What would a Starlink phone look like?
A recent Tweet had Elon Musk declare that if Apple and Google removed Twitter from their app stores (something I doubt will happen) that he might make his own phone to compete with them. Generally it's been doom for those that have tried to enter the smartphone market and fight this duopoly.
But in thinking about just what such a phone would be, there are some compelling things. Compelling that it could easily become the only phone you would want if you lived in a rural area. And a lot of the rural population is not in the least bit upset about Musk allowing Trump back on Twitter -- if they don't like him, it's because he makes those evil electric cars that are pushing their gas cars out.
The reason is Musk's unique position to make a Starlink phone. The Starlink phone would provide very limited and intermittent connectivity everywhere outdoors. Which is a big deal if you live in places which don't have cell service everywhere, and if you regularly drive around those areas. A very big deal. Starlink is launching new satellites with extra-high-gain antennas which are able to talk to existing 5G phones in a limited way, and has done a deal with T-Mobile to allow basic texting and emergency connectivity. Starlink could decide to focus a higher level of service on its own phone, which would eventually possibly add a few more antenna elements to make this work better.
The initial service is very low bandwidth and also intermittent -- there isn't always a 2nd generation high-gain satellite overhead. In time, the intermittent gaps would fade, but even before then, a lot of services could be provided. I am reminded of the network's early days where we all communicated through phone modems that only connected overnight or every hour. We got a lot done, without today's software tools. It was a text only world, but that's OK.
Your Starlink phone would of course use regular networks when in towns. In fact, Starlink could also make a "Cell in a box" which consists of a mini-cell tower and a Starlink to provide traditional cell service in the thousands of small towns and villages that don't have it. When you went outside those towns, it would switch to direct satellite. Your car might also have a mini-Starlink (able to do beamforming, which a handset phone can't easily do) to give it better bandwidth in the car, and to the phone if it's within 200m of the car (or more in rural areas.)
What could you do with the low-bandwidth connectivity?
- Text messages, including limited pictures and even voice snippets
- Short phone calls if you or the other party wait for the satellite to pass your area
- Twitter, of course, though not always in real time
- Facebook, though in many cases text only
- Emergency uses of all sorts
- Traffic, road closures and other local info (broadcast to all phones in the area, not unicast.)
- News (also broadcast)
- Navigation (with most data pre-cached)
- Hotel and Restaurant reservations
In many cases, to save bandwidth, a lot of data would be broadcast. If two people in the same area "subscribe" to a newsfeed, or Twitter feed, you only broadcast it once for all phones that care to pick it up. You broadcast changes in availability of hotels, traffic and road closures, weather and more.
You also make sure to cache any worthwhile information when the phone is connected to terrestrial networks, such as when the phone drives through a town. That way when the phone has a specific request, it can sometimes handle it without connectivity, but also will use minimal data during periods of connection. Users might be expected to have internet at home and their phones would constantly be updating what they might need in the day. While this network would be text only via satellite, popular images would appear during periods of land connectivity to be displayed later if needed.
Apps that used the satellite would have to be written explicitly for it. Your ordinary web browser would not work, though a text-based web browser could be used -- sometimes not returning the page for a while. Not all web sites today will work on text based browsers -- in the early days they all did -- but we might find the most popular sites adapting if the entire rural population of the world started demanding it.
A lot of apps can adapt. Facebook should work fine. Ads would be pre-cached but the text of posts and comments would flow fine. You don't need your Facebook to be up to the millisecond.
The phone would be Android of course which is free and open source. That doesn't include Google apps, though Google is usually happy to make deals with any phone maker to bundle those in. Google doesn't see Samsung/HTC/Sony etc. as competitors, they work with them all. The hardware would come from any number of companies that make Android phones. The phone would naturally come pre-bundled with Twitter and the Starlink app store.
Amazon tried to do this and have its own app store, and it failed. It's not trivial. But they didn't have this big bonus of connectivity anywhere, which rural people will find hard to resist. (As will urban people who go out in the country often.)
If the Starlink app store gets popular, there are things it could do as well. In particular, not taking 30% of the money from app purchases and in-app purchases. They might even be free to app developers which would make them very happy -- especially the in-app purchase part. If Musk does create a payment system and method to reward creators it would also apply to app developers. There's a lot of room for competition here -- the duopoloy and it's 30% tax are hated by everybody in the business.
No doubt the Starlink phone would also do some nice things with your Tesla if you have one, which millions do. As noted, faster connectivity in the car anywhere in the world is also quite attractive.
Musk is overloaded, to say the least. He doesn't have time to start a phone company. Though in this case, almost all the ingredients of a phone company -- hardware, Android, MVNO infrastructure -- are already easily obtained. You need marketing dollars and that one special ingredient -- Starlink, which only Musk has. (Well, almost, there are other companies also launching satellites that can talk to 5G phones, but SpaceX has many advantages being the launch company.)
The big challenge is that Musk has made himself a tribal thing now, people are with him or against him because of who he is. That's both good and bad for him. Many would never buy his phone. Others would be happy to.