The High Cost of Carrier Certification Is Killing Unique Smartphones

A version of the Nextbit Robin for Verizon and Sprint is no longer in development.

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Mar 17 2016, 6:04pm

Image: Evan Rodgers/Motherboard

San Francisco smartphone startup Nexbit broke a lot of hearts today.

The company on Thursday cancelled the planned CDMA version of its Robin smartphone, which in the US would have been compatible with Verizon Wireless and Sprint. Nextbit blamed unexpectedly high costs and repeated delays in the carrier certification process, a series of tests that carriers put hardware manufacturers through to ensure that their devices function properly on the network. (Verizon last month invited Motherboard to its device testing lab in New Jersey to see some of the tests it subjects smartphones to before they're allowed on the network.)

"What people at the carriers, in good faith given our need for quick answers, thought would take 'weeks' has turned into 'months,'" Nextbit CEO Tom Moss wrote on the company's Kickstarter page. "What they thought would cost 'hundreds of thousands of dollars' has turned into 'millions.' And we're still not there."

People who had pre-ordered the CDMA version of the Robin are being offered a full refund, as well as a 25 percent off coupon for use in the Nextbit online store, which also sells charging cables and a delightful, $40 toy sheep.

The Robin, which Motherboard reviewed last month, automatically backs up select data, such as photos and apps, to the cloud in order to prevent the phone from running out of local storage space. Nextbit raised $1.3 million in a successful Kickstarter campaign for the smartphone.

In a mid-February conversation with Motherboard, Nextbit chief product and design officer Scott Croyle noted some of the difficulties that comes with working with the wireless carriers.

"Because the direct-to-consumer [model] is kinda growing pretty quickly, what you're having is the existing business model where you as a [manufacturer] sell to the carrier as opposed to us as people is fundamentally broken," Croyle said. "The cost to go through the carrier lab, the staff to man them… and at the end of the day, the consumer gets a bunch of bloatware."

One beneficiary of the cancellation may be T-Mobile, which in 2015 became the third-largest wireless carrier in the US in part because of the growth of the unlocked smartphone market. "Nextbit killing the CDMA version of the Robin is not a huge loss for Verizon on its own, but it is indicative of a strategic problem that Verizon and Sprint have overall: the unlocked portion of the market is growing, and the benefits are going to T-Mobile," Avi Greengart, research director of consumer platforms and devices at Current Analysis, told Motherboard. "Verizon cannot afford to provide any fuel to T-Mobile's subscriber growth, and Sprint needs all the help it can get."