Will Andy Rubin’s Essential Really Matter?

Start-Up Unveils Modular Phone and Smart Speaker

On 30 May, Andy Rubin, the co-founder of two companies that have had a major impact on the mobile industry, Danger and Android, unveiled two devices developed by his latest start-up, a company called Essential.

Essential showcased an Android smartphone, which had been expected given a series of hints over the past few months, along with a smart speaker. With both devices, the company is taking on highly entrenched players.

The Essential Phone ships with Android 7.1 and features Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 octa-core processor, a 5.7-inch screen providing a resolution of 2560 x 1312 pixels, 4GB of RAM and 128GB of on-board storage. There is no slot for storage expansion. The edge-to-edge display reaches the top of the front of the device surrounding the selfie camera. The phone has an 85 percent screen-to-body ratio, comparable to the Samsung Galaxy S8, with 84 percent.

For imaging, the phone features a dual-camera configuration on the rear with a 13-megapixel RGB lens and a secondary monochrome sensor. It can shoot video in 4K resolution. On the front, there’s an eight-megapixel sensor also capable of recording video in 4K. The Essential Phone lacks a 3.5mm headphone jack.

The handset is made from a combination of titanium and ceramic, unusual materials that should make the phone more resistant to drops and scratches than materials such as aluminium used in, for example, iPhones.

Perhaps the most interesting feature is the modular capability of the device: accessories can be attached on the back, in a similar way to Motorola Mods, but different in implementation. Magnetic accessories for the Essential Phone snap onto a two-pin port on the upper part of the device. The company says these are “accessories that simply click”. Motorola uses the entire rear for its accessories. The first accessory for the Essential Phone is a 360-degree camera.

Customers can pre-order the Essential Phone on the company’s Web site, but the device is available in the US only. It will begin shipping in the third quarter of 2017. The phone costs $699, or $749 with the 360-degree camera. It is competitively priced when compared with Google’s Pixel phone with similar specifications that would cost $849. However, it’s very difficult to see how the Essential Phone will sell any significant volumes beyond technology enthusiasts, particularly in a market where the high-tier is totally dominated by Apple’s iPhone. Essential says the smartphone is compatible with the networks of the four major US wireless carriers and includes support for 2G, 3G and 4G.

Supporting carrier bands is not the same as getting support from carriers. Selling smartphones on the open market in the US is notoriously challenging. It’s a fact we’ve highlighted several times. The vast majority of handsets in the US are sold with carrier support through interest-free financing or instalment plans.

The other device the company unveiled last week was Essential Home, a voice-activated smart hub in the same genre as Amazon’s Echo Show. It has a circular display and runs an operating system developed by Essential called Ambient OS. The company describes Ambient as a proactive platform that cooperates with other devices in the home. Without a huge marketing investment, we believe that, despite its extremely elegant design, it will be difficult for the device to compete with the existing momentum of Amazon’s Echo devices and the Google Home smart speaker, as well as the recently announced HomePod speaker from Apple (see Instant Insight: Apple Holds Cards Close at Worldwide Developers Conference 2017).

There’s no denying the pedigree behind Essential and its two new devices. But the challenges of existing business models and large installed bases mean that the company faces an uphill struggle to compete in the current hyper-competitive smartphone market, particularly against heavyweights such as Apple and Samsung. At present, there’s a strong argument to suggest that it’s only Andy Rubin’s involvement that gives pause for thought as to whether consumers will find this an essential smartphone to have.