a link to an article and I decided to read the original report on New Atlas before perusing the Hacker News discussion. I found that while the new phone in question looks neat and is indeed a phone with an e-ink display and full QWERTY keyboard, it is not quite what I had in mind when I called for this very hardware configuration last year. Specifically, my point of emphasis in describing my ideal phone is materially distinct from what the maker of this new phone, Minimal Company, appears to be going for.

Below, I will describe the new phone, explain why the concept is not the same as my ideal phone, and clarify my article from last year on what would constitute the ideal e-ink/QWERTY phone.

Before continuing, do note that while The Minimal Phone as it is described in early materials is not quite what I am looking for, I am glad to see that the project exists and it may be a good match for other use-cases. I hope it succeeds and inspires more U.S. manufacturers to look into e-ink phones (there are a number of them in China) and bring back phones with physical keyboards. Its success would certainly be a positive step toward better phones.

Summary of the Minimal Phone

Mr. Paul Ridden noted in his report that “[o]nly very basic information [about The Minimal Phone] has been shared on [The Minimal Company’s] website thus far” (see March 1, 2024 capture). Mr. Ridden attributed much of his report to Reddit comments by the founder and CEO of the Minimal Company, Andre Youkhama (see archive). I will reply primarily Mr. Youkhama’s Reddit comments to inform this article with support from Mr. Ridden’s summary.

Mr. Ridden explained that the phone “will boast a backlit monochrome E Ink display topped with a capacitative touchscreen…” and that it will have “a full QWERTY keyboard.” In the Reddit thread, Mr. Youkhama stated that the e-ink display will be easy on the eyes and contribute to the phone’s long battery life. With respect to the keyboard, he stated that it “offers a more satisfying and accurate typing experience.”

The Minimal Phone will be powered by a new operating system called MnmlOS, which according to Mr. Ridden’s report will be based on “the latest version of Android.” In the Reddit thread, Mr. Youkhama described MnmlOS as being a “streamlined version of Android” that is “fine-tuned to reduce distractions.” On the distraction front, he stated that MnmlOS will “ensure[] a user-friendly experience without the complexity and temptation of a typical smartphone.”

However, notwithstanding that MnmlOS will be a “streamlined version of Android,” Mr. Youkhama assured users who rely on specific proprietary Android apps that “[e]ssentially any app that is supported by [A]ndroid is supported by Minimal.” He promised that MnmlOS will be supported “for a minimum of 5 years.” However, Mr. Youkhama did not respond to questions about whether MnmlOS would be open source or whether the phone could support open source Android Open Source Project forks.

With respect to user privacy, Mr. Youkhama stated that “MnmlOS minimizes data collection, only gathering what’s essential for functionality” and not using data collection for advertising, but he did not offer additional statistics. He also stated that the phone’s pre-installed apps would be privacy-friendly, but he did not state which apps would be pre-installed or, I will add as an additional note, which pre-installed apps can be removed without having root privileges, if any. We may find some clues in the default apps in a section in one of Mr. Youkhama’s posts titled “Integrations Out of the Box” – but this raises some further questions. We see that the Minimal Phone will have four classes of pre-installed apps: Essential Communication Tools (e.g., calling, texting, and email), Selected Third-Party Apps ([i]ntegration of carefully selected apps like ride-sharing or navigation”), Productivity Features (e.g., calendars, notes, and basic task management), and Minimal Entertainment ([l]imited, non-distractive entertainment options focusing on relaxation and mindfulness, such as E-book reader or a simple music player”). It is unclear what he means by integrations here – will these all be default apps? With respect to the “selected third-party apps,” are they targeting specific apps to make sure that they will work or installing those apps by default? That would be an important question in the context of things like “ride-sharing and navigation,” which may not be useful to everyone (they would not be to me, for one) and may raise privacy concerns.

Returning to data collection, he promised “[c]lear, user-centric privacy policies that make it easy for users to understand how their data is handled” but did not offer further specification. One issue raised by a few commenters in the Hacker News thread on the privacy front concerned Google, in part because MnmlOS will be based on Android. The Reddit thread leaves some ambiguity. For example, one Reddit user asked whether Google Play Services will be installed by default or whether MnmlOS would be “de-Googled” out of the box. Mr. Youkhama did not answer the question directly, but instead replied that Google Play Store can be deleted. While Google Play Store depends on Google Play Services, it is entirely possible to have Google Play Services without using the store (I had that configuration on a cheap tablet). (Note: A subsequent report on Liliputing noted that the current fundraising page on Indiegogo does not include any reference to Google Play Store or Play Services.)

