Last week, San Francisco based Nextbit launched its flagship smartphone ‘Robin’ in India. Priced at INR 19999, the phone was available for pre-order on Flipkart. The smartphone brings in an unique cloud-based smart storage feature. This Feature enables Robin to free up space by backing up apps and photos to the cloud ahead of time. The smart storage feature combines 32 GB local storage and 100 GB cloud storage.
Today, we chat with Shankar Parasaram, the head of India operations at Nextbit to know more about the company and their plans in India.
Hello Shankar. Thanks for taking time to talk with us. Good to see you in Bangalore. Could you give us an introduction about you and your background?
Basically, I am from Chennai, I did my masters from IISc Bangalore, that was way back 1993-1997. Then I worked for a year in Bangalore for Digital Equipment Corporation where we were making all the UNIX servers, then I moved to Chennai and worked at HCL for few years and then, I went to the US, worked there for a few companies; later, I joined QualComm in early 2004 at San Diego.
While I was at Qualcomm, I was initially working in the audio team; and then I did some work on the graphics side. I moved to Android, where I managed android software on snapdragon chipsets. I then started managing the Android OS transitions from Kitkat to Lollipop and Lillipop to MarshMallow. I led the worldwide team for QualComm. There were teams in San Diego and Hyderabad. That is what, I was doing recently.
I have done a lot of work with Qualcomm in Hyderabad – established a few teams, in 2005 when they started here. I used to manage them from the US. Work used to involve a lot of early morning-late night calls and traveling. Later, I joined Nextbit in September last year.
Thats an interesting journey. Can you share the story of Nextbit with us? About the company and how did it shape up?
Nextbit was founded by Tom Moss and Mike Chan. Tom is the business guy; Earlier, he was the business development lead for Android at Google and established all the business relationships. For a while he was also leading and managing the Google team in Japan. Mike Chan is the CTO. Mike worked in the android engineering team at Google, where he had done lot of work on power management.
After the initital days, Tom and Mike quit Google and started a company called 3LM – They were doing some sort of corporate security stuff on Android something similar to the “Android for work”. Motorola bought 3LM, and Google bought Motorola and they were back at Google. They felt that, they enjoyed work more in small companies than in bigger ones. By the time they came back to Google, the company was way bigger than how they left.
So they left Google again and started Nextbit. The initital goal of Nextbit was to advance Android OS. So they were doing a lot of development work, and making it easy for people to migrate from one android phone to another. One cool feature is Baton which is still available on PlayStore. The way it works is that, say, you have an Android Phone and a tablet. You’re playing a game on the phone, you should be able to migrate the game from the phone to the tablet without losing any of the context. So with a few gestures, you can move the game to the tablet and continue playing on the tablet. They also had few solutions to solve the storage challenges which was there in Android then, and some of them got licensed to the OEMs.
Probably, around end of 2014, they thought it would be better to have their own device,as that gives them the control; also helps them towards the goal of advancing android experience. Otherwise, you are always dependent on the OEM; you can develop whatever you want, but then you have to license it to the OEM and then the OEM has to use it without destroying the underlying idea behind the things. That was a challenge. Having their own device would make it easy for them to innovate on the OS side. And at the same time they, roped in Scott Croyle.
Scott is currently our Chief Product officer. Previously, he was a senior VP at HTC and he led the design aspects of HTC one M7 and M8. He is well known in the phone design world. He is the one that pioneered the Metal unibody design at HTC which is now being used by pretty much every OEM right now. At HTC, Scott was also leading the visual design aspects for the HTC Sense UI. He is an industry design professional, but he was also leading the visual design.
And in addition to innovating on the OS, the other thought process they had was to change how the phone looks. If you look at the Android phones in the market today, every phone pretty much looks similar. There is nothing great that differentiates one phone from another. You have a phone in your hand, the other person can guess it to be probably a Motorola or a Samsung, or a OnePlus etc. They all look very similar. You can’t pin point and identify a phone and say, that’s a Motorola. Even if you take an iPhone, many other phones look like an iPhone now. There wasn’t much innovation happening on the design side of devices. People were taking a very tried and tested approach to design. So they wanted to create a phone that stands out, that is bold, has a fresh look design and solves some real world problems of phones running out of space. That’s how it all started and yeah, we have the Robin now.
Btw, Why the name Robin?
