Gemini: A Tale of Two Halves

A Smartphone with a Key Difference

Last week I went to see the Gemini, a new device produced by UK-based Planet Computers. The aptly named Gemini twins a six-inch touch-screen Android phone with a proper keyboard you can touch-type on. It’s reminiscent of the Psion range of organisers, which is unsurprising given that the Gemini’s keyboard is designed by Martin Riddiford, who created the much-loved keyboard on the Psion Series 5.

Below is a picture of the Gemini and its inspiration, the Psion Series 5.

The Gemini features some other couplings, too. It marries a relatively standard set of Android device components and some neat custom hardware. So, like so many other Android phones coming out of China, it has a MediaTek chipset, support for multiple radio frequencies, a five-megapixel front-facing camera, a huge battery and the usual array of sensors. But it also sports a USB-C port that with a custom dongle will drive an external display; it has a strip of LEDs concealed in the case that can be programmed by users to indicate incoming calls or upcoming calendar items; and it has a custom button for voice control — an input method we think will see rising use in the next few years.

At the risk of overdoing the two-in-one references, I’ll also point out that it runs two operating systems: users can choose to boot into Android 7.1 or a Linux environment (Debian on the device I saw, but other distros are supported).

There’s no doubt keyboards on mobile devices have their fans — owners of Psion organisers were devoted to their miniature writing machines, and BlackBerry users were notoriously addicted to their keyboards. The Planet Computers team is clearly excited about reviving a cherished concept. But has the world moved on from typing?

I’d argue it hasn’t. Certainly, voice input will become more prevalent, but for writers, students, bloggers and journalists, the typed word is still a big deal. Samsung’s DeX docking station for its Galaxy S8 phones taps into the need for a mobile device with a big screen and a keyboard. The Gemini is aimed at the same environment, and, with a retail price of $599, may achieve a similar result for less money.

Another potential audience is the elderly. Older fingers are less suitable for touch screens, partly because of their poor blood circulation, which makes capacitive surfaces less responsive. As we pointed out earlier this year, our ageing population isn’t unfamiliar with technology (see World’s First Smartphone Owner Is Now 75 Years Old). Many of them might welcome a return to a device you can navigate with hardware keys.

In the “sea of sameness” that has becalmed the smartphone market, the arrival of any innovation should be welcomed. In my view, the Gemini offers several features — above all its keyboard — that set it apart from anything else currently on the market. There’s certainly no mistaking it for another identikit slab smartphone.

To conquer the global device market, Planet Computers would need to produce the Gemini on a massive scale, especially given the intricacies of supporting the more than 30 keyboard layouts offered by early production models. However, the company has set its sights at a more realistic level. The Gemini could carve out a respectable position in the “long tail” of the smartphone market, particularly if it gains a place with a couple of operators and a healthy level of interest from just a proportion of its target audiences.

I hope the Gemini succeeds. Perhaps it’s simply nostalgia, but the Gemini is the first device that has rekindled my love of mobile devices in a long time.