Zilta rethinks the Android smartphone with focus on usability

June 3, 2014
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Android is a platform known for its flexibility and customizability. But while many would prefer to have their choice of user interfaces and applications, some would rather focus on key functionalities, such as being able to call, text, email and browse the web.

These majorĀ functionalities are sometimesĀ buried within layers of apps and UI add-ons, and smartphones tend to have a higher learning curve than, say, feature phones. When accessibility is key, it should not take a user dozens of taps just to access an oft-used feature.

This is the ethos of Zilta, an Irish startup that is focusing on re-designing the Android user experience from ground up. Initially launched as a launcher replacement on theĀ Google Play Store, the creators are now focusing on hardware, essentially re-building the smartphone with usability in mind.

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While the app and smartphone were initially targeted at the over-55 demographic, the deviceĀ should appeal to anyone who wants a simple smartphone that does the basics, but can still be smart when you want it to.

But wouldn’t it be possible to just install an app over just any other smartphone? It’s not that simple, says Lari Numminen, co-founder and CEO at Zilta. In an interview with Android Authority, he shares that the company has tried a variety of options, including flagship devices and entry-level devices. The results are mixed — theĀ user experienceĀ suffers in entry-levelĀ devices, while flagship devices might be too power-hungry for even the simplest tasks, not to mention that they’re expensive.

This is why Zilta has decided to re-design its own smartphone from scratch. Retailing at EUR 139, the Zilta phone is set to be released by December 2014. Why December? Why an inexpensive price in the first place?Ā Here are excerpts from our interview with Numminen.

Zilta screenshots

Why build a smartphone from scratch? Why not just focus on the app?

Older people don’t buy apps, they buy phones.

Last summer we started building an Android launcher for seniors inspired by our own parents and grandparents. We got some good early traction and encouragement, but two things stood out when we talked to potential customers:

  1. Everyone we talked to in our target demographic didn’t go to Google Play to try out new apps. They buy phones with apps pre-installed.
  2. Many of the people who were using our app simply had the wrong hardware. Either they were way too complex top-of-the-range devices or they had some critical flaws, like having too little RAM memory for basic smartphone operations. We couldn’t find a sensibly priced phone to recommend.

We thus came to the conclusion that there would be a big opportunity in designing and branding custom hardware.

Are you using a reference design from another company, brand or ODM, or is the Zilta smartphone your very own design?

We’re using an ODM from China through a local agent. In practice, we get to pre-load Zilta into a good-value smartphone with a proven track record, safety checks, etc. We initially looked to source ourselves, but it really is important to work with someone who has experience and contacts on the ground in Shenzhen.

The white phone design itself is fairly neutral, but what is more important to us is that we picked the right gear inside. The MediaTek chipsetĀ  is both lower cost and battery efficient. 1GB RAM should be sufficient for our needs and we don’t really need more than 5MP camera or a super-high-spec GPU.

A bigger screen was one of the top requests from potential customers, but then it really goes down to basics like FM radio, longer battery life and so on.

What are your criteria for designing or building the Zilta smartphone?

Android 4.4. isĀ the future of lower cost devices.

Our most important criteria for this phone is that it works well on Android 4.4. We think KitKat is particularly well suited for lower cost devices, and while it was somewhat difficult to find devices running the latest Android, we think this will future-proof us for our launch in December.

In our interface design we’ve also shifted to using elements only available in KitKat 4.4. For example: a heavier reliance on voice search, so you simply couldn’t download and run our Zilta UI on most other phones available today.

Why focus on the elderly? How about other demographics?

There are already some “smartphones for seniors” made by more established players like Doro and GreatCall/Jitterbug Touch. These phones typically target an older audience, often with big physical buttons and limited functionality.

We have found our simpler smartphone actually attracts a younger audience. So far we’ve had most interest from 55-64 year olds, so we’re not specifically a smartphone for the elderly. While we have had some anecdotal interest from younger demographics, we’re not planning to branch out to designing a phone for kids etc.Ā 

In fact, what we’ve discovered over time is that tech savviness isn’t tied in to generations. Some 90 year olds can be active on Twitter while some twenty-thirty-year olds can be almost completely tech-illiterate. We want to focus on first time smartphone buyers or those who look for a simpler option.

What is the feedback so far, regarding your app or about initial/prototype devices?

We’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback on both the app and the phone from early testers. While some said the unbranded test device looked a bit like a Samsung, most were surprised mostly by the price. We offer pre-orders at just 139 Euros, which is still exceptionally low for these specs in Europe and the final product will have our own branding.

Why December 2014? Isn’t there an opportunity cost in not releasing a device into the market earlier?

We’re releasing pre-orders for delivery in December 2014 now a bit like a crowd-funding campaign while we polish off some of the visual elements. We’re a relatively small team, so we need to give ourselves time to get the first orders right. After an encouraging start it looks like we are on track to bring the phones to market well before Christmas and in the longer term we’re looking for supply chain and distribution partners to help us scale up over time internationally.

Check out the Zilta phone in action:

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