We had an internal code word for the phone. But then at some point, we had to start the marketing aspects of the phone and were looking for names. We wanted the phone to have a close to human name. A name that people can relate to. Not some random numbers or Sci-Fi names. We wanted something that has a life to it. A name that is easily pronounceable, people shouldn’t mispronounce it and if that gives a different meaning it is still a problem. Also, the name should be close to be gender neutral as possible. Thinking about all these constraints, the suggestion of Robin came up. It fitted all the criteria. You can take it as a bird or a person; this brings life to it. And in every geography, people would pronounce it similar.
What got your interest in NextBit? How did the move happen? Considering that you were working for a real big company.
That’s little bit interesting. Around June last year, I felt that, I have been in QualComm for a long time and I should start looking out. Qualcomm is a great company, it gives you lot of stability and even in the industry, it is still a king in the space of mobile processors. At the same time, things were getting a little boring for me. Being a big company, there are only few things that you could do. If you want to do something out of the box, you don’t have much options. I felt that, I should probably join a startup. Because, if I want to go for a big company, then there is no reason why I should leave Qualcomm. Its probably as good as it can get in any big company.
I started doing research, and somehow I stumbled upon Tom’s name in LinkedIn. That’s when I looked at his company – they were doing something in the android space, I felt good because I had something in Android. At that time, they hadn’t published on the website that, they were making a phone. They were working on the Android software stuffs like I described earlier. It sounded interesting and then I felt, there is a company which is doing some innovation in the android space, and probably that’s something I can contribute to. Later, I reached out to the company through a mutual friend, and then I got into a phone interview. They were very interested in my profile, they found it fitting because they were looking at someone to look at the Snapdragon and Android aspects.
So Mike was the android expert, he was spearheading all the innovation in the company. It was difficult for him to manage the product innovation and also look at the other aspects of smartphone development like understanding how Qualcomm works and with Foxcomm being our ODM, managing all that was getting difficult to Mike. So he was really looking for someone, who could help in managing all aspects of phone software, Foxconn and other 3rd party relationships that we have. So they found me to fit the bill really well.
At that time, they also had a challenge. They had started the development for Lollipop, and they knew that, they had to migrate to Marshmallow. I had managed the OS migration at Qualcomm as well, so that aspect also helped in being a right fit. So only in the first phone interview, I got to know that, NextBit were indeed looking at making a phone. I was very surprised that, with so many OEMs around, how does this small company have the guts to make a phone. But I had just started with my job search, I thought let’s go through the process and then see how it is.
I had a phone interview with Scott and Mike. Post that, they called me for an onsite interview at San Francisco. Scott spoke to me, He had a neat white box with some phone mock-ups in it. He wanted to show me the mock-ups but he was teasing around and talking about other stuff. I wasn’t paying any attention to what he was saying. I was just curious to see, how the phone looks. I was thinking, If the phone looks like any other phone in the market, I am out of here. He finally opened up the box and showed me the phone. Coincidentally, I was wearing a shirt of the same color that day. The phone impressed me. I don’t really like curved edge phones. That’s been my preference. Even when I wanted to buy a car, I was quite clear to buy something that has a nice sharp design. When I saw the phone, I really liked it. Even if the edges were sharp, it was comfortable to hold it in the hand. It doesn’t hurt because of the softness to it. I liked it and felt, this is something I should try.
It’s little bit difficult to switch to a small company, coming from a big one, but I felt that, its now or never. If I don’t take the plunge into a startup company now, I would probably never do it. For me the biggest challenge was travelling from San Diego to San Francisco as my family is still in San Diego. Other than that, there is lot for me to do here, and way more than what I could’ve imagined. I am getting my hands into any technology that gets into the phone. Talking to partners, signing agreements, India Launch – the last 9 months have been the best in my career so far in terms of learning. Its been a real fun ride for me except for the fact that, I stay a lot away from my family these days. They are still in the US. A lot needs to happen before I move them here to India. Taking one step at a time.
I have a problem with the Android Device market today. They are primarily specs driven. Every company just places the tech spec card and a budget price to gain attention. What’s your thought on this? Do you think the timing was right for Robin in India?
I think the main problem is lack of choices. There are no real choices that differentiates in other aspects of the phone. People naturally gravitate towards spec oriented buy. For example, in Robin, the looks really standout. When that attracts people, the spec becomes secondary. So we need to create a differentiating factor outside of the specs.
