LAS VEGAS—We're going to see a lot of weird phones at CES this year. Just you wait. The weirdest phone so far, though, is from some folks who are smart enough to know that they probably shouldn't be making a phone.
The Graalphone is the brainchild of Raoul Parienti, a French serial entrepreneur with more than 100 patents. He invented an electric car-sharing scheme used in France, the NFC card that Parisian suburbanites use to pay their train fares, and a bunch of other things.
The Graalphone is a very small, touch-screen Android smartphone that slides into a "sleeve" with a 7-inch glasses-free 3D screen. The screen on the sleeve in turn slides up to reveal a full hardware keyboard. The tiny phone would have a Qualcomm processor, while the sleeve would have an Intel Atom and be able to run Windows 10. The two parts would share storage and connectivity.
The phone itself has a camera; slide it into the sleeve and you get a second camera with a Xenon flash and 5x optical zoom, and the two cameras can then combine to make a 3D camera.
The mockup that they have right now is loose and nonfunctional. Nothing turns on, the screen is floppy, and the keyboard is mushy. Mostly, it exists to show off the form factory and the modularity idea. If the little smartphone component is really as small as it looks in the mockup, it'll be the smallest, sleekest thing available. But considering that Graalphone said it wants to pack in a 3000mAh battery, I can't see how that would work in the tiny form factor it has proposed. The chunky ultra-mobile-PC-like tablet fits into a jacket pocket; it's about the thickness of a paperback book.
Graalphone's website makes it look like this is a done deal and it's coming in late 2017, but as I talked to Parienti, I realized it's more of a starting point for negotiation. When I mentioned that Microsoft will be able to run Windows 10 on Qualcomm 835 processors, for instance, he was willing to consider tossing out the Atom. The same goes for all the specs: the 4GB of RAM, 256GB of storage, everything. The Graalphone is less about the details than the idea behind it.
You see, Parienti said they're not trying to manufacture this themselves. They're trying to sell the idea to a big phone maker, which would take this most recent iteration of the modular phone concept and pull it forward, the way Google partnered with Phonebloks for the Project Ara modular phone idea.
I'm skeptical about the Graalphone's appeal because I've seen how a lot of its component ideas have failed in the past. There was a fad for autostereoscopic 3D screens and 3D cameras on phones in 2011-2012, with devices like the LG Thrill 4G and HTC Evo 3D. They foundered, like 3D TVs did, on poor viewability and a lack of compatible content.
Similarly, we've seen this PC form factor before, as far back as the OQO and the ultra-mobile-PC fad of about 10 years ago. A phone with a tablet "sleeve" has been tried, too, first with Modu, then the Asus Padfone/Fonepad. None of those things made a big splash in the market.
But the Graalphone may be different because it's not the phone itself, but the idea behind the phone that matters. "Some company like Huawei or like Sony will show interest in this product because there is nothing on the market [like it,]" Parienti said.