Android co-founder launches rival smartphone
Please use the sharing tools found via the email icon at the top of articles. Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy. Email [email protected] to buy additional rights. Subscribers may share up to 10 or 20 articles per month using the gift article service. More information can be found here.
Share on Twitter (opens new window) Share on Facebook (opens new window) Share on LinkedIn (opens new window) 5 Save YESTERDAY by: Tim Bradshaw in San Francisco Listen to this article Play audio for this article 00:00 04:54 Powered by FT Labs Text-to-Speech Find more articles to listen to Andy Rubin, the creator of Google’s Android platform, has launched a new gadget company called Essential, with a new “modular” mobile handset priced at $699 and designed to challenge the iPhone and a smart-home device to rival Amazon’s Echo. By creating devices that “evolve with you” and will “always play well with others”, Mr Rubin has pledged to fix some of the problems that he admits Android helped to create in today’s technology market, such as planned obsolescence and lack of interoperability between different companies’ platforms. Google acquired Android, co-founded by Mr Rubin, in 2005. First launched on an HTC device as a challenger to Apple’s iPhone in 2008, the Android operating system now runs on more than 80 per cent of all smartphones sold, according to market researcher IDC. Google said earlier this month that there are more than 2bn Android devices in active use, including smartphones, tablets, smartwatches and TVs. Mr Rubin started Essential after leaving Google in 2014, where he had most recently been in charge of its robotics division, called Replicant. He also helps to run a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Playground Global, which invests in hardware start-ups. Essential’s first product is an Android-based smartphone running Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 835 processor, with an edge-to-edge screen and a body made of titanium and ceramic. The company says these unusual materials make its phone more resistant to drops and scratches than the aluminium used in Apple’s iPhones and much of Samsung’s range. The device comes in four colours but its clean, minimalist design bears no branding or logo. Like Apple’s latest iPhone 7, it also lacks a traditional headphone socket. Essential’s smartphone also comes with a 360-degree camera accessory, the first in an anticipated range of modular attachments that could help the phone to keep pace with new trends such as virtual reality without customers needing to buy a whole new handset. Essential Home, a voice-activated assistant for the home that includes a touchscreen, will go on sale later this year, running its own “Ambient OS”. For now, Essential’s “PH-1” phone can only be ordered through its own website, with no indication of which operators might distribute it. Analysts say securing partnerships with operators is essential to cracking the US smartphone market. Other new entrants such as China’s Huawei and LeEco have struggled without significant distribution. Essential’s phone will come “unlocked”, meaning it can be used with any network but customers will have to buy a mobile contract separately. In a blog post published on Tuesday explaining why he had started the company, Mr Rubin writes of wanting to bring “craftsmanship back” to tech products and his vision to “change how successful technology companies are built forever”. Complaining about the difficulty in using apps and services across devices created by rival companies, he says: “For all the good Android has done to help bring technology to nearly everyone 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.” Despite Mr Rubin’s background, Jan Dawson, analyst at Jackdaw Research, said he was “extremely sceptical” that Essential could succeed where other would-be challengers to the dominance of Apple and Samsung have failed, particularly given its seemingly limited distribution. “The major US operators tend to be fairly conservative when it comes to selling phones from lesser-known vendors,” he said. “I don’t think Andy Rubin’s background by itself will be enough to overcome the innate conservatism of the operators, especially since it’s been many years since he’s done phone hardware.” Companies such as LG and Lenovo’s Motorola have struggled to sell significant numbers of smartphone buyers on the “modular” concept, Mr Dawson added. “I don’t think the concept has really resonated,” he said. “Even as a concept, Essential’s take on modularity seems much more limited than what we’ve seen from LG and Motorola, as these feel much more like traditional accessories than swappable components.”