At Robin, we don’t differentiate with other phones saying that phone has a 2GB RAM and we come with a 3GB one. We don’t speak about that. We emphasise about how our phone looks different, and how it is more beautiful and elegant. And when these kind of differentiating factors come out, the perspectives changes. There is a good enough hunger in the market, and there is a good enough market segment that values other things than specs. I think, people will start paying attention. Because, people are bored with what is there in market today – “Why this, why not that. If all are same, that has an extra GB of RAM, I will take that“. That will change when more options come out.
You definitely need to have good specs. If you don’t do that, no matter what experience you build it, its not going to show up. But you don’t have to micro-compare yourself with other’s specs, show your innovation. Even spec-wise, the 808 is a good processor. Even though we talk about Cloud, the phone still has a 32GB of onboard storage. 3 GB of RAM, 13MP/5MP camera, 5.2’ inch LCD, USB Type C, Finger print Sensor and dual front speakers. Of-course, 808 can’t compete with 820. It isn’t an old phone. I don’t think, we are late for this processor.
I like the design on your phone. To be honest, I even found the touch very impressive. Almost close to what an iPhone gives.
Thank you for the feedback. I am proud about that comparison. Apple creates incredible quality products. If you benchmark our phone with iPhone, its good in a way!
There has been a lot of reports online about Robin being a cloud phone; and with Bandwidth Speeds like what we have in India, would Cloud Storage be an ideal option that would encourage an user to go and buy a robin? What’s your take on this?
First of all, it’s a big misconception. We are looking at people like you to kind of help us dispel this wrong notion. To begin with Cloud (smart) Storage is completely optional. Like I said, the phone is a fully spec’ed phone – even if you don’t sign into the cloud storage, its as good as any other phone in the market.
The second aspect is that, the smart storage can be used completely on Wifi. There is no dependency on cellular bandwidth at all. Here is how it works – you buy the phone, you start using it normally; when you connect the phone to the wifi and power, it will start backing up your pictures and APKs on the cloud. The default configuration is that, the backup would run only when you are on Wifi and Power. As a user, you can configure it to not backup, backup only apps or pictures etc. Everything is configurable. If a user wants to backup using cellular data, he can still do that. So this backup happens from the day one.
6 months or 1 year down the lane, if you fill the phone with apps and pictures – the operating system will see that you’re running low on memory, and it would’ve also learnt about what apps pictures you haven’t used or seen in a while. Then when it needs to make a space for you, it will archive those applications and pictures that you have not used in the long time to the cloud. When the backup happens, it does on Wifi. Any application that is archived, will turn grey. A skeleton information is still maintained on the phone. Similarly, a lower resolution of a picture will be saved. You can still view it. When you pinch and zoom, it will start downloading the full sized image from the cloud. At that time of restore, you will have to be on a network. Its in your hands, you can choose to get that application via Mobile Data or Wifi.
For example, its like if you want to install an application, you are generally careful about it right? You may not install an application via Mobile Data all the times. You would choose either a home or an office Wifi Network to do so. Its pretty similar to it.
How is India in Nextbit’s Radar. What’s your plans? Where would the first office be?
We first need to sell phones, satisfy our customers and support them. We know that, we need to have an office here in India. It would mostly be Bangalore or Hyderabad. We don’t even have a legal entity here here. I am also in conversations with few customer support organizations for product support. That is a very important part of selling phones and we understand that. For the immediate time-frame, it would be a combination of online and email support. Flipkart will also provide phone support to begin with. We also have a community to help people when they have issues. We are certainly looking at walk-in customer support as well.
To give you an idea, we may be looking at some roles like Engineering support, Community Management, Social Media etc. But that’s two steps away. Our first priority is to get a legal entity here.
How has the registrations on Flipkart been so far? Can you share any details on the sales?
The initial demand was beyond our expectation and all the phones were sold out. The pre-order started last Thursday and ran out of stock. We are expecting the next batch to come in within a week. I am sorry, I can’t disclose the numbers at this moment.
Alright Shankar, It’s was great talking to you. All the very best for Nexbit in India. Hope to see you guys explore and innovate to make Android device market a better place.
Thanks Vijay, we are definitely working towards it. It was nice talking to you. Will look forward to read your review.