Is This the Essential Gadget?

Category: Gadgets

The inventor of the Android operating system isn't happy with the current crop of mobile devices that run the software he created. So he's doing something about it. If you like the idea of a phone that evolves, instead of becoming obsolete almost as soon as you turn it on, then continue reading...

What's the Problem With Android?

Without googling, can you tell me who invented the Android mobile operating system? If you said, “Andy Rubin,” step up and claim your no-prize. The 50-ish software entrepreneur, venture capitalist, baker, and motorcycle rider co-founded Android, Inc., in October 2003, along with Rich Miner, Nick Sears, and Chris White.

Google purchased the company in July, 2005, for a price estimated as “at least $50 million” and, presumably, some very lucrative Google stock grants to Android’s principals. Rubin oversaw the development of Android until 2013, and then dropped out of the tech world. But now he’s back. Rubin just announced his new company, Essential, Inc., which is in the throes of birthing its first two products. Before we get into those, let’s see what Rubin’s vision is.

During a night out with a friend, Rubin realized that Android, and modern tech in general, have become unwieldy, fragmented, and basically as much a pain as a pleasure.

Anry Rubin and the Essential PH-1

“For all the good Android has done to help bring technology to nearly everyone,” Rubin says, “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?”

The answer to both rhetorical questions is “no,” of course. Rubin spent days following his epiphany thinking hard about what was good and bad about 21st century tech. He founded Essential to do only good (or, at least, not do evil). Rubin developed these guiding principles:

  • Devices are your personal property. We won’t force you to have anything on them you don’t want to have.
  • We will always play well with others. Closed ecosystems are divisive and outdated.
  • Premium materials and true craftsmanship shouldn’t be just for the few.
  • Devices shouldn’t become outdated every year. They should evolve with you.
  • Technology should assist you so that you can get on with enjoying your life.
  • Simple is always better.

The Essential Device Family

That all sounds very nice, but what sort of products do these principles spawn? It may be a bit of a letdown to learn that Essential’s first two products, still in development, are a smartphone and a personal digital assistant (like Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Microsoft Cortana). But both are different from the run of the mill, according to Rubin, and they adhere to his Essential principles.

The Essential PH-1 phone, for example, is encased in durable titanium and ceramic. It's a premium design that surpasses Apple's flagship iPhone 7 and Samsung's latest offering, the Galaxy S8. But the "feature" that caught my attention first was that it's an unlocked phone, and will run on all mobile carriers. Not being locked in to Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile is a big deal. And not having a boatload of bloatware that you can't remove is something that will appeal as well.

The PH-1's Gorilla Glass 5.71-inch screen stretches from edge to edge of the phone’s face, and has a resolution of 2560 x 1312 pixels. A minimalist 4 GB of RAM is supplemented by 128 GB of Universal Flash Storage. Sensors include a barometer, accelerometer, magnetometer and gyroscope.

The operating system will be the latest stock Android, of course. Rubin promises that it will be able to receive operating system updates in a timely manner. That's in contrast to other phones where updates are funneled through the mobile carrier, and can take a year or more to arrive, if ever. The PH-1 phone costs $699 and has no headphone jack. Accessories connect magnetically to the phone’s body; the first add-on is a 360-degree camera that ships with the phone. The docking system will be open source, so other companies can build accessories for the Essential family of devices. Additional specs can be found here.

You can preorder a PH-1 right now, although no release date is given, or just provide an email address to be kept posted on its progress.

The other product is the Essential Home digital assistant, and it’s even more “in development” than the PH-1. The key thing about this device is that most of its functions occur right on the device, not on a distant server. Rubin wants to help you keep your private data private. Another distinction of Essential Home is that you don’t have to tap or even talk to it. Essential’s Mara Segal explains:

“It can take note of your routines and let you know when something feels off or if a light is left on. You can ask Essential Home to play your favorite music and when you start a conversation it will adjust the volume downward so you don’t have to talk over it. When you’re getting ready in the morning, Essential Home can show how long you have until you need to leave and even blink the lights when it is time…” Right now, Essential Home has no price or release date, but you can provide an email address to receive updates.

Are you intrigued by a family of mobile devices that's not tied to Google, Apple, Microsoft, and runs on any mobile carrier? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Is This the Essential Gadget?"

(See all 24 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

john silberman
02 Jun 2017

I agree with Ed. In addition, I like the idea of an Operating System that will let you use it without it spying on you. Google and Apple both insist on linking your phone to some sort of account. How about a stand along Android that does not require a Google account?

Posted by:

Mark Roy
02 Jun 2017

One other BIG missing spec: FM Radio receiver. During disasters this is essential when cell service is down.

Posted by:

02 Jun 2017

"Closed ecosystems are divisive and outdated" - but can be so much more secure than open ones in which unaware users can let anything in, both good and bad.

