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July 30, 2017

From the Editor’s Desk: The Essentials

by John_A

Andy Rubin’s new firm needs to act fast, and deliver a great product, if it’s to avoid being squeezed by the competition.

I haven’t written (or, if I’m honest, really thought a whole lot) about the Essential Phone since its announcement. Indeed, most of the hype around the device stems from the fact that it’s the brainchild of Android founder (and namesake) Andy Rubin. It’s obvious, but let’s state it upfront anyway: Tech media and tech enthusiasts probably wouldn’t care about this phone as much were Rubin’s name not attached. The buzz is (at least) as much about the man as it is his phone.

That’s not to say the product itself isn’t interesting. The bezel-less design is eye-catching and futuristic (though sure to become more pedestrian over the next six months). The approach to modular add-ons — using physical connections for power only, and handling data transfer over a high-frequency wireless connection — is smart and forward-thinking.


And it’s always nice to see manufacturers taking a lighter touch when it comes to customizing Android.

The vision around the rest of the product is less clear. It’s a $700 phone launching in 2017 without water resistance. The battery capacity is underwhelming, despite its chunky proportions. The dual camera setup, though interesting, is unproven, and on paper pretty run-of-the-mill.

And assuming it lands sometime in August, the software situation is precarious as well. The Essential Phone will run Nougat out of the box, right as Android O is being finalized. It’ll almost certainly get O, but it’s unclear when that’ll happen. Remember we’ll be just a month or so out from Pixel launch season when the Essential phone does arrive.

Hardware is hard, and delays happen, but the Essential Phone would’ve been a much easier sell back in June (the original target date). As it stands, you could realistically see the phone being squeezed between Google’s new Pixels at the high end, and the now very well established OnePlus in the middle of the market.

Most consumers won’t care about having the very latest OS, but as a startup (albeit a very well-funded one with plenty of experience at the helm) Essential’s target audience is narrower than that. The people who care about modularity, stock Android and the cachet that Andy Rubin’s leadership brings are tech nerds — the sort of people who might also be weighing up a Pixel or OnePlus purchase.

To me, it’s not entirely clear whether Essential is trying to be OnePlus, Google, Apple, or all of the above, or neither. The company’s ambitions stretch far beyond smartphones, yet its first product is targeting the most competitive segment of this very competitive market — with features that are impressive but not necessarily differentiating.

I once joked about who would eventually “buy Essential and ruin all its products,” (Facebook? Verizon?) I don’t really think that’ll happen. Rubin certainly doesn’t need the money, and his goal isn’t to just build another smartphone brand. But the company needs at least a reasonably successful launch for its first product to springboard towards other markets.

Can Essential pull it off? Who knows. But the clock is certainly ticking.

Some other odds and ends:

  • So it seems like the LG G6 had a solid start, but that sales quickly declined post-Galaxy S8. That’s about the only conclusion to draw if you read between the lines of LG’s recent financial results, and contrast them with the early news on G6 sales. The V30, more of a traditional flagship than the G6, may fare better, especially if it has a broader global launch than the V20 and V10.
  • I like what I’m hearing so far about the Huawei Mate 10. It’s unclear what Huawei’s U.S. strategy is these days, but in markets where Huawei does actually sell phones, a bezelless successor to the Mate 9 could go a long way.
  • It’s typhoon season here in Taiwan — which, if nothing else, gives me the opportunity to capture pictures like this.
  • And I’m getting to grips with a new camera, the Panasonic GH5 after almost three years of using less capable (in video terms, anyway) Olympus shooters. Look for the first videos from the new rig to start appearing on the AC YouTube channel this next week.

That’s it from me for a few weeks. I’ll be back with another Editor’s Desk right around the time we’re preparing to head off to IFA 2017 in Berlin.

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