The Essential Phone was designed to flop
The tech-obsessed parts of the internet exploded yesterday when Andy Rubin’s new company, Essential, debuted its upcoming first Samsung replacement Parts , the Essential Phone, and smart home speaker, the Essential Home. And it’s fair to say most people were impressed, if a bit skeptical: even if the devices seem pretty good for a first try, this is, after all, yet another newcomer that tries to reinvent the smartphone in some way.
The first thing one might notice when looking at the Essential Phone is its curious design: the large, bezel-less screen’s top is cut to make room for the front-facing camera, a concept we’ve seen in many fan renders in the past, but not in an actual commercial product; while the device’s frame is made out of titanium, a material rarely found in smartphones. But then there’s also the magnetic accessory pins on the back, which allure to a bright future of effortlessly usable wireless accessories.
But here’s the thing: while it’s hard to argue the Phone has its merits, almost everyone can agree on one thing: with a $700 price tag and several glaring feature omissions, a phone from a startup that is completely unknown to the general consumer simply won’t sell that well. But rather than start writing our eulogies just a day after the phone was announced, let’s instead examine the situation from a different standpoint: that the Essential Phonewasn’t actually made to sell units.
Follow the money
In almost every industry, when a company does something curious and seemingly illogical (such as releasing a quirky-looking, expensive flagship in an oversaturated market), a good way to find out what exactly its intentions are is to simply follow the money: how and why could such a move benefit said company? So here we need to take a look at Essential — not the products, but the company itself.
In an hour-long interview today (embedded above), Andy Rubin shared how Essential, as well as the titular Phone, came to existence. In short, there exists a company called Playground (also founded and led by Rubin himself), which acts as an ‘incubator’ for tech startups — this is where Essential got its start, as well as part of its initial funding. But here’s where things get a little tricky: that startup cash may have been enough to design and launch a duo of new products (trio, if count the 360° camera as well), but it most probably isn’t enough to sustain it for much longer after that.
And with the general problem of hardware startups not having a user base at all, the prospect of relying on sales profits is a pretty far-fetched one — most consumers only trust a couple of brands, and competition in the samsung parts market is also especially fierce. So since sales won’t make enough of a profit, more capital needs to be raised from investors to ensure the company’s continued existence.
But while Rubin’s reputation may have been enough to raise the initial necessary cash, things should start getting a bit more complicated once an actual product gets launched: this is the stage where all the behind-the-curtain promises can be broken, and so the end product needs to be impressive. That is, few people would happily jump on board to fund yet another company that has only proved itself capable of making boring, cookie cutter devices — there’s simply too much competition in this space already.