Why aren’t specialty smartphones available?

The automobile market requires high capital investment, yet we don’t see just a handful of almost-identical models taking the entire market. Starting from Android, building a smartphone shouldn’t require anywhere near the investment that is required to build a sports car or niche SUV, but where are the niche phones?

Example: Pilots would surely appreciate a smartphone, maybe Garmin-brand, with built-in ADS-B receiver and AHRS. Now a full backup panel is available at all times. Frequencies for ADS-B are 0.978 GHz and 1.09 GHz, not too different from the 0.8-1.9 GHz mobile phone bands.

Readers: What other capabilities would make good additions to smartphones for niche users? Why don’t these devices exist in the marketplace?

17 thoughts on “Why aren’t specialty smartphones available?

  1. I can recommend one specialty phone: the Light Phone II, . It’s still a bit beta, but I use it as my primary phone now. The idea is to make a phone that has basic smartphone capabilities but that you use as little as possible. It’s tiny, has an e-ink display, and doesn’t run apps, so you’re not constantly distracted by it. For now, it just does phone calls, text messages, and an alarm, but they’re working on a maps “tool” (not “app”, in their parlance), a Lyft tool, and a few others. Even though I’ve never had a Facebook account or an Instagram account, I found ordinary smart phones to be too distracting, e.g. I would look at my email entirely too often. The Light Phone is a breath of fresh air.

  2. A smart phone with more radio bands so it could do CB phone to phone talk and messaging and related tasks. Then users would not need to be in range of towers to talk to friends that are close.

    A smart phone with satellite pager and limited two way text capability. Users are out of range in lots of situations and would like a more robust phone but do not want to carry or pay for a full Iridium or sat phone. Especially pilots.

  3. My Iphone X with Garmin Pilot installed does everything you mentioned however it gets the adsb data via bluetooth on the transponder.

  4. Here’s and Android App and a $32 software defined radio (SDR) dongle that can receive ADS-B. I’d buy the dongle just to play with SDR, using the free Windows app “SDR Sharp”. Anyone with an EE background will be fascinated by how such a cheap digital signal processing chip can simultaneously display/process/listen to all the signals in the 25MHz-1500MHz spectrum. With a $40 upconverter+bigger antenna it can process signals below 25MHz too (eg: ham radio). Its interesting to visualize and listen to all the RF traffic.

    App: https://hiz.ch/index.php/home/adsb-receiver
    Dongle: https://www.nooelec.com/store/sdr/sdr-bundles/other-sdr-bundles/nesdr-nano-three-usb-c.html
    Windows SDR Sharp: https://www.rtl-sdr.com/tag/sdrsharp/

  5. How about (a) a stationary smartphone that still can receive texts, record missed calls, etc, and (b) a conference smartphone with the same plus group therapy support.

  6. It’s cheaper just to develop a plug-in/app/accessory to an existing smartphone than to design one from scratch. An example is the credit card reader phone case used by boutique retailers. It’s much cheaper/quicker to design the case than the entire phone.

  7. For a time, it felt like hardware support for quad copters was coming. The mane needs were a long range 900Mhz radio, diversity receiver for video, real joysticks. Phones really need a built in shaver.

  8. A better question: where did the custom phones go? Before the dominance of the iPhone there were many different form factors and keyboard styles. Is there really zero case for investment in building a competitor to Apple?

    • The fundamental problem is the app “ecosystems.” It’s hard for a new type of phone to draw enough developers to create enough of the right apps to make people want to use the phone. For example, while every company seems to have an Android app and an iPhone app, there are almost no apps for Microsoft’s platform. It’s a chicken and egg situation.

  9. I suspect niche devices that don’t sell in huge volumes or at huge markups cannot earn enough to make up for the onerous process of FCC certification.

  10. One accessory that caught my eye: the FLIR One Infrared cameras for iOS and Android. Admittedly, they’re relatively low resolution (the FLIR One Pro at $399 is 160×120 in the infrared on a 1440×1080 visual background) but for people who need IR capacity that’s enough for a lot of purposes: think HVAC inspection, mechanics who need to know when something is getting hot, laboratory use, cooking the turkey, etc.


    The FLIR One Pro measures up to 400 deg. C (752 F). Here’s the link. Note they also have the slightly neutered “non Pro” model at $199, with less resolution and temperature range.

    There is also the Seek Thermal camera for iPhone and Android, which is a little cheaper.


    Both of these are widgets that plug into the USB ports. Of course the question then becomes: If you’re going to spend $400 on a gadget add-on, why not spend a little more and buy a dedicated thermal camera?

    And Spike has a cool tool for estimation and measurement:


    Finally, for people who need a ruggedized, industrial phone, Caterpillar makes what are supposed to be very tough Android devices (waterproof, shockproof, milspec, dust proof, etc.) and one of them, the S-61, has a thermal camera (I believe an integrated FLIR One), “laser-assisted distance measurement” and an indoor air-quality monitor built-in. This is something a contractor could honestly justify as a business expense. $999.


  11. I had a comment that was apparently too long, so this one is short and sweet:

    CAT (also known for heavy equipment) has a self-branded Android smartphone that features an integrated FLIR Infrared camera, a laser rangefinder, and an air quality monitor in addition to being ruggedized (waterproof, shock, dust, etc.). $999.


    Obviously they are going after the construction tradespeople and others who need really rugged phones. Are pilots a big enough niche to warrant Garmin designing their own phone?

    P.S. – You can also get the FLIR Infrared cameras as accessories (through the USB port) in several models for Android and iOS phones, and there are also laser rangefinders available, but the Caterpillar S61 is the only phone I’ve seen that integrates them and runs Android Oreo.

  12. I’m surprised by the lack of a phone that is a few extra millimeters thicker so that it can have 2-4x the battery life and be rugged enough to not need a case. I would think such a phone would find it’s niche in people who work out in the field and use their phone all day (general contractors, oil industry, etc). Such a phone would probably not end up being that much bigger than the phone + otter box case that most of these phones end up being in anyways.

    It would also be popular for people that are not size conscious and don’t want to constantly be dealing with low battery issues. My mom already carries around an iphone xl AND cellular ipad mini in her purse.

    • @Steven G: See my post above. I’m surprised they also don’t build in a level and a way to estimeasure angles and grades. If they boosted the laser rangefinder to reach out several hundred yards, they could bundle in a ballistic computer for hunters, a lot of whom carry rangefinders and IR devices. I think (wealthier) hunters would go for a phone with all that stuff integrated, particularly if the whole thing was integrated with a good GPS navigation app. The S61 is 13mm thick (more than 1/2 inch). 4.5Ah battery, it’s MIL Spec 810G and IP69. It’s one of the few that I’ve seen that could really qualify as a business expense to someone in the construction trades. Maybe the next model will have everything.

      Here’s a review:


  13. A smartphone that blocks social media and porn at the operating system level — no, at the semiconductor level.

    Or a phone that can be used as a voice phone 24/7, but won’t allow TCP/IP more than an hour a day. It would allow a “payday loan” use of the following day’s time, but you’d have zero hours for the following two days.

    Or a phone that senses orientation and after a certain number of minutes can only be used with the screen facing down, so you have tho hold it above your head and look up.

    There are probably all kinds of FCC and whatnot laws and regulations controlling the space that prevent much innovation.

Comments are closed.