Outside of better-built smartphones, it seems one of the themes of 2015 has been security. Every week a new instant messaging platform comes out of the woodwork complete with end-to-end encryption and a focus on keeping your stuff private, but this year hardware has gotten secure along with these services. The Blackphone started all of this off last year, but now there’s a newcomer to the super-secure hardware game, enter the Sikur GranitePhone, created with the help of Archos. Sikur demoed a Nexus 5 running the now-named GraniteOS earlier on in the year during Mobile World Congress, and not too long ago it went on pre-order for anyone to purchase, all they need is a PayPal account. Recently, I got the chance to talk with Sikur’s CEO Frederico d’Avila to hear what Sikur was all about, and what they hope to achieve with the GranitePhone.
Who and What is Sikur?
Asking about a company’s background is often standard practice in interviews like these, but the calm and composed manner in which Frederico happily outlined the Sikur platform to myself, a total novice when it comes to super-secure platforms, was refreshing. Essentially, Sikur offers up a completely secure messaging platform for large business corporations and government agencies all over the world. Sikur themselves have offices in the USA, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Dubai and Mexico. Sikur offers teams a means to communicate with each other in total privacy, Sikur themselves do not keep any information their end, and everything is sent using end-to-end encryption. The platform is not just text, but also secure and encrypted VoIP as well as file sharing and video calls, too. There’s a neat little video on offer from the firm to help explain things in a relatively fun manner.
The company recently launched apps for both Android and iOS, so that people can use their own devices to some extent with the secure platform. While these offerings aren’t entirely feature-complete compared to the Desktop offerings, they do allow users to hook into chats securely no matter where they are. Of course, this wan’t enough for their customers, and so Sikur took on a two-year project to develop the GranitePhone.
What is This $999 GranitePhone?
Before we tackle the massive price tag of this fairly mid-range smartphone, it’s important to understand just what and who the GranitePhone is for. Frederico informs me that their customers were the driving force behind the development of such a device, as they were concerned that Sikur had no control over either iOS or Android and that these systems themselves could be open to attacks. Which is exactly why the GranitePhone is so locked down, there’s no way for users to install new apps on it, there’s definitely no Play Store and there’s no sideloading or root access here of any kind. When I asked why, Frederico’s answers revolved around “control” and the idea that there was no way to offer their customers a guarantee that their info was secure on platforms that the firm could not control. If you think about it, this is hardly surprising; it’s easier to keep your own front yard secure if you’re the only one with a key to the gate.
The $999 price tag (although early adopters secured it for $850) of the GranitePhone is fairly alarming, not least due to the fact that this is a 5.0-inch 1080p, Snapdragon 615 affair designed solely for communication, but Frederico tells me there’s more to the value of the phone than the hardware that Archos is providing. Including in this price tag is two-years of service to the Sikur platform, which has a value of around $600, I’m told, but there’s also the obvious R&D costs that go into the software of GraniteOS itself, the system that Sikur have developed specifically for their new smartphone.
What’s the Point of All This?
It’s obvious that the GranitePhone is designed predominantly for big corporate entities and government agencies, and I’m reminded of the old “BlackBerry conundrum” in which people would own an iPhone or Android phone for themselves, and need to keep their BlackBerry for “work stuff”. The GranitePhone could be considered the ultimate “work phone”, but it struck me as odd that anyone could go out and buy a GranitePhone via the website, with only a PayPal account standing between them and a device to practically become anonymous to law enforcement around the world. Frederico simply replied that there are “prosumers” out there that not only want that peace of mind, but don’t want the whole word to be able to listen in to their conversations, or get a hold of their private data. The example that d’Avila gives me is that users don’t want someone listening in to conversations with their wives or significant others, and this reminds me of Snowden’s arguments against mass surveillance, that there was simply too much info in the wrong hands.
A GranitePhone of course locks all of this down, but it’s expensive and far from practical for the everyday user. Just what Archos hope to achieve with the GranitePhone is unclear. Frederico himself admits that this is a niche product, but a market that’s only growing ever-larger. They might not sell them in their droves, and their existing customer base is most likely where most of the handsets will be going. The GranitePhone is not competing directly with Google – despite being a direct fork of Android’s AOSP code – and is instead designed solely for those looking to secure sensitive information and communicate without looking over their shoulder. What Sikur hope to achieve is pretty simple, and in many ways they’ve already done it, their customers wanted a device that hooked into the existing Sikur offerings and gave them complete peace of mind. The GranitePhone will most definitely remain a niche product, but it’s one that has a lot on offer for those that need total security in their day-to-day lives and we wish them luck.