Rubin Returns

Mobile Industry Eyes Andy Rubin Activities with Interest

Last week, we wrote about the established two-horse race in mobile platforms (see The iOS and Android Duopoly). Despite solid efforts from talented people backed by some huge companies, the dominance of Android and iOS has only grown. We noted that it would take a different type of race rather than a new horse to truly disrupt the market. So, is Andy Rubin now kicking off a new race with his Essential Products venture?

Essential is Mr Rubin’s latest start-up and there’s still more mystery than clarity around its ambitions. Bloomberg reported that Mr Rubin discussed his new company’s vision with several wireless operators at CES 2017 earlier in January. For operators, his legacy certainly warrants a tradeshow meeting, but it will take something greater than marginal improvements over the status quo to get some agreements.

Many mobile industry followers have raised the question of whether Mr Rubin can replicate his past successes. He co-founded Danger in 1999, which went on to create one of the first widely used pop-culture smart devices, the Sidekick. The phone helped put T-Mobile USA on the map with a young audience and changed the market. (Danger was later sold to Microsoft.)

In 2003, Mr Rubin co-founded Android, a development that completely altered the mobile landscape: the platform is now installed on more than 2.5 billion smartphones worldwide and its success seeped into tablets, TVs and wearables. Mr Rubin stated that “new computing platforms happen every 10 to 12 years.” If that cycle holds true, it’s now time for big changes. In its listing with the US Patent and Trademark Office, Essential included smartphones, tablets, accessories and mobile operating software among its goods and services, and Mr Rubin has stressed that artificial intelligence will be an important element of the company’s product line-up. It’s unclear if he will try to deliver a new operating system for mobile devices. We believe it’s likely that any new device would initially be based on Android.

Mr Rubin’s company plans to start with a high-end smartphone, meaning it will challenge flagship devices from Apple, Google and Samsung. It’s expected to have bezel-less design and artificial intelligence skills, ticking the trending boxes for smartphones. There has also been talk of magnetic modular expandability, perhaps similar to Lenovo’s Moto Z series.

There’s a lot more to learn about Essential, and there’s no doubt the company is entering the industry at a time when it is ripe for disruption. There’s excitement here, particularly in the suspense of what a leading industry innovator has in mind, but our expectation is muted. This isn’t out of cynicism, but rather a need to be prepared for the reality that change is hard. For Mr Rubin, the third time would not just be a charm but a Steve Jobs moment. We will follow this one with interest.