Shortly after these discussions, the phone project went live on Indiegogo where users can back the phone, which is expected to retail for $425 and has an ambitious target shipping date of August 2024 (early backers can reserve one for $325 while spots last). You can see the page as it appeared on March 1, 2024 here. The Indiegogo page includes additional information on the phone’s specs. It will use an MTK 6769 CPU and have 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of onboard storage. Interestingly, the phone will have a camera, albeit I doubt that an e-ink phone is going to be anyone’s go-to camera device. It promises support for AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon.

Differences Between Minimal Phone’s Focus and My 2023 Post

The Minimal Phone’s physical design is very much in line with what I want to see. Last year, I described what would essentially be a BlackBerry style phone with a color e-ink display. The Minimal Phone has a grayscale e-ink display (that is acceptable) with a physical keyboard. The keyboard falls a bit short of the one on my former BlackBerry Classic in that it lacks a trackpad, but all-in-all it is over the target (note that the trackpad would probably be less useful on an e-ink device than on my old BlackBerry). However, in terms of the internals and its points of emphasis – as described by Mr. Youkhama – it is not quite in line with what I described last year.

To begin, I stated as a requirement that I would want my ideal phone to have an open source operating system. My BlackBerry Classic failed that requirement, running the highly locked down BlackBerry 10 which, like MnmlOS, was based on Android. But to be fair to me – I had been using that BlackBerry Classic for years before I even knew what open source was. While we lack details about MnmlOS, one can read between the lines in seeing some specific questions that Mr. Youkhama declined to answer and infer that it will be closed source.

One may also question the decision to use an Android fork here given that Android is certainly not designed for e-ink devices. I am personally agnostic on the amenability of Android to the task. I know that there are Chinese e-ink phones and tablets (some of the tablets are available in the United States, but the phones are not) that use Android and PocketBook, which makes my two primary e-readers, is beginning to release Android-powered e-readers over its own proprietary Linux operating system. In theory, I would be happy to try an e-ink phone or tablet that runs LineageOS or a similar Android Open Source Project fork (I run LineageOS on two phones and a tablet and I previously used a phone running /e/ OS, which is a fork of LineageOS, on my daily driver phone). To the best of my knowledge, LineageOS does not, at the moment, officially support any e-ink devices – so I will venture there are probably some significant hurdles even if there was sufficient community interest. I already use my phone without Google Play Store or Services, and I rely only on open source apps with no issue,. So I am reasonably confident that I have an idea of the uses I would make of an e-ink phone or tablet that can run Android apps, assuming arguendo that my essential apps are supported. I did note in my phone article that I would ideally want to use a mainline Linux-based operating system, but given the amount of work that this would require to build (for highly uncertain economic gain) and the fact that Android and Google Play Services are deal breakers for most people, I see no issue in relying on Android, although in the context of a phone I would prefer an open source flavor.

Beyond some ambiguity about MnmlOS and the phone’s real-world privacy-friendliness, some aspects of how it is being marketed do not appeal to me. Back in 2021 I wrote an article on the productivity industry. One of my points of annoyance highlighted in the article was the idea that the way to avoid distractions is to distract from the distractions. Let us use social media as an example. I have heard through the grapevine that many people find themselves mindlessly scrolling Instagram, Reddit, X, or the like. In my productivity essay, I addressed suggestions along the lines of encouraging people to curtail their social media usage by erecting barriers between them and launching the app. I think this is the wrong approach. The right approach is to replace the bad with the good. For example, social media addicts may do better following my advice to curate a feed collection and to combine that with a read-it-later solution that would replace an endless stream of bad content with carefully selected good sources of online writing and media. That of course is a single example that may not work for everyone – my point is the general idea underlying it, that it is better to replace unhealthy computer behaviors with good things instead of trying to curtail usage with gimmicks.

While it may well be unintended, The Minimal Phone’s description on Reddit touts it as a tool for avoiding vices associated with modern smartphones. For example, its marketing materials, as quoted by Mr. Youkhama in the Reddit thread, tout it as a tool to “avoid[] digital overload” while still providing some access to “essential apps.” It further claims that it as being developed by a “community focused on digital well-being.” Finally, Mr. Youkhama stated that is “for those who want to declutter their digital life.”

This is all well and good – but speaking only for me, I approach my idea of the ideal phone from a different perspective. While I think that phone addiction is a real thing and I cannot help but snicker when I see grown men and women zigzagging on the sidewalk while they scroll on their phones or shake my head sadly when I see parents give their young children (sometimes toddlers!) phones as a sort of digital pacifier, maintaining a decluttered digital life is not something I struggle with. I only use my phone outdoors to take photographs that sometimes appear in these humble pages or when it is necessary to coordinate meeting up with someone while outside. My primary phone use case is reading RSS/ATOM feeds, which I only do at home. As I noted in December, I exclusively use open source apps on my phone and the vast majority of my phone usage is centered on Handy Reading and Omnivore. (Thanks to Syncthing, I manage my phone’s media from my desktop computer.) One could say that I succeeded in “decluttering” my phone by installing a custom ROM, using an entirely search-based launcher, and choosing a limited selection of apps to achieve specific ends.