People complain about the restrictions of the Apple store (or Google, or Microsoft) but compare incidents of malware in the stores with 'open' Microsoft Windows.

Staying safe in the the Windows world takes much more effort than in the walled gardens of the Apple/Google/Microsoft stores. That's not to say that you can't, it's just requires more user awareness.

Posted by:

02 Jun 2017

Sounds GREAT! But how will the other mobile carriers react? Also I love the idea of not being tied to one mobile carrier, or to google! Watching this very close!

Posted by:

02 Jun 2017

If the Essential PH-1 cell phone had dual sim capability, I would buy it.

Posted by:

Martin Quinones
02 Jun 2017

Interesting, but what about storage expandability, does it have an option for sd card?

Posted by:

Mr Ed
02 Jun 2017

You lost me at "no headphone jack"

Posted by:

02 Jun 2017

@Mark Roy: The add on camera is a special 360 degree option with surround sound recording. The PH-1 still has 'normal' 8MP front and 13MP rear facing cameras in the base phone.

As for an FM radio receiver, do any of the current crop of 'smart phones' include one? At least this one could have a 3rd party one built for it.

Posted by:

Ken Mitchell
02 Jun 2017

Martin Quinones; The Essential PH1 has a standard 128GB of RAM.

Posted by:

02 Jun 2017

Until battery technology vastly improves, or the phone manufacturers go back to having user replaceable batteries, no smartphone will last more than a few years.

There are other brands of phones that will work on the 4 major carriers already, and are much less expensive.

If the Essential uses stock Android, it will still have Google products pre-installed. Whether or not you can bypass using a Google account to operate the phone remains to be seen.

RhinoShield has cases that withstand an 11-foot drop, as well as protectors that virtually eliminate broken screens. Watch a guy hammer a phone screen here:

Essential *sounds* good, but it really isn't remarkable.

Posted by:

02 Jun 2017

It's always nice to see another higher end, carrier-unlocked, stock Android phone come to market. I currently still enjoy my Nexus 6p, so am not in the market for a new phone, but this is something to continue watching. I would like to see it come with an IP68 rating, however, as is more common in flagships now. I am not concerned about the headphone jack, as I usually use a bluetooth headset. And, the Essential phone support bluetooth v5, which is nice.

@Cathy - Essential is not a mobile carrier, so not competition for the mobile carriers. There are carrier-unlocked flagship phones currently on the market, including the latest Samsung Galaxy S8/S8+ and LG G6 models and the Google Pixel. As well, there are several nice mid-range carrier unlocked phones such as the Moto X Pure, Moto Z, as well as many lesser known mid-level brands. These will work on all the major carriers, as they have the radios to support the bands used by all of them. As Essential will run stock Android, there's no guarantee that a Google account will not be expected.

Posted by:

Ken Cox
02 Jun 2017

Good reading as always, intend going for an Android again > Samsung 8 plus.

Posted by:

03 Jun 2017

I think that we got it Ken. Thanks

Posted by:

03 Jun 2017

I think, this project is dead. It sounds good, reasonable, but real life...

Just take a look around. How long do you wear your clothes and shoes? One season. It means several months at best. How long our grandparents wore them when they were as young as we are now? Years. I don't mean ultrawealthy people, just regular. Now even relatively poor people can afford to change those things way before they are worn out completely. Same thing goes everywhere, including tech world. Yes, our gadgets already became disposable. And you can not fight against that - it's speed of technical progress. You can not predict future, so obviously every gadget becomes obsolete way before its physical "death". The world of eternal things is over. Forget about it.

Posted by:

03 Jun 2017

Kirill, you kind of struck a nerve with me. This throw away generation is a concept I don't understand. I buy cheap throw away tools when I'm going to use them one time. Otherwise I buy DeWalt, Porter-Cable, Rockwell, Milwaukee, Miller Matic, and other quality manfacturers. These tools last for decades and are often passed down to other generations.

I like the idea of a quality phone that won't be obsolete. The concept is a phone that can be upgraded, won't fall apart. And yes the speed of technical progress makes everything we buy obsolete-before it even hits the market. But as long as it does the job I bought if for-I'm good.

Simple? Simple is good. Anyone can make it complicated. It takes real genius to keep it simple!

One last thought: tools should work for you, not you working for the tools. This includes the telephone, which I see far too many working for the phone.

Posted by:

04 Jun 2017

Well, Chuck, tell me serious difference between DeWalt drill that was manufactured 20 years ago and today. Not the shape of handle or its color. No difference? And now tell me serious difference between cellphone 20 years old and modern standard one. For example, Nokia 5110, that was announced in 1998, well, 19 years ago. Part of description:

WLAN - No, Bluetooth - No, GPS -No, USB - What?

