A phone that does less: As young users develop an appetite for “dumbphones,” a Reno startup designs an operating system to power them

There is a current movement by Gen Z and millennials to detach themselves from the hyper-social-media bombardment and unrelenting information overload. Much of the deluge is self-inflicted for many of us. It is also keeping us from doing the things we truly love, stoking the fire with no offramp.  

This trend seems to be getting more profound, as the purpose of the social-media platforms is to keep everyone online, as it leads to more data and, most importantly, the ads and the money that fuel the platforms. According to hiring site Zippia.com, the average user checks their smartphone 96 times per day average. Chew on that for a while. 

The shift, called the “dumbphone movement,” has been taking shape for a while now. The intriguing part is that it’s being driven by younger generations who’ve grown up wired and indoctrinated to instant gratification. This is really curious to me. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a dad to 11-year-old twins who are already getting hooked on the tech, and we keep them limited to an hour, and it’s on our phones, not theirs; we haven’t given in to “all the other kids have them” yet. This new trend is intriguing to me—and critically needed. 

To call the smartphone a “phone” is a misnomer. They are computers, now woven into the fiber of our being all across the world. On the positive side, they have arguably created generational connections and convenience, and leveled the social interplay among populations. 

A new startup in Reno is addressing this dumbphone trend with an early-adopter mentality that embraces the idea of “all that’s necessary and nothing that isn’t” when it comes to smartphones, engagement and productivity. The new movement embraces what we older (pre-smartphone) generations have observed and been concerned with for a decade or more. 

Two University of Nevada, Reno, graduates—Austin Boer and Brennan Jordan—are the founders of SLEKE., a company that makes a smartphone operating system built for productivity, convenience and taking back our active lives. 

The dumbphone movement has been gaining followers since the pandemic and has begot evangelists seeking to shed the madness of constant bombardment and instant mental gratification. The recognized “Godfather” of dumbphones is an influencer named Jose Briones. He beckons Reddit followers to “join the revolution and enjoy the simple life.” Now Briones is beta-testing the SLEKE. phone, and providing usable feedback to prepare for the next version, which is now available for pre-order. Perhaps I’m overthinking this (I’m not known for overthinking anything!), but I find it ironic that an online influencer is beckoning followers to detach, and be de-influenced. 

SLEKE. eliminates the temptations of social-media platforms that consume, on average, more than seven hours a day for more than 50 percent of teenagers, according to a survey done with more than 40,000 participants on Real Research, an online survey app. That’s not good. Brennan referred to the “zombification” of two generations of young people. In my many years of non-scientific, public observation in my travels all around the world, it’s been the same: From Senegal to Azerbaijan to China to Poland to Iceland, I’ve seen it firsthand. The addiction is real, and it’s worldwide.  

The SLEKE. operating system comes installed on a Google Pixel 5 phone—usable, yet minimalistic, so users can stay focused on what is important and productive, not what stimulates the endorphins in the brain like cocaine. The team has researched, surveyed and interviewed many people in the dumbphone network to determine the tools that constitute focus and productivity, not distraction and stimulus. 

“We aren’t saying that the smartphone is bad,” said Brennan. “We are just saying that the way we have come to interact with them has eased life’s frictions, yes, but it has also pulled us away from that very same life. At the end of the day, we think that life is beautiful and that it’s meant to be lived … doing things we like doing with the people we like doing them with. What our phone is meant to do is give us tools to make us feel equipped to interact in our high-tech world while giving us room to live presently in the real world.” He hopes people will participate in the beta test “so they can help shape the tool.” 

An article on the EuroNews website reports that the dumbphone movement has some nostalgic names coming back into the light like HMD Global, the maker of Nokia-branded smartphones, a company many thought was nearly out of business years ago, pushed aside by Apple, Google and Samsung, which now dominate the smartphone tech market and keep raising the bar on apps and engagement.  

“We see that the market for flip phones is up 5%,” said Lars Silberbauer, chief marketing officer of Nokia Phones and HMD Global, to EuroNews. HMD Global claims to be selling tens of thousands of the dumbphones each month. 

SLEKE. has been busy since September of last year building out the specs, the business model and the momentum. Its founders have interviewed hundreds of potential customers, have more than 100 on the waitlist, and are honing in on a few crucial apps including Spotify, and a modified WhatsApp. For the primary market, Gen Z, the phone includes a third-party finance app, navigation, music and messaging. For young professionals, add some productivity apps, and that’s it. No frills, no games, no distractions, no bullshit. 

This is all harkening back to a simpler era, with a happier demeanor and more detachment from our wired lives. I recall those early, semi-wired days with a bit of fondness, and if you’re old enough, you likely do, too. Check out SLEKE.io, and assist a local team of people helping us take back an important thing—our lives.