ANDY RUBIN WASN’T ready to retire when he left Google in 2014. He certainly could have: After an illustrious career developing some of the most innovative products in tech, he had all the wealth and accolades anyone could want. As an engineer at the Apple spinoff General Magic, he built some of the world’s first internet-connected portable devices. As CEO at Danger, he created the Sidekick, a smartphone that defined the category before anyone had invented the term. And then, of course, Rubin created Android, the operating system found in more than two billion phones, televisions, cars, and watches.
But Rubin wasn’t done. More to the point, he couldn’t be done. Ask around, and everyone says the same thing: Andy Rubin sees the future, and can’t sit around waiting for it to arrive. He’s spent the past few years watching Apple and Google and everyone else try to rule the world from walled gardens, and he considers that a dead end. Rubin has always believed that the open platform is the one that wins.
Most people complain that there’s no innovation in smartphones. Andy Rubin disagrees. Vehemently.
And so he’s back, as the CEO of Essential Products, his first company since Android. He wants to make Essential the first great gadget maker since Apple, one that builds and distributes the open platform that will power the billions of phones, watches, light bulbs, and toaster ovens about to come online.
That wasn’t always the plan. Rubin likes telling a story from just after he left Google, where he spent a decade running Android and a few years leading its robotics projects. Over dinner and wine, he and his wife, Rie, discussed his next move. “How do I top Android?” Rubin asked. “What could I possibly do that would be bigger than that?” “Don’t do one thing,” Rie replied. “Do 10.” And so Rubin launched Playground, a venture capital firm where a few dozen engineers and designers at Playground Studios help startups build stuff.
Rubin and his partners sought out a wide range of investments. “You meet a ton of people, thousands of people,” he says. “Some really crazy ideas, some pretty good ideas, some teams that are great, some teams that are not that great.” As he speaks, Rubin curls his lanky body into a comfortable chair at the head of a long table in the same room where he met many of those people. He fidgets as he talks and touches his stubbled face as he thinks. Now and then, he walks over to the whiteboard to diagram his points. “We thought that people weren’t swinging for the fences and doing big-vision things in consumer products,” he says. All of which is to say, there hasn’t been an Apple since Apple, and Rubin figures it’s time.
Essential launches publicly today with the announcement of two products expected later this summer: a $699 smartphone called Phone and a smart-home hub called Home that Rubin hopes will bring order to the endless standards, protocols, and systems wrought by the Internet of Things. To understand what Essential hopes to achieve in the long term, look at the hub. Rubin wants to build an open source, infinitely extensible platform, called Ambient OS, that powers all the smart stuff in your home. Android for everything. But even Rubin concedes that it will take a while. If you want to know how he plans on getting there, we need to talk about the Phone.
Take a Bite
Most people look at smartphones and see one of the largest and most competitive markets in history, one with no room (or profits) for anyone but Apple or Samsung. And most people complain that there’s no innovation. Rubin disagrees. Vehemently. He sees loads of innovation, but believes companies don’t take advantage of it because they’re simply too big. “When Apple finds some new technology, they’re like, ‘Great, can I have 50 million next quarter?’ Manufacturers are like, ‘No, you can’t. We just invented it,'” he says. Meanwhile, companies design by committee—with too much input from supply chain experts and accountants—and everything moves slowly.
If Essential sells 50 million phones this quarter, Jason Keats, the company’s head of product architecture, is totally screwed. Essential simply cannot produce that many phones. That’s the point. “We’ve gone after technologies and methods of manufacturing that aren’t designed to support 50 million devices,” he says. He wants Essential to think like a high-end watchmaker, not a commodity gadget builder. (Granted, everyone says this, even the commodity gadget builders.) From the start, Essential’s designers and engineers met with countless manufacturers in search of the most interesting technology and materials, especially stuff no one could produce at scale. “We’re not for everybody,” Keats says. “You know it’s going to be a little exclusive.”
Gadgets used to say something about their buyers, communicating fashion sense or nerd cred. Now that everyone has an iPhone or a Galaxy, neither say anything.
Everybody at Essential hates the idea that you, your grandma, and your accountant all carry the same phone. Gadgets once said something about the people who carried them. They communicated fashion sense or nerd cred. Now they’re as personal as refrigerators. Rubin wants the Essential phone to clearly and emphatically state that the person carrying it isn’t won over by marketing, isn’t a fanboy, isn’t driven by trends.
People who buy an Essential phone, he says, want technology that works for them, not the other way around.
The team knew from the beginning that it wanted to build a titanium phone. The material offers far greater durability and, perhaps equally important, sounds so damn cool. But machining titanium is expensive and wasteful. “So we literally traveled around the world to find somebody who could process in a different way,” Keats says. Essential eventually found a small German company that injection-molds the material, which involves pouring molten titanium into a mold rather than milling it from a block. Injection molding typically results in greater porosity than milling, but this company (which Keats won’t name) figured out how to, in Keats’ words, make it “super, super dense.”