Can you upgrade it to modern level? No way. Was it possible to design it, keeping in mind possible upgrades for modern standards? WLAN - Wi-Fi was announced same year - 1998. Bluetooth 1.0 specification was released in 1999. GPS - was announced available for civilians in 1996 with degraded quality, same quality, as for military - 1998. USB - introduced in 1996. So obviously no way. And we didn't mention yet LTE, color touch screen, camera with resolution to be able to recognize bar codes or OCR bank checks, NFC, etc... And now you are dreaming of some gadget that can be modified to fit some completely new technology that doesn't exist yet. Is it possible to invent some concept that can be flexible to adapt unknown technology?

Only if you mean under "keep it simple" basic function of a cell phone that are untouchable for last 20 years? Well, it can call! Just like DeWalt drill, exactly same way, as it was 20 years ago. So the bottom line is how set of technologies, connected with some device changes over time. If it doesn't, we have a device that can passed down to other generations. Because it doesn't need any fundamental upgrades. It's already almost ideal. In case of cell phone, now smartphone, it's still evolving and who knows what functions and what technologies will appear even in a couple of years.

About the last thought: I bought a year ago Nexus 5X for $250 (32Gb). I'm not going to buy anything new yet. It has everything I need and also all modern technologies. Is it too expensive? I bet no. Also I bet it will work for a couple of years. And now calculate how much will you pay for basic concept ($699) and upgrades over similar period of time. And also I bet this time would be the same, as life of my "disposable" one (technology needs hardware). But way more expensive. I see far too many working for your ideal upgradeable phone. Real life sucks, I know...

Posted by:

05 Jun 2017

Kirill, I'm not sure but your second post sounds like we may be coming down on the same side of this discussion.

I'm for solid built phones, or tools, that can be upgraded. I'm not for being the first on the block to have one. If you are on the cutting edge it's always expensive. I wouldn't pay $700 for a phone, regardless of what name is on it. Heck, I've never paid $200 for a phone. But I do agree with the inventor that phones are too complicated and difficult to use. They should not force programs on you. They should play well with others. Should not be outdated every year. And Simple is better.

I like the thought of other manufacturers adopting these ideas.

I expect items to last for more than a couple of years. If they don't I'm off that brand, won't be back.

Posted by:

05 Jun 2017

Chuck, I just see controversy in your wishes. I'm for solid long lasting things too, but there is a catch. If a thing is close to its ideal, it can work for generations, like a hammer. Also if it's upgradable, the cost of upgrade isn't crazy, like a change of a hammer handle to something more ergonomically made.

New things are completely different game. They are still evolving and who knows what will require upgrade literally tomorrow. So for their upgradeability you need to make them super flexible and that costs. This is why that phone cost already crazy money (The PH-1 phone costs $699). And I bet you need to pay for any module of upgrade. And that is the reason why such projects usually die quietly. I remember at least 2 project with similar principles. Don't hear from them after about a year after their announcements.

If you aren't going to pay even $200 for a phone I bet you use it as a phone only. In this case you need to shop at aliexpress for simple key phone with calling functions only. With their prices they can be considered disposable. But some of them built pretty tough and can last long. Modern smartphones are actually computers and this is why I'm ready to pay $250 for that. It gives me access to Internet services that I use pretty often. But I don't see any reason to pay for that more, than $300. And since both smartphones and services evolving pretty fast, I also don't see any reason for upgradeability of smartphones. It's too complicated and since that too expensive feature. Also I think, their upgradeability won't last long enough to make their extra cost reasonable. I'd better just buy a new one, like previous generation starship or something close by (My Nexus 5X is a predecessor of modern Google Pixel, that cost as I remember, $700 and originally Nexus' price was if I'm right, above $500).

I'm afraid, with your approach you'll run out of brands pretty soon... Everything goes south... errr... to the future and according to trends, this would be disposable future. Maybe this is the main reason to invent a time machine.

Posted by:

11 Jun 2017

I paid 49 bucks for my phone. I am happy as a clam. I dont surf the web on it for security reasons. It isnt attached to my hand . I dont need to pay 699 for something I dont need MOST of the time.

Posted by:

12 Jun 2017

How about this for an idea?? Just get rid of the bloat in the Android O/S???

I get angry when a phone sold with 8Gb of RAM becomes almost unusable before the equipment payment plan is paid off. i.e.8Gb RAM and Android OS with last update uses over 10Gb (with a new update waiting) now rendering texts not coming through, emails not coming through and even compromising phone calls and voicemails which is what a phone is supposed to be used for.

Have deleted bloateware and disabled everything possible on this phone, removed apps, keep email from bloating and no storing of photos or music. And this is on a phone that was basically used for calls/text, email, and the occasional photo & game. Now it's barely useable for anything. Will try a factory reset before we shop for a new phone that we haven't even owned for 2 years.

The problem is the OS & carriers, not the phones.

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