The high-end camera maker Red jumped into the smartphone market in late 2018 with the launch of the Red Hydrogen One. The $1,300 phone was certainly unique, featuring Red’s trademark industrial design, moulded finger grips on the side, a carbon fiber back plate, and either a titanium or aluminum body. The wild design was not enough to create a compelling smartphone package, though, and now Red’s outspoken founder, Jim Jannard, has taken to the company’s forums to talk about what went wrong.
Jannard blamed Red’s design and manufacturing partner for the failure of the Hydrogen One, and he made big promises for a forthcoming “Hydrogen Two” phone.
“We chose an ODM in China to prepare the Hydrogen One for manufacture at Foxconn,” Jannard wrote. “While Foxconn has been fantastic, our ODM [Original Design Manufacturer], which was responsible for the mechanical packaging of our design including new technologies along with all software integration with the Qualcomm processor, has significantly under-performed. Getting our ODM in China to finish the committed features and fix known issues on the Hydrogen One has proven to be beyond challenging. Impossible actually.”
Blaming the ODM for the woes of the Hydrogen One is an interesting strategy. The biggest complaints about the first Red phone weren’t that it was shoddily built or designed but that the basic outline of the phone didn’t offer any compelling features over a normal smartphone. Red is an ultra-high-end camera company, but none of its camera technology made it into the Hydrogen One, which used an off-the-shelf camera sensor. The phone was supposed to have a modular camera system, but that never shipped. The Red phone had 3D screen technology, but it didn’t offer a compelling illusion of a third dimension. What, then, was the point of this bulky, ugly phone with dated hardware?
Red isn’t going to let a single failure stop it from building more smartphones, though. “We have begun the work on the Hydrogen Two,” Jannard said. The phone will be built “virtually from scratch, at a new ODM that is clearly more capable of building and supporting the product we (and our customers) demand.” To customers that were burned by the Hydrogen One, Jannard said, “We fully understand the frustrations of our customers.” After blaming Red’s ODM again, Jannard said Hydrogen One customers will get “preferential treatment” in “delivery allocations and pricing” for the new phone.
As for the modular system, Red originally promised to ship three separate modules by 2019: a power pack, a storage expansion module, and a “cinema grade” camera module. All mentions of these modules were scrubbed from the Red website in March, and today, only a new, different camera module was mentioned. Jannard again blamed Red’s ODM for the module problems, saying, “We eventually realized that the original camera module would have to change due to the fact our ODM was not going to competently complete the module that they committed and guaranteed to do.” A new modular camera system is now being built in-house at Red, and Jannard says work on the sensor has been “completed” and promises to share details on the module, named “Komodo,” soon.
It’s still unclear exactly what Red thinks its position in the smartphone market should be. Jannard opened his post by lamenting the difficulty of building a smartphone in China, saying that using the normal Red factory system in California “just wasn’t possible given the competitive nature of the market.” What “competition” does Jannard think the Red phone has? Was Red ever trying to compete with mainstream smartphones with a gigantic modular smartphone built out of titanium and carbon fiber? The Red phone always seemed like either a niche industrial camera platform in a roughly smartphone form factor and/or a niche luxury object for people who would happily spend $20,000 on a Red camera. Either way, it doesn’t seem like the smartphone “competition” should be of much concern. At the very least, you have to hope Red puts some of its camera technology into its smartphone this time.