Essential, Andy Rubin's aim to simplify smartphone game: Why some skepticism is warranted

Android co-founder Andy Rubin has launched Essential and a smartphone that aims to put design and craftsmanship first with simplicity. It's a tall order.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Can the creator of Android simplify the smartphone industry and bring back a bit of pizzazz, mojo, and gadget lust? We're about to find out -- for a starting price of $699 for a modular unlocked phone that works on all carriers.

As Samsung's Galaxy S8 garners solid sales and analysts and tech buyers await the 10th anniversary of Apple's iPhone (and the sales super cycle that's supposed to go with it), Android co-founder Andy Rubin launched Essential.

What's Essential? A company that's supposed to bring elegance to the smartphone market, pay attention to craftsmanship, and simplify things. It will also run Android with some solid tech specs.

That's one tall order.

Rubin outlined why Essential is hoping to become a big part of the smart home and smartphone landscape. Rubin said the tech industry is too cluttered with features and products that don't work well together. He said:

For all the good Android has done to help bring technology to nearly everyone it has also helped create this weird new world where people are forced to fight with the very technology that was supposed to simplify their lives. Was this what we had intended? Was this the best we could do?

Rubin then outlined Essential's guiding principles:

  • Your devices are your property.
  • Your device will play well with others.
  • Premium quality.
  • Evolution that's not forced.
  • Technology should assist you.
  • Simple is always better.

Simply put, Rubin is looking for a second act that will build on what was created with Android. The launch is notable given an ongoing debate about the smartphone industry:

Will this Essential effort work? It's unclear, but it's easy to be skeptical. Here's why:

  • Essential will start out like many newfangled designs and smartphone efforts do with a clean slate. That fact alone will give it some chance of doing well at first.
  • But interoperability and simplicity is difficult. Note that Apple's iOS was once simple. Now you could argue iOS is a cluttered mess. Android looks cleaner. How simple can Essential's phone be when it's also going to run Android?
  • Essential's main selling point is the hardware and design. Hardware is hard to defend -- even with a frame that's titanium. Artificial intelligence and software intellectual property is easier to defend.
  • Essential will face what other tech companies do: A tug of war over business model and principles. Revenue targets mean that devices need an upgrade cycle. That reason is why devices don't necessarily evolve with you.
  • The company really revolves around smart home integration and an operating system dubbed Ambient that's supposed to introduce itself to other devices and easily automate the home. A product called Home is really the winner should Essential do well. The catch is that the smart home hub game is crowded. The Ambient OS is described as "the API for home technology."

Do the math and there's some healthy skepticism required to truly buy into Rubin's cause. However, Rubin is on to an idea that the tech industry needs right now: simplicity. There's little in tech that's simple right now and the industry is selling us integration and simplicity only as long as you lock into one stack.

The Essential phone from every angle (Gallery)

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