In the mid s, Anatoly Yakovenko, a co-founder of the blockchain Solana, envisioned a future where he could wield a handheld computer. Little did he know that Apple would release the first iPhone three years later.
“It’s crazy, right, how fast can that happen?” Yakovenko, who wore a black T-shirt and baseball cap, told an enthusiastic crowd in New York City last June. But, he added, “That can happen in crypto.”
Arguing that “it’s time for crypto to go mobile,” he announced that he and his team were developing the “Saga,” a Web3 smartphone expected to release in 2023. From Monday, the phone will finally be available to the general public.
This is not the first crypto smartphone to hit the market. Will it help “onboard the next billion users”, a refrain Web3 enthusiasts use when talking about how best to evangelize crypto? Or is it a niche offering best reserved for diehard crypto fans? Fortune spent five days with the Saga. This is what we thought.
Essentially, the Saga, which retails for $1,000, is a sleek Android smartphone.
The technical specifications are comparable to those of other phones in the same price range. Built by OSOM, a smartphone startup, it comes with 512 gigabytes of memory, 12 gigabytes of RAM and a Snapdragon 8+ Gen1 processor.
Unsurprisingly, the Saga was responsive, fast, and it felt seamless to switch between different applications. The photos turned out well and the battery life lasted more than a day. Compared to a standard 2019 Android smartphone used by Fortune reporter Ben Weiss, it was light years ahead.
That said, the specs don’t quite match other phones near the $1,000 range. Google’s flagship model, the Pixel Pro, costs $1,099 for 512 gigabytes of memory. It has the same amount of RAM as the Saga, but the screen has a higher resolution and the camera has an extra ultra-wide and telephoto lens compared to Saga’s dual-lens ultra-wide angle.
For the layman, however, the Saga is a more than powerful enough phone that can take quality photos and provide a comparable experience (often at a lower price) to top-end devices on the market.
Seed sense security
But the Saga isn’t just a premium smartphone. The selling point is that it’s a Web3 smartphone.
Baked into every device is the Seed Vault, which Yakovenko calls a secure way to store seed phrases or master passwords in crypto wallets. The seed phrase lives according to the phone’s Android operating system Solana Mobile, a subsidiary of Solana Labs. Any application that asks a user to authorize a transaction must go through secure software.
This amounts to a complicated setup process that includes fingerprint scanning, a PIN, and a prompt to manually write down the 24-word seed phrase on a piece of paper that comes in the phone’s packaging. It’s confusing for newbies to Web3, but for those with tens of thousands of dollars worth of crypto, the security is probably worth it.
The Saga’s other big selling point is its decentralized application marketplace, or dApp store, which has positioned Yakovenko as an ultimate competitor to Apple or Google. Unlike the tech giants, Solana Mobile says it doesn’t need a reduction in developer sales.
Ben Weiss – Fortune
When Fortune tested the smartphone, there were 21 dApps to download, with more coming, says Yakovenko. We were able to take an NFT from a selfie, play a racing game and send NFT stickers to the founder of Dialect, a Web3 messaging app. It’s one of the more seamless Web3 experiences out there. However, it was not without bugs, something that has been documented by other outlets as well. (Yakovenko said he and his team are “going as fast as possible” to solve them.) Alpha League Racing, the racing game, would open only sporadically, and at one point when the phone connected to a new Wi-Fi network , the dApp store was unusable.
“This particular bug is a known edge case affecting a very small number of Saga users with certain WiFi router models,” said a Solana Mobile spokesperson. “While we have identified temporary recovery steps, we are working on a permanent solution.”
Ultimately, for those who live and breathe crypto, the phone will allow them to further integrate Web3 into their daily lives. But for crypto newcomers, the complicated installation process and bugs make the phone’s Web3 features intimidating.
‘Shoot in the middle’
Yakovenko is clear that, at least initially, the target audience for the Saga isn’t the average smartphone user. “I think it’s going to be very difficult to reach hundreds of millions, tens of millions of users,” he said Fortune. “If we can show traction with ten, twenty thousand users, that’s one distribution channel enough.”
The mere fact that Solana Labs has invested in a smartphone – a piece of general consumer technology – implies that there is a vision to sell Web3 to the crypto naive. And some observers question its overall appeal.
“If it’s not differentiated by anything other than this very niche feature set that’s unique to already being a crypto geek, then I’m very skeptical that would be a way to get people to start using it,” Hubert Palan, the founder and CEO of Productboard, which makes software for product developers, said Fortune.
Phillip Shoemaker, who used to work at Apple’s app store and is now an executive director of the Web3 nonprofit Identity.com, is similarly skeptical. The Saga’s features aren’t much of a hit with crypto enthusiasts and laymen alike, he said. The smartphone currently only supports Solana, no other blockchains. (Yakovenko says there are plans to make other blockchains compatible with the Saga.) And it doesn’t have the bells and whistles of other premium smartphones on the market. “At the moment they just shoot in the middle,” he said Fortune.
Anthony Georgiades, general partner at technology fund Innovating Capital, is more optimistic. The phone’s security features, including the Seed Vault, make it similar to a hardware wallet, but with more capabilities thanks to the dApp store and using it as a phone, he said. That, plus its association with the Solana brand name, leads him to believe it has a chance of success with Web3 natives, though he has doubts about wider adoption. “It allows you to interact directly with the Solana ecosystem in a secure and reliable way, as well as creating wallets and storing keys in a very seamless, intuitive way,” said Georgiades. Fortune.
The appeal to a smaller market forms the basis of Yakovenko’s plan for the Saga, which he previously called a “moonshot”. Whether it’s glowing smartphone reviews or the rise of a popular crypto application, he hopes more and more everyday consumers will flock to his product. And perhaps it’s the latter – a “killer” app that convinces the next billion users to switch to Web3 – that will ultimately tip the scales.
“Both attempts succeed,” Yakovenko concluded in an interview with Fortune“or crypto as an entire industry just never breaks through to the mass consumer audience.”