This $350 ‘anti-smartphone’ is designed to keep you from getting distracted — here’s how it works

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A design mockup of the Siempo.
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Siempo

Siempo is a young startup that thinks the modern smartphone has gained too much control over our everyday lives.

To help, the Oakland, California-based operation built a phone of its own, one it believes will help you live more in-the-moment without totally shutting out the essential information you might need to get through a given day.

That phone, also called Siempo, launched on Kickstarter on Tuesday. Though it’s certainly getting at a noble idea, there are questions to be had over how effective or viable its approach is. Let’s take a closer look:


On paper, the Siempo won’t be an imposing device.

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Siempo

The design pictured here is only a mockup, but Siempo says the finished product will include a 4-inch display (described as “iPhone 5 quality”), a low-power processor, and 8GB of storage. There’s an unspecified “high-resolution” camera on the back, with no counterpart on the front. And while it does use 4G LTE, it’ll only work with GSM networks like those from AT&T and T-Mobile, like most phones sold unlocked.

Aside from its USB-C port, much of what’s here is fairly dated. Siempo is selling the device on Kickstarter for as low as $279, and plans for it to retail at $349 – for less than $250, something like the Moto G5 should outpace it across the board. We’ll have to test the device to be sure, but it seems reasonable to expect a phone that’s usable, but not terribly powerful.


Impressive specs aren’t really the point, though. The Siempo wants to sell you on its software, which runs an drastically stripped-down take on the open-source version of Android. The idea is for it to be simple, but not so dumb as to be limited.

Everything is run through a lone “intentions” bar on the home screen, which gets you to all of the phone’s features but is designed to keep you from multitasking. If you want to send a text, for instance, you type your contact’s name into the field, then write and send the message from there. If you want to set a reminder, you just start typing it in the same place.


Notably, there’s no app store. You can’t download Instagram, Twitter, or any other thing that could potentially steal your attention away from your physical reality. At the same time, there’s no place to download any other third-party service that may be more helpful than distracting. (Spotify, let’s say.) It’s all locked-down.

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Siempo

That said, Siempo says it plans to “expand [the phone’s] capabilities and open up to third-party experiences,” so long as they fit into the company’s anti-attention approach. The startup says you’ll be able to jot down thoughts in Evernote, for one.


Instead, Siempo says the phone will stick to the essentials. You can text (only using SMS in the US), make calls, use a “restrained” email client or web browser (though how exactly those’ll work isn’t yet clear), follow Google Maps, check Google Calendar, take photos, set an alarm, and so on. But that’s about it — the point is to be a modern phone, but one you wouldn’t use for more than a few seconds at a time.


Beyond that, Siempo has a few other features aimed at keeping the phone from buzzing.

Those include:

• A dedicated button on the side of the device that can “pause” all notifications for a select period of time. (Though you can still let some contacts through.) • A “tempo” option lets you only receive batches of notifications in certain intervals. • A “snooze” option does just that for certain notifications. • A “mindful morning” feature lets you block off specific time for working out, reading, or meditating.

All of these are things you could do with a standard smartphone as it is, though they do at least fit in with what Siempo is going for.


Siempo says it wants to start production of the phone in later this year, ship to its backers by December, then make it available at retail by January 2018.

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Siempo

This is where we note the usual caveats that come with trusting Kickstarter projects from young startups. Siempo says it’s working with established groups to help get it through the supply chain process, but time will tell if it’s able to get through things without running into delays or manufacturing issues.


All told, Siempo is trying to walk a very fine line here.

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Siempo

Those who really hate the attention suck of a smartphone could ostensibly buy a feature phone like the Nokia 3310. But Siempo thinks there’s enough value in a smartphone to just do away with modern software altogether. This makes sense: Getting around a dumbphone isn’t exactly pleasant, and an OS like Android makes it easier to keep your calendar dates or photo album in line via the cloud.

The question is if people buy into the idea that (1) smartphones really do harm their ability to take in the world (or, at least, are more “harmful” than “entertaining”), and (2) that they don’t have the willpower to keep their noses out of their notifications, and thus need a phone that is designed to preempt most apps altogether. People could always just delete Twitter or use their “do not disturb” settings, after all. And none of this helps those with jobs that effectively force them to stay glued to their screens.

Smartphones are here to stay, but as seen with the Light Phone, this concept of wanting to detach from your phone has resonated with some in the past. Whether or not people want to pay $350 for Siempo’s approach remains to be seen. As of this writing, the phone has raised less than $40,000 of its massive $500,000 goal in about a day of crowdsourcing.