The Johns Phone has clear buttons

The Dot is dial and bomb is 'hang up'

 

The Johns phone is billed as the simplest phone ever. It’s voice only – no text, ringtones or wallpapers. It’s low tech for 2001 let alone 2011.

And it treads on dangerous ground. Back in 1993 the Motorola Personal was a phone that was so simple and easy to use it didn’t have a screen. It got what was perhaps the worst review any phone has ever had in over 200 issues of What Mobile magazine. Who wrote that review is a closely guarded secret.

What marks the two out is that while the Motorola Personal was an attempt to drive price down and used simplicity as an excuse, the John’s Phone knows what it is about. Well, nearly.

If it’s really about being simple it fails. What it succeeds in is being an antidote to the device “formerly known as the cellphone” to quote a former genius of marketing at Motorola.

John’s phone is a fashion phone. Industrial designers will look at it and spot the Scandinavian design influence. It’s actually Dutch but has the same cool clean lines: crisp, sharp, minimal.

Twelve buttons, send and end, and that’s it. On the top is a one line display and on the side volume,  with sliders for the ringer (off, loud and very loud) and for power (on, keypad lock and off).

Johns phone side view shows sliders for power and ringer

While the number buttons are easy to press the side sliders are fiddly.

It comes in a Swatch-like variety of colours, all black, white, pink, green, brown and a bling gold. They look great but the gold is let down by the phone being so light, at 95g, because you expect something that looks like metal to be heavy.

The back of the phone houses the greatest innovation of the Johns Phone: the phonebook. This isn’t a metaphor:  a memory in the phone, but a paper phonebook you write in using a pen which slots into the phone. One teenager I showed it to looked at the Johns Phone said “I get it, I think it’s cool, but I don’t know what you use the stylus for”. It’s not a stylus, it’s a pen.

The Phonebook uses a pen and paper.

The Phonebook uses a pen and paper. Alexander Graham Bell would find that retro

There is a micro-usb charger, this is great as a style phone as pretty much every device uses it from an Android phone to a Kindle or Echo smartpen. It is however too fiddly for the older user. The international standard for phone chargers that settled on micro-usb does also have a secondary standard of a round pin connector – like that used on low end Nokias – and John’s Phone would have been better off using that. Still you don’t have to worry too much, battery life is awesome. Forget an iPhone’s daily charge and will-it-get-past-six-o’clock. This thing will go on for weeks.

The keypad is great, when you’ve been used to the dead feel of a touch screen it’s fantastic to return to something with good tactile feedback. There is a pleasant ding sound when you press the keys.  The buttons are very clearly labelled and the numbers easy to see, what works less well is that display is on the top so you can’t see what you are typing and the buttons at the same time.

The sliders however are fiddly. You need to pull them across with a fingernail and getting them to stop in the middle position isn’t easy enough. With the ringer this is a bit of a problem but with the on, lock, off slider it’s more serious. If you slide from off to on without pausing at lock the phone doesn’t switch on. You also need to use the lock a lot, because when you have the phone in your pocket you soon get tired of the dinging, however pleasant it might be.

There is a memory which adds speed dial to the number keys but this only has the number, as there is no way of entering names for callers, and storing a number is a combination of stars and hashes which is all a bit complicated when compared with the simplicity of writing stuff on paper. Speed dial also increases the chance of an in-pocket call and so is probably best avoided.

The Johns phone isn’t the simplest phone in the world, sometimes less isn’t simpler and a decent screen makes phones easy to use. Nor is it the ideal phone for older people, there is no hearing aid support and the call volume is nothing like loud enough.

What it is, is cool. With a touch of retro-chic and more than a bit different. It might be a very cool thing to have in addition to an iPad, leaving the tablet for everything non-voice and the John’s as a voice device.

I don’t think it’s right for me but I don’t hate it in the way I did the Motorola Personal when I reviewed that. Oops.

 

Simon Rockman