How Andy Rubin’s Essential is different from other smartphone companies


Andy Rubin sees a problem with smartphones. They’re boring. They’re fragmented. The companies that make them aren’t as well-suited at advancing technologies around them as they should be.

Rubin invented Android, so he admits to some responsibility at creating this problem. That’s no doubt part of the reason he chose to create a new company, Essential, which unveiled its first products — a smartphone, a “home device” (what the tech industry seems to be calling speaker hubs like the Amazon Echo), and a 360 camera accessory. Rubin explained what his plan is at the annual Code Conference to Recode‘s Walt Mossberg.

Rubin created Essential because he saw a need for a mobile company that brought more choice to the consumer. The many companies that contribute to putting a smartphone in your hand each have their own priorities — the manufacturer, the carrier, the platform creator — and sometimes those priorities conflict.

A customer need look no further than the crowded field of digital assistants to see the issue. Siri, Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and all the rest are just sitting on a shelf, ready for you to plug them in. They’re all intertwined with their creators’ products and strategy, and your use of one or the other is no longer up to you once you dare make a choice of which phone or home device to buy.

Essential aims to change that. At Code, Rubin said his company would have an assistant, too, but he also said he would open his platform up to all the other assistants. Of course, how well they’d actually work with Essential’s products very much depends on how much effort those other players put in supporting Essential’s platform, but it was an unprecedented gesture.

This is a core example of what Rubin sees as a larger interoperability problem with consumer tech right now. The Internet of Things, by its nature, is made up of devices from many different manufacturers, on several different platforms. There’s some crosstalk (Philips Hue bulbs, for instance, are compatible with Amazon Alexa, Apple Home, and more), but there’s little in the way of unification — the larger picture of a real smart home remains a disjointed mess, and that severely limits the power of the data … and the potential to apply artificial intelligence (AI) to it.

That’s the opportunity that Rubin sees for Essential — as the platform that makes peace with the other platforms. To that end, he and his developers created the open-source Ambient OS, the software powering the interoperability vision. The Essential website promises his company’s devices will always “play well with others.”

“Building bridges is the best way to describe what we’re doing,” he said at Code.

That kind of philosophy also guides the hardware. The phone runs Android, not Ambient. That’s mostly because it would be suicide to debut a new mobile OS at this point, but it also ensures Essential won’t have to waste time asking app developers to buy into an entirely new platform.

The phone’s modularity has a part to play, too. Some of the most interesting frontiers in mobile right now are limited by the form factor; for example, if you want real game controls or a high-end camera, you need to slap on an accessory (and maybe a bigger battery). Some phone makers (notably LG and Motorola) have responded with modular phones.

How the Essential smartphone connects to the 360 camera accessory

How the Essential smartphone connects to the 360 camera accessory

So has Rubin, but Essential has a couple of advantageous twists:

  1. The modules are easily removed.

  2. They’ll be compatible with future phones.

The phone achieves this by having the modules snap onto magnetic connectors on the back, and the interface has the same bandwidth as a USB 3.0 connection. Rubin went on to say he thinks all plugs and jacks are dumb and user-unfriendly. He strongly implied future devices from Essential wouldn’t have any connectors apart from the new magnetic connects.

All of Rubin’s decisions make sense, but here’s the thing: The mobile market is so mature at this point that can any new company — even one so philosophically sound and well-funded (Rubin’s Playground Global venture fund is backing it) as Essential — make an impact against entrenched players like Apple and Samsung?

Rubin thinks it can, and since the game of digital assistants and AI is a long one anyway, it could well be a game worth playing. And if he ends up winning, his weird-looking phone might be remembered as the harbinger of a digital revolution.

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