This is all to say that my desire for an e-ink phone with a QWERTY keyboard has little to nothing to do with some vague goal of protecting myself from the vices associated with phone addiction. I am largely satisfied with my LineageOS-powered phone and open source app collection. My main complaint is that I just hate typing on touchscreens, hence my desire for a QWERTY keyboard on a phone that otherwise checks my boxes. As for e-ink, I do not view it as a way to reduce distractions. I simply prefer reading off e-ink screens to reading off the typical phone displays. I do not want an e-ink/QWERTY phone to strip away things from my current set up but instead because I think if it is done well – with a good open source operating system that specifically targets the hardware – it would be better for my reading-centric phone usage than what I have now (as for the keyboard, it would certainly be better for typing…).

I will go a step forward and opine that trying to make a minimal phone for the purpose of reducing distractions with an e-ink display is probably misguided given how much e-ink displays still cost (except the big e-book players who can sell hardware at a loss and make it up with digital media sales). While I have not personally tried – I am sure it is possible to make a fairly boring looking phone using built-in tools on any Android-derived operating system. To be sure, current e-ink displays probably make a good number of apps unusable or at a minimum unpleasant, but if that is the only thing standing between someone and installing a nefarious app, his or her problems are unlikely to be fully solved by a low-functioning phone.

(Note: I have seen the argument that reducing swiping and endless scrolling may help some people use their phones more healthily – both things that would be true on an e-ink device.)

With that being said, this is only my personal perspective based on my own use-cases. I know that there is some market out there for e-ink-style phones precisely because they strip away distractions that some people may struggle with. While I do not think that is the best way to fight distractions, I am also not wandering into traffic while watching TikTok or Instagram, so whatever works in those cases, go for it. I will also grant before moving to the next section that The Minimal Phone does appear to be trying to strike more of a balance between functionality and stripping away distractions than are some similar projects (Mr. Youkhama references the Mudita Light Phone, which also uses an e-ink display and boasts less functionality than what he promises for his project) in that Minimal Phone seeks to be compatible with a significant number of proprietary Android apps.

The Essential Functionality of My Ideal Phone (or Tablet)

Reading about this new Minimal Phone made me think more deeply about what my ideal phone would be able to do. While I referenced the operating system in my February 2023 post, I focused much more on hardware than software. Here, I will describe some specific use-cases and tools that I would want on my ideal phone.

  • QWERTY keyboard (this is the most important part of my ideal phone – far more important than the display)
    • I would want the keyboard to come with a trackpad if the phone does not use an e-ink display
  • E-ink display (color would be preferred but grayscale is acceptable)
  • Official open source operating system support
    • For example, if it is Android-based, I would want the device to be specifically supported by LineageOS, Murena, DivestOS, or the like. One reason I would not consider the Unihertz Titan, a BlackBerry-style Android phone, is because the only LineageOS builds for it are unofficial. While I am sure these developers are doing great work, I would prefer my daily driver phone have mainline project support.
    • Mainline Linux preferred, but Android Open Source Project-based is fine so long as it works. As I noted, I have no major issues with LineageOS other than that some of the swipe gestures in Android 13/14 are infuriating.
  • The most important apps to me are Syncthing and a feed reader. The feed reader would have to be optimized for e-ink displays on an e-ink phone (I do not think my current LineageOS choice of Handy Reading would be a great fit). On an e-ink device, I would want the excellent KoReader, and I doubt that would be an issue since it supports both Android and Linux (not to mention PocketBooks).
  • I use my phone to generate 2FA codes with Aegis Authenticator. My impression from reading The Minimal Phone discussion is that this would be no issue for it. That would continue to be something I would want on my ideal phone, whether with Aegis Authenticator or an open source equivalent.

However, lest one thinks I am fixated on phones – my ideal phone could be split into more than one device. For example, if I had a comparable LineageOS-or-similar tablet to my two LineageOS phones, I may well use that as my feed reader instead of my phone (my 2013 Google Nexus 7 tablet works decently well but the performance difference is such that I prefer my Pixel 3a XL as a feed reader). While I will not compromise on a real LineageOS/Ubuntu Touch-or-similar phone with a QWERTY keyboard for ideal phone purposes, I am open to compromising on the e-ink part if we could get an e-ink tablet with the kinds of feed reader and web browsing functionality I am looking for (KoReader’s and PocketBook’s native RSS solutions are not quite what I am looking for). There are many Android tablets out there and it would be great to see one supported by LineageOS or the like (especially given some of the dubious privacy practices of the current crop). But even without a tablet that checks all the boxes, a QWERTY non-e-ink phone with a good free operating system that I could rely on would go a long way .