These days, consumer technology isn’t just about the latest phone from Apple. Instead, 2020’s most innovative companies in the space are trying to fundamentally rethink what it means to use the internet, from Qualcomm’s investments in 5G to Helium’s decentralized long-range network for internet-of-things devices.
The honorees on our Most Innovative Companies in Consumer Electronics also look outside the home, with iRobot’s robotic lawn mower and Insta360’s best-selling action camera that’s used by the likes of NASA and Will Smith. And when it comes to smartphones, we’re honoring Light, which is making a stripped-down smartphone to help you leave the distractions of pinging notifications behind, as well as KaiOS Technologies, which is selling supercheap phones that come with all the essentials.
1. KaiOS Technologies
For making feature phones smarter across Africa and Asia
It’s been so long since any mobile platform made a dent in the iPhone/Android duopoly that the mere idea that anyone might try is a bit of a head-snapper. But Hong Kong-based KaiOS Technologies is succeeding—not by trying to beat iOS and Android at their own high-end game, but by catering to a whole new customer base. Selling for as little as $15, KaiOS “smart feature phones” are basic compared to an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, but they pack an app store and essentials such as YouTube and Google Maps. KaiOS’s traction in countries such as India, Indonesia, Rwanda, and Nigeria has led to support from U.S. giants such as Google (one of the company’s investors) and Disney (which did a deal last year to put its cast of characters on KaiOS phones in games and other content).
Read more about why KaiOS Technologies is one of the Most Innovative Companies of 2020.
For proliferating 5G with its chipsets and modems
5G is here, even if its reach is limited and its rollout has been rocky. But there’s been a common denominator as all the major U.S. mobile carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon, have launched their networks: Qualcomm. The company boasts that its components are being used by almost every dominant company in the wireless industry around the world, and every American 5G-enabled smartphone features its technology. While the 5G revolution that Qualcomm and many of its partners are promising has not yet arrived, the chipmaker has undeniably helped facilitate our transition toward the next wave of wireless.
3. JLab Audio
For building a virtual fitting room for its best-selling, under-$100 wireless earbuds
When buying wireless earbuds, you aren’t able to try them on for hygiene reasons. That’s why JLab Audio, which sells earbuds for less than $100, built a virtual fitting room to help users understand how the company’s products work and visualize how its buds would look in their ears. The goal? To reduce the overall number of returns, which JLab Audio says are often due to people not understanding how its earbuds function. Since launching the virtual fitting room, the company reports that its return rate dropped by 25% even as the number of products in customers’ hands increased by more than six times.
For showing there’s a digital alternative to your wireless carrier
Visible is an all-digital phone carrier built on top of Verizon’s 4G LTE network. That means it doesn’t have any physical stores or long lines, and instead has a mobile app where you can manage your cell plan. The company prides itself on stellar customer service, which is often one of the most frustrating parts about telecom companies. On top of that, Visible offers unlimited talk, text, data, and hotspots without an annual contract or any hidden loopholes. And in June 2019, it also eliminated a speed cap for all users. It’s working so far: The company says that in the first half of 2019, it saw a 450% increase in subscribers.
For embedding its trackers into chips, laptops, headphones, and more
Though Tile was founded in 2012 based on a simple idea—to help you keep track of your stuff—the company had a big year in 2019, when it announced partnerships with Qualcomm, Dialog, Silicon Labs, and Toshiba to integrate Tile’s location trackers directly into their chips. That led Tile to ship millions of Tile-enabled devices through these partners in 2019 alone, bringing its total device sales to more than 25 million. Along with partnerships, the company added on to its Premium Smart Alerts service that will proactively let you know if you’ve left an item behind when you’re outside your home. Tile reports that more than 5 million devices are located daily using the company’s services in 230 countries and territories.
For getting out of the house for the first time with a robotic lawn mower
iRobot, the automated vacuum company that makes the Roomba, branched outside your house for the first time in 2019 when it launched Terra, a robot lawn mower. Terra, which is currently in beta in the United States and Germany, can automatically mow your lawn in straight lines, avoid obstacles, and figure out where your lawn ends and the sidewalk begins. In addition, iRobot’s in-home robots can communicate with each other wirelessly so they can coordinate cleaning your house, enabling its new Roomba s9+ and robotic mop Braava jet m6 to work together.
For creating a pared-down second phone for when you don’t want to be distracted
In 2019, Light began shipping its second-iteration phone, one that doesn’t have a lot of the features we’ve come to expect from smartphones these days. That’s because Light Phone II was designed to be used as little as possible, and is equipped with only the essentials, such as calling, texting, and an alarm clock. It was designed with the idea that it could act either as a primary device or a secondary one, enabling you to leave your regular phone at home when you don’t want to be distracted but you still need access to the basics. Investors and crowdfunders alike think the idea has merit: Light raised $8.4 million from traditional investors, including Hinge Capital and smartphone manufacturer Foxconn, and it brought in $3.5 million on Indiegogo for the Light II.
For being the 360-degree camera of choice for everyone from Will Smith to NASA
In 2019, Insta360’s One X camera became the best-selling 360-degree camera in the world, and it has been used to live-stream NASA’s Mission Control during the Mars Insight Landing as well as capture travel photos for Will Smith’s Instagram. Its many fans enjoy stabilization that allows them to record great video while out adventuring, and its software can even remove a selfie stick from a shot after the fact. Piggybacking off the One X’s success, Insta360 also launched the Go, a tiny camera that weighs less than an ounce, enabling you to take it everywhere.
For decentralizing the wireless network to connect internet-of-things devices over long ranges
In August 2019, Helium launched a decentralized wireless network in Austin, Texas, that extends 200 times further than Wi-Fi. Because of its long range, the network provides connectivity that’s ideal for internet-of-things devices because they can send data for far cheaper than a typical cellular plan. Since the launch, Helium has sold out of Helium Hotspot units, which look like a small router and plug into your home network, and it has thousands of people on its global waiting list. In 2019, Lime tested Helium’s network to track and find scooters, and now Nestlé uses it to monitor customers’ water-cooler levels as part of its beverage delivery service, ReadyRefresh.
For bringing high design to wireless charging
Courant sells aesthetically beautiful chargers that look more like classic valet trays than pieces of technology. After launching in 2018, the company grew to $1 million in revenue within its first eight weeks, and in fall 2019, Courant started selling its first portable wireless power bank. Its four products are now available in 10 retailers around the world, including Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Bergdorf Goodman, as well as in hotel chains such as the Ritz-Carlton, Fairmont, and Four Seasons.
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