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Phones

Palm's head-scratching tiny phone may find a niche with kids

It’s not just for Verizon Wireless anymore; the company now will sell an unlocked version on its site.

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Palm's tiny phone has become popular with kids, as well as athletes and minimalists.

Angela Lang/CNET

The diminutive, glossy black, rectangular design of the Palm phone looks like a shrunken iPhone circa 2016. It evokes descriptions like "cute" and "adorable," but also questions like "Who is this for?" and "Why does this exist?" Starting this week, even more people will be able to find out.

The Palm is now getting new life with the ability to work on more cellular networks -- and it's targeting a new market: kids.

The $350 Palm smartphone debuted in November as a companion device that can handle calls and texts, plus a few other tasks -- but only as an accessory to another Verizon phone. That distinction spurred countless jokes that the Palm was a phone for your phone. In April, Palm released a new version that's capable of serving as a standalone Android phone.

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Now, seven months after the Palm hit the market, the company's gearing up for the device's next phase -- an unlocked, standalone phone that works on most carriers' networks in the US, including AT&T, T-Mobile and MetroPCS. You no longer have to be a Verizon customer to buy and use the phone. Notably, the unlocked 4G phone won't work on Sprint or other CDMA networks.

"The No. 1 request we get is, when is it coming to X carrier?" Palm co-founder Dennis Miloseski said in an interview.

Palm may draw ridicule and leave some scratching their heads, but its key message is one resonating around the tech world. It comes at a time when we're examining our reliance on phones, with parents increasingly questioning how much time their kids are spending in front of screens. Apple last year introduced its Screen Time feature to monitor iPhone usage after two of its major shareholders published an open letter in January 2018 that asked it to take a socially responsible approach toward children's device use amid concerns about mental health and other problems.

"The timing was right with the focus on detoxing," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said.

Of course, Palm's way of getting you to spend less time on your device involves selling you another device.

"We were designing addiction for the longest time," Miloseski said. He and fellow Palm founder Howard Nuk worked at Samsung until late 2016 and designed products there such as the Gear Fit wearable, Galaxy View tablet and even the new Galaxy Buds earbuds.

"Now we're a bit older, a bit grayer, so let's do some good," he said.

Disconnecting

The little Palm phone was designed "to act as a lightweight substitute when you're at the gym, at a club or spending time with your family," as CNET's Roger Cheng noted. It's almost a cross between a smartphone and a smartwatch. While Palm argues it packs more features than a smartwatch, not everyone is pleased with the experience.

Some reviewers have described the process of using the phone as frustrating, and its battery life and camera have been criticized. But what it's good at -- and what it was built for -- is helping you stay connected when you largely want to ignore the outside world.

The challenge: People typically don't want to spend $350 to reach for their main phones less often. "It really feels like a first-world problem and solution," Milanesi said.

The new unlocked model can only be bought online directly from Palm.com. Verizon still has an exclusive deal for in-store purchases, so the carrier isn't dropping its support.

"Nothing is changing with Verizon," Miloseski said. Verizon, for its part, said, "We have a great partnership with Palm, and we're proud of the innovative new smartphone that we helped bring to market."

Palm's co-founders declined to say how many units they've sold since launch, but Nuk noted that the phone is "doing great." About half of Palm's buyers are iPhone users, even though the device runs Google's Android software.

What the company has found during the Palm's seven months on the market is that it's popular with athletes on the go and with "minimalists," people who don't want a large-screen phone that does everything. But it also became a big hit with kids, something the co-founders hadn't expected.

"Kids is a segment that surprised us," Miloseski said. "There's been so much traction for parents and feedback from parents."

Family friendly

The initial appeal for kids with the Palm is the size, Nuk said. Unlike bigger smartphones that are tough for even some adults to hold, the Palm looks like it's custom-made for tiny hands.

But beyond the size, Palm's co-founders see their device as a good starter phone for kids to learn how to be responsible with technology. By design, the Palm runs a limited number of apps, and parents can lock down what their kids do on the device. The tiny screen doesn't encourage people to spend time on YouTube or play Minecraft. Instead, it's more of a communication device than a media consumption device.

The company has partnered with parental control app Bark.US to educate schools and parents about technology (the service monitors social media accounts for anything alarming), and the Palm is a preferred device for Verizon's new Just Kids plan. It also works with Google's Family Link app for parents to supervise and set limits on child phone usage.

"We call Palm a device for minimalists," Miloseski said, "but it makes a lot of sense for kids."

Next up for Palm is figuring out how to balance the need for some users to have the device as a companion and others to use it as their primary phone. "As a daily driver, it needs to do a few more things," Miloseski said. "As a companion, it needs to maintain mobility, keeping a similar footprint."

The company "is not on a fixed schedule" to introduce a second device, but it has new hardware in the works. Camera and battery life remain key focuses, the co-founders said, as does maintaining their initial impetus: helping people look up from their screens more often.

"We are working on other devices," Nuk said. "We do believe small is the future. Voice is the future."