You've heard the rumors and seen the alleged prototypes, and perhaps even ogled the dummy devices that purport to show the design of the upcoming iPhone 8.
But if you want to get as close to the real deal as possible right now, you have to leave the comforting confines of iOS and venture north a ways to Palo Alto, where the team behind the Essential Phone is readying to ship their first device. Essential Products is the brainchild of Andy Rubin, and comes out of a hardware incubator he started after leaving Google a few years back. The Essential Phone is aptly-named, too: it's about as bare as you'll find on a phone today, sans excess of any kind — it even lacks external branding.
It also resembles what we think the iPhone 8 will look like, at least on the front. Its 5.71-inch screen goes practically edge-to-edge, eschewing bezels for the Platonic ideal of the blank slate that many smartphone manufacturers hope will find the right balance between form and usability. This decision is not without consequences, though: Essential had to buttress the front-facing camera into an awkward dip near the top center of the LCD panel, marring the visual uniformity. Apple has also been forced to tackle this problem, reportedly choosing to go with a "notch" design — bringing the iPhone 8's OLED display up to the edges on the top left and right with a swoop in the middle to accommodate the camera hardware — which could add some difficulty for app developers.
But the Essential Phone is interesting for more reasons than its slight resemblance to an unannounced iPhone. It also represents for the Android world what Apple has been trying to accomplish with the marriage of hardware and software with the iPhone, iOS, and the entire ecosystem of Apple products for upwards of 10 years now.
To Essential, its first piece of hardware, the phone (or Phone) is but a conduit (though hopefully a profitable one) to a larger ecosystem of interconnected products, from cameras to home automation, that founder Rubin believes no one does well enough today. The first step of the puzzle is the phone, being the central nervous system of every app, service, and piece of communication in most peoples' lives; the next step is building the ecosystem so that the phone feels indispensable.
Essential understands that the phone is a means to an end, but it's also the most important computer in our lives.
Apple has done this in innumerable ways; in no particular order, the App Store, iMessage, iCloud, Handoff (Continuity), Apple Watch, Apple Music, Apple Pay, FaceTime — even Notes! — to keep iPhone users invested in the ecosystem. But Android has little inherent gravity, at least not intrinsically. Companies like Samsung have tried for years to build its own version of what Apple has, with little to moderate success. Are you more likely to buy a Galaxy because it exclusively works with the Gear VR or Gear 360, or works better with a Gear S smartwatch? Does Bixby Voice engender you to its hardware? Samsung's success still, after all these years, is far more tied to its hardware innovation and relentless marketing than anything surrounding it.
Even Google is not precious about its own growing ecosystem of free services. You can use Google Maps and Photos on an iPhone about as well as on the Pixel, and its nascent hardware division, from the inexpensive Chromecast to the pricey Google Wifi router system, works just as well on an iPhone as any Android device.
Google doesn't care where you use its services, and brings most of them to iOS alongside Android.
What's interesting about Essential as a company, and the Essential Phone as a product, is that it distills Rubin's vision of Android — not Google's vision, but his own — into a single product. Android's iPhone. High-quality materials, best-in-class silicon, and a software experience that does away with every bit of cruft possible. If you purchase the Essential Phone from the company itself, there is nothing but the bare minimum of Android apps pre-installed to be certified by Google to run the Play Store. Indeed, it has fewer apps pre-installed than even a Pixel, which is sold by Google itself.
Of course, there is an inherent compromise in launching a phone running Android, even one as unadorned and "stock" as the Essential Phone. For one, the phone, which ships this week to those who bought it unlocked, runs Android 7.1.1, which is about to be overtaken as the newest version available to consumers — Android 8.0 Oreo is rolling out as we speak, but only to the most recent of Google's Nexus and Pixel devices. The other problem with the Essential Phone is that what it sees as a virtue, simplicity, most consumers construe as additional work. The irony of only getting Google services pre-installed on a phone not made by Google — the only piece of software developed by Essential itself is the camera app, and it's not very good — isn't lost on Rubin, who's said that this is just the first step in a long list of software improvements for the phone, but it's surely to rile some early adopters.
That said, iPhone users looking to decamp for more "open" climates may want to take a look at the Essential Phone. Despite the fact that it has no first-party hardware at all — it uses off-the-shelf components, such as Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 processor and a now-common dual camera setup — there are some parallels with the iPhone that bear some exploration. For one, Rubin and his team promise lightning fast software upgrades within day or weeks of Google's official releases, with platform updates for two years and security patches for a year after that. Sure, that mirrors Google's promises for its own hardware, but very few Android manufacturers have been able to keep it.
The second point is that Rubin has learned from his many years at the helm of the Android project, watching the iPhone and Droid compete at a code level, a silicon level and a carrier level, that as many good decisions as Apple has made throughout the iPhone's ten-year history, others have fallen flat.
In a May essay written around the time of the Essential Phone's release, Rubin laid out why he started the company, and built the Essential phone. Some of them could have been straight from the mouth of Steve Jobs in 2007:
- Devices are your personal property. We won't force you to have anything on them you don't want to have.
- 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.
But one does not fit with Apple's worldview, and that's one that Rubin hopes to leverage: We will always play well with others. Closed ecosystems are divisive and outdated.
Much of what Apple does, for better or worse (but usually better), makes using Apple products a more fulsome experience. The iPhone benefits from its integration with iMessage, its symbiotic relationship with Apple Watch, with the App Store's curation. But Apple doesn't go out of its way to endear itself to standards it doesn't think adds any benefit to the user experience, so you can't charge your Apple Watch from just any Qi wireless charger, and prior to iOS 11 developers didn't have access to the iPhone's NFC chip for actions outside of payments.
It's not clear how Essential plans to "play well with others" given that its first accessory, a 360-degree camera, relies on power pins on the back of the phone, but it's an admirable and well-received portion of the manifesto.
The Essential Phone is unlikely to sell well in its first year, and for all I know, the company, despite already being valued at over a billion dollars, may not last more than a few years. Phones are largely commoditized, and it's unclear how Rubin's vision of Android will fare in a world where the top five manufacturers control upwards of 80% of the world's phone market share. But even if Essential manages to carve out a small niche, I believe that like HTC before it, Essential may be considered the Apple of the Android world, and to me, that's pretty high praise.
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