LAS VEGAS—Where to start? The 3D smartphone screens are the most mundane things about Rokit Mobile’s phone lineup here at CES. The new phone maker, founded by a hair care and liquor entrepreneur, is hitting a grab-bag of American needs: cheaper prescription drugs, ID theft protection, and even little inexpensive feature phones for the kids.
I’m honestly reeling from Rokit’s ambition, but the company is determined. It’s backed by Jean Paul DeJoria, a billionaire best known for founding Paul Mitchell hair care and Patron tequila. Another branch of the company, ROK Drinks, makes beer, whiskey, gin, and vodka.
ROK started as a virtual wireless carrier about five years ago, reselling service on Verizon’s network and adding a streaming music service on top. But carrier price wars have made it a lot harder to resell service profitably, Rokit CMO Clinton Ehrlich says, so the company pivoted to offering devices with a package of services it thinks appeal to “transitional” Americans—people in between homes, jobs, or opportunities.
That means every Rokit phone will come with a year’s worth of Wi-Fi calling. For $ 10/month, you can add a pharmacy savings plan and the ability to call a doctor. Another $ 2.99/month gets you a roadside assistance plan. A total of $ 14.99 a month wraps all those together with ID theft protection, legal services, and some forms of personal insurance.
What do all of these things have in common? Ehrlich says they’re all things low-income or younger Americans tend not to have—health insurance or the ability to access legal services, for instance.
“People need access to these things,” he says.
Okay, How About the Phones?
Rokit has five phones coming up.
- The Rokit One is a $ 34 candybar phone (above) based on an extremely stripped-down, app-store-less version of Android, which nonetheless has WhatsApp and Facebook.
- The $ 39.99 Rokit F-One is a flip phone; this one is actually running Android One, but still without an app store, because it’s a flip phone.
- The $ 89.99 Rokit IO Light is a basic Android phone with a 5-inch screen.
- The $ 169.99 Rokit IO One has a 5.45-inch 3D screen.
- The $ 274.99 Rokit IO Pro 3D, Rokit’s “flagship,” has a 6-inch screen, dual 8-megapixel cameras, 64GB of storage, and dual rear cameras.
There was a lot of vagueness when I was talking to Rokit about these phones. The company couldn’t provide full specs for things like their LTE bands or chipsets, and I don’t like it when I can’t find those things out. But it insists we’ll learn more when the devices launch in February; they go on sale in March.
All the phones are dual SIM, running on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks. “They are all 4G devices,” according to Ehrlich. He couldn’t confirm whether they’d make VoLTE calls on those networks, which is a big problem in an era when the carriers are reducing 2G and 3G coverage. But he has an alternative: the phones all come with their own VoIP application, Rok Talk, to let you make calls over Wi-Fi or data networks. They also come with WhatsApp and Facebook—even the cheap candybar and flip phones, which don’t have downloadable app stores.
Rokit’s 3D technology has a ton of depth. Images and videos appear to actually pop out of the screen rather than have a diorama effect, and they pop, like, 6 inches out of the screen. It’s pretty intense. But I had serious issues with double vision and focusing on some of the 3D content: it took several seconds of concentrating for my eyes to lock in on some of the more dramatic scenes.
3D also has that content problem. Rokit is approaching it head-on with its own “Rok Flix” app, which will contain custom-produced 3D content shot by Rokit at a studio in France. It’s making “an animated version of the Bible in 3D,” according to Ehrlich. It’s making deals with IMAX. But this seems like a Sisyphean task for Rokit, just as it is for RED with its “4D” Hydrogen One.
The phones have 3D cameras, as well. I took a 3D photo and, well, it was a 3D photo. As with the RED Hydrogen One, the Rokit phones have the problem that you’re not altogether sure where else to display the 3D photos. Fortunately, the phones have a lot more going for them than 3D.
The Indian Connection
Rokit’s ambitions outside the US are just as fascinating as their US plans.
Over in India, something called the Jio Phone has turned the cell phone market upside down. The Jio Phone is a very low-cost sort of half-smartphone running KaiOS on the new Reliance Jio 4G LTE network, and they’ve been selling at the rate of 7 million a month.
Jio’s success has incensed BSNL, a competing cell-phone carrier that is also India’s state-owned telecom. So BSNL signed a deal with a Rokit joint-venture to take Rokit’s $ 34 feature phone and set it up as a Jio Phone competitor, supported by a network of 25,000 Wi-Fi hotspots and a new BSNL LTE network. According to Indian press, the new Wi-Fi network will cover 25 cities and be sold by BSNL’s massive retail network in early 2019.
“We’re going to put Jio out of business,” Ehrlich says.
Here in the US, Rokit phones will be sold at Walmart.com. We’ll review them when they’re available.