More than one Essential employee told me, with more than a little glee, that Apple tried to make the next iPhone from titanium, but couldn’t make it work.
Shaping the Future
The Essential team wanted to make something unique, something fresh and exciting. But everyone knew people weren’t ready for a wild new form factor or radical technology. The team spent hours cutting plexiglass into every conceivable shape, just so people could see how it felt in their hands. Dave Evans, the company’s head of design, especially liked a subtle hourglass shape. “It would cradle your hand really, really gracefully,” he says. “The grip was fantastic.”
Essential’s goal is to become the first great gadget maker since Apple.
Still, Essential went with a rectangle and an off-the-shelf camera, because why reinvent the wheel? Look for the weird, wild stuff later. For now, Essential is focused on finally getting the smartphone right. “Product design for me isn’t more complicated than just building a product for myself,” Rubin says. He buys every phone—they cover virtually every surface of his office—and they all leave him wanting. “It could be something as simple as bad battery life, or a user interface that was unusable, or a bunch of fluff and bloatware that I didn’t need.”
The Phone, Rubin says, is the phone he always wanted. It has no branding whatsoever. It doesn’t even have a name beyond Essential Phone, because it’s not Essential’s phone, it’s yours. (As long as you can afford the blistering sticker price.) It runs Android, pure as the driven snow, with no bloatware or customized interface. Aside from a small notch for the front-facing 8-megapixel camera, the 5.7-inch screen has no bezel. It runs the latest Snapdragon 835 processor, along with 4 gigs of RAM and 128 gigs of storage. Internally, at least, Essential didn’t try to change the game—it just tried to win. On paper, this thing looks great, even if it isn’t waterproof.
The most important feature is a pair of tiny dots on the back, up there on the right. It’s a magnetic dock for attaching accessories. Essential created a modular handset, but not in the build-a-phone sense of the Moto Z or Project Ara. Rubin calls it “a new notion of what an accessory is, and trying to make the accessory as future-proof as possible.”
Ultimately, Essential’s success or failure hinges on what comes after the smartphone.
As other manufacturers ditch headphone jacks and connectors, they render entire accessory lines obsolete. Rubin loves to mention the iPod docks with 30-pin connectors you still see in hotel rooms. He wants to make sure your Essential add-ons never go out of style. “Let’s say I come up with a new phone in the future,” Rubin says. “And let’s say it looks nothing like this. I don’t want the person who bought an accessory to have to throw it out and buy the new accessory for the new form factor.” Accessories for the phone will work on the smart-home hub, through the same connector, and will work with whatever Essential makes next. Rubin believes consumers want a beautiful, usable phone and the flexibility to decide what it does and how it works.
The Essential’s first accessory isn’t, strictly speaking, an accessory. It’ll ship in the box with the phone as part of the device: a 360-degree camera, barely larger than your thumb. There’s no companion app or Bluetooth pairing; the phone simply treats it like an internal camera. It’s the smallest, simplest 360 camera you’ll find anywhere.
Other accessories are coming later, and Essential plans to open source the docking system so others can build cool stuff for it. The 360 camera offers a compelling glimpse of where Rubin sees this going. Most of the 360 cameras on the market are cumbersome and complicated and not very good. Essential believes something seamless and integrated will push the technology into the mainstream. That approach helped Apple become the biggest company on the planet—MP3 players existed before the iPod, and smartphones existed before the iPhone, but Apple seemed like the first company to nail those two ideas. Essential exists in no small part because Rubin believes Apple can’t do that anymore. He wants to pick up where Apple left off.
This Time, It’s Personal
Ultimately, Essential’s success or failure hinges on what comes after the Phone. Rubin’s interest lies in artificial intelligence and robots. He hopes Ambient OS, and the smart gadgets it will control, is his true spiritual successor to Android. It’s the open source Internet of Things platform he’s surprised no one has built. The Home, coming a little later this year, is designed to choreograph all the smart devices in your home, finally making them all work together. The team built a system that combines SmartThings, HomeKit, Nest, and the rest, futzing in the background with the public APIs in order to make everything work seamlessly together. It works with Alexa and Siri and Google Assistant, has a touchscreen and voice control. Rubin hopes it’ll feel like you’re interacting with your home, not a gizmo in your living room.
All the smart home stuff is still coming into focus, though. Essential started with a phone because it is your most important and most intimate device, and one you already understand. And so the revolution must start there. “You have to slipstream into the ways society works,” Rubin says. He mentions Google Glass, which failed not because the tech was bad but because the world wasn’t ready to wear them.
Still, the Phone feels personal to Rubin. Near the end of our time together, he walks over to a large shelf in his office and starts picking up devices he created in his previous jobs. He shows me an early Sidekick prototype, made to test the opening and closing of the complex hinge. One shelf up sits a Sony MagicLink, the proto-PDA he helped create in the ’90s at General Magic. You could argue that only Steve Jobs played a bigger role in the mobile revolution. And yet Rubin can’t stop trying to build the phone he’s always wanted.