Red, the high-end cinema camera company, started teasing the world with its first smartphone in 2017. The Red “Hydrogen One” was a gigantic, $1,300 slab of a smartphone, with an aluminum or titanium body, ribbed hand grips on the sides, a “holographic” 3D display, and a modular system that, one day, promised to put an actual Red camera module on your Red smartphone.
Red said the phone would “shatter the mold of conventional thinking,” calling it a “holographic media machine in your pocket.”
Red, it turns out, was all talk.
After the release of a single phone and zero camera modules, Red’s smartphone division is now dead. The company’s founder, Jim Jannard, announced the death of the project—and his retirement—on the Hydrogen forums. Jannard simply writes, “I will be shutting down the HYDROGEN project” without offering any other thoughts on his foray into the smartphone market.
The Hydrogen Phone was nothing but a string of broken promises and embarrassments for Red. The company couldn’t make the original release date of “Q1 2018” and instead released the phone in November 2018. By then, Red was releasing a $1,300 smartphone with specs that were a year old, shipping a Snapdragon 835 when other companies were on the 845 and Android 8.1 when other companies were shipping 9.0. The Verge’s review called the holographic display “blurry and bad,” noting there was almost no 3D content available for it anyway.
The entire appeal of a phone from Red would be the promise of a phone with Red’s camera technology, but the Hydrogen One was released with an off-the-shelf camera component and middling camera performance. Red originally promised buyers of its $1,300 smartphone that the modular connector on the back would be home to a “cinema grade camera module,” power packs, and storage add-ons, just like the company’s professional cameras. These modules were never produced, though, and in March 2019, all drawing and references to the modules were scrubbed from Red’s site. At the time, Jannard—who seems to have a habit of backing a disappointing announcement with a new distraction—acknowledged the module program’s death and started teasing a second smartphone, the Hydrogen Two, which now will never see the light of day.
To hear Jannard tell it, the blame for the failure of the Hydrogen One lies with Red’s chosen ODM (Original Design Manufacturer) in China. In a July post, Jannard said, “We chose an ODM in China to prepare the Hydrogen One for manufacture at Foxconn. While Foxconn has been fantastic, our ODM, 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.”
Back in July, Jannard went on to hype up the Hydrogen Two. With a new design partner, he pitched it as an apology device of sorts for customers that bought the first Red smartphone. “We fully understand the frustrations of our [Hydrogen One] customers,” he said, promising those customers “significant preferential treatment” in “delivery allocations and pricing” for the new phone. With the Hydrogen Two dead, how is Red apologizing to Hydrogen One customers now?
In his funeral post, Jannard claims the Hydrogen One “will continue to be supported in the future.” But considering the last update for the phone was in January and the phone still runs a two-year-old version of Android, we aren’t expecting much in the way of continued support.