John’s Phone: Innovation by Subtraction

By Shlomo  Maital

 John’s Phone

    A friend and reader, Howard, drew my attention to this cellphone innovation.  It is called “John’s Phone”.  It isn’t cheap; it costs $100,  and $150 for the premium (gold) version.  It’s the world’s most basic cell phone. All you can do with it is make calls and receive them.  Nothing else.  Basic basic.  It was designed by the Dutch firm John Doe Amsterdam, and is especially good for kids, or elderly  people, or those who HATE technology.  It made  the top 12 of the Year’s Best Ideas in Interface Designs.   

   John’s Phone has a sense of humor.  John’s Phone features a 32-page paper address book kept on the back of the handset.   It includes an ink pen that resembles a stylus, a notepad, and a tongue-in-cheek “Games” section (for tic-tac-toe). The designers say that these features allow the phone to be used even when it is turned off.  Also included is “text messaging” which is done in the paper booklet.  The device is not locked, making it compatible with any SIM using the GSM system.   The keypad consists of only the numbers 0 to 9, an asterisk, a hash, and the call and end buttons.


    What does John’s Phone prove?   There is a constant inherent stubborn bias in innovation toward added complexity and additional features.  The result is often needlessly complex, unfriendly products and services.   The solution?  Take a familiar product or service.  Strip it down to the most basic elements.  What is the core function of the product, the thing most people use it for?  Eliminate everything else.  Subtraction, not addition, is the most powerful arithmetical operator for innovation.  Subtraction will give you user friendly, simple, cost-effective innovations. 

   Action learning exercise: Take another product that you like.  What is its #1 main use?  Eliminate everything else.  What do you get?  How could you market it?  How much could you charge?