How Samsung forced INQ out of handsets and into apps
19th Jul 2013 | 15:30
From making phones to semantic discovery, INQ's trying to bounce back
You might not remember INQ, but you will be aware of its legacy. It's a company that began in 2008, only created a handful of phones, but brought the notion of tight integration of services to the masses.
The INQ1 was a stealth hit for the brand located next to the Thames in Battersea, winning awards for the handset that brought Facebook integration into the handset in 2009 when Android was barely out of the box.
Then came the INQ Chat 3G and Mini 3G, adding in Skype and Windows Messenger to the mix as well as direct links to eBay and the like. That might sound archaic now, but this was before smartphones had really taken off, and the cost of INQ products was squarely aimed at the low end.
At this point, the future looked bright for the firm, and it announced its first Android handset, the INQ Cloud Touch, in 2011, which was dubbed "the Spotify phone" by the media, as it had a key that gave direct access to the music streaming service as well as an innovative dedicated info key that flashed up the information the users wanted when pressed.
But that's when the wheels started to come off the hardware wagon. The INQ Cloud Q, which brought a keyboard into the Android mix for the firm, never appeared, and hints of future devices dried up.
There were rumours that the handset didn't have the retail scale to make it a roaring success (although INQ maintains it sold all the units made), but there was no doubt that only being primarily touted on on Three (likely because the parent brand of INQ, Hutchinson Whampoa, also owns the network) reduced the number of possible customers, although it was available though the likes of T-Mobile.
"We had a really different product with the INQ Cloud Touch, and that's how we got off the ground," CEO and co-founder Ken Johnstone told TechRadar. "It was quite cheap, but then Samsung would be able to come in at half the cost down to the sheer economy of scale that it has."
In a world now dominated by identikit handsets from Apple, Samsung and BlackBerry (well, the first two), the chunky, plastic, low-cost handsets with a focus on social networking and music seemed to make sense. They gave consumers easy access to the things they used, and for not much money.
The software shop
But with the low sales, INQ made the decision to exit the smartphone business and has instead set up shop as an app developer.
"When we were working on smartphones, it was always fundamentally software that we were doing," admitted Johnstone. "The hardware was outsourced; we did the design in-house but all the detailed hardware, PCB layouts, mechanical engineering, manufacture was by another firm.
"Our core competency was the software that we were working on. So when we pivoted the business it felt like a no-brainer, as we'd created all this value with our software. Plus we could see that the behemoth of Samsung was coming, and we didn't have the economy of scale to compete.
"So now [working on apps] it's a much more front foot feeling, as we're masters of our own destiny. When you're in the hardware business you can launch the best product in the world, but we only had the ability to do a couple of handsets a year and we knew we would be stuck with those for a year and a half, and that didn't feel comfortable."
Discover me, socially
So now the focus is on social discovery. In previous interviews, Johnstone has evangelised about the "social DNA" that runs through INQ thanks to its efforts in the phone space, and there's no doubt that's true.
The Cloud Touch used Facebook's Top Friends ability to draw in large, full-page info on the people you interact with most, and that functionality was drawn off into INQ's People app as it began to experiment with bringing its core functionality to the Android Play Store in 2011.
INQ is now pushing two apps: Material (which uses Facebook and Twitter interests to create a magazine of personalised content for users twice daily), and SoHo (a launcher that takes over your Android phone and gives a scrolling view of Facebook, Twitter or Instagram).
Both of these are now available in beta form, and both are free. With no indication of making them paid-for in the future, and competing in the tremendously congested social media / mobile magazine space, how can this strategy help INQ rise from the ashes of a smartphone business?
"We created Material and SoHo as it came from people's personal behaviours. We found we were visiting the same websites regularly to find information; people are in the habit of waking up and going to one or two sites, which is very narrow in scope and they're missing out on lots," said Johnstone.
"Now the shackles [of being a phone manufacturer] are off, and we can churn software out quickly. If we want a new feature it can be live in the market a couple of weeks later, whereas that's much, much harder if you're doing lower level handset software."
There's still a large question mark over how you can monetise free apps without resorting to heavy advertising, but Johnstone believes that creating an asset that can accurately track users interests will be an incredibly important asset in the future.
"The thing we've done is work quite closely with some academic research institutions, we're doing some cutting edge work and getting a steer from them into what's working and what's not to create our own engine which determines your interests.
"In Britain and Europe there are good little hubs of research into things like semantic technology, it's a hot and interesting space right now and it really interests us as a team.
"What we're trying to do is radically change the way people discover content, almost like trying to make search obsolete in a mobile context.
"Search has its place and it's amazing, but in a mobile context we don't necessarily have the time to go and search for things.
"It's not an easy thing to do but I don't think anyone has done it well."
The idea is strong: offering up content that you'll want to read without having to want to go and find it. Or with SoHo, having your social feeds as active wallpaper that drip-feeds you the information without needing to open the apps time and again.
However, the current offering is a long way away from that right now. Material will wake you up at half five in the morning to let you know a magazine is available to read, with articles that are only 50 per cent relevant to many and with a lot of repetition from the previous "issue".
Not there yet
Similarly with SoHo, users are finding issues. A look at the comments on the Google Play Store shows that the fact it's a launcher irks some, as well as the fact you can't have multiple panels showing different feeds.
We raised these issues with Simon Davies, INQ's Head of Product, who admitted there was work to be done, but preferred it this way in a beta offering:
"We sometimes get some interesting challenges around localisation [with Material] that we didn't realise when we first started. For instance, football can draw in both soccer and American football, so we rapidly had to roll out updates that looked at where you were and did some clever stuff that figured out what you wanted.
"We've still got a few more elements that we can roll out too. Music is another interesting area for us, as it contains so many different genres. As a result, we've gone to some smart people from universities for different elements of product and added a huge swathe of changes [since the start] for which we're now figuring out patents."
Davies also dismissed the idea that launching without the full range of features was detrimental. He's excited about the beta tag, saying that it's resulted in some great feedback from users that has built engagement and raised mistakes in a constructive way.
There's no doubt that INQ's new approach is refreshing - even the office layout has changed since the days of being a hardware manufacturer, making everything more open plan to unify the teams.
But equally, it's a company taking a huge risk by moving into apps that focus on the user's interest, trying to work out you want to read before you think of it, or giving access to social networks when you're not even looking.
The current apps need a lot of work to take on the might of Flipboard or even Facebook Home - Johnstone might claim that INQ isn't creating something that rivals these names, as its apps are more about discovery, but there's no doubt in the eyes of the user there are similarities.
But it's great to see a company in the UK trying to make waves in a new area of technology - if it can truly create a twice daily magazine that gives you content that you would never have found otherwise would be awesome, and would blow the likes of HTC's BlinkFeed and Flipboard out of the water.
And Johnstone isn't ruling out a return to hardware in the future either, although probably not in the same guise as before:
"We won't do the hardware ourselves, but it's not impossible that you'll see the INQ brand out there one day, maybe as software on someone else's hardware."
INQ tried to swim against the tide and bring the cool apps to the front and centre of phones for a low cost. It would be great if that ethos didn't die because of a congested smartphone market.