Android creator Andy Rubin burst back onto the scene recently with a new company, Essential, and a feature-packed smartphone featuring an edge-to-edge display, a 360-degree camera, and an all-in-one magnetic port to which you can "snap" different accessories.
Details have been few and far between on Essential Phone, the company's new Essential Home device, and Ambient custom operating system, but Rubin provided a peek behind the curtain this week at the Wired Business Conference. After his keynote, Rubin—who just secured $300 million in funding for his new company—gave reporters, including PCMag, a very brief Essential Phone hands, and shed some light on why he thinks Essential can compete with smartphone and smart home giants.
While Essential's website gives plenty of details and specs on the phone and smart home device, there is far less information about Ambient OS. Rubin wouldn't let reporters actually get past the lock screen while we handled the phone, but he hopes the custom, open-source Android operating system will stitch various platforms together—even iOS, if he can somehow convince Apple to let him.
"Think about Apple. What Apple has with HomeKit is a bunch of individual consumer electronics companies enabling HomeKit with their products. These devices don't only speak to HomeKit, they speak to others as well," said Rubin. "Apple is trying to be the screen that drives these things."
Rubin talked about using a drag-and-drop programming model (which sounds a bit like low-code app development) in Ambient OS to make app creation easier and "redefine what a developer is" with Essential.
"We need to change who the installer is. Developing for smartphones is too difficult," said Rubin. "It's almost like you have to go somewhere like Udacity to be a good iOS or Android developer.
"The reason we created a new OS is to solve the UI problem and redefine who a developer is," he continued. "Once you do the job of bridging these islands [between different mobile OSes], you rise above these other UIs and become a holistic interface for every product that might be in your life."
We also got a look at (but couldn't take pictures of) the large round LCD discs serving as the screen for the as-yet unreleased Essential Home. Rubin described the smart home device as "a big round LCD that underneath it is everything that's in a smartphone."
"It's a new way to leverage the economies of scale of smartphones in different touch screens," said Rubin.
He also mentioned that Essential Home will include an array microphone, but wouldn't give any other details as to whether that might play into more advanced calling or video-chat features in the device.
The Key Is Interoperability
Rubin said interoperability is the differentiator with Essential. He described Essential's development philosophy as an "anti-walled garden" approach with the open-source Android OS as one part of that and the magnetic accessory port as another. Rubin wants Essential's ecosystem to interoperate with every other system out there, and he thinks consumers want that, too.
"We have a team of engineers—a lot of them—doing the job of other people to make our product work with theirs. Other companies are sitting there in their ecosystems expecting people to come to them and they get to say yes or no," said Rubin. "We're actively going out and connecting with people because that's where consumers want to live."
Rubin added: "When there's this duopoly with two guys owning 40 percent of the market, there's a sense of complacency that 'okay, I'll just go to them.' That's the perfect time to start a company to disrupt them."
What About Augmented Reality?
When asked about whether augmented reality (AR) capabilities would be baked into the platform as Apple is doing with ARKit, Rubin said that while his Playground incubator has invested in AR companies, he's taking baby steps.
He pointed to Project Tango as the standard for 3D tracking and depth perception in smartphones, but said he's still waiting for the "end product," a day when you might have a head-mounted display and somehow connect it to your smartphone…maybe with a magnetic port like that of Essential.
"What's a developer going to build with AR? So far I've seen interactive media. Games, movies, or game-like movies where you're both a participant and a viewer," said Rubin. "That's too mixed reality for me, and the mixed part hasn't been proven.
"When consumers are ready for it, whether it's a motorcycle helmet that overlays data or goggles they'll use for a board game [Rubin is an investor in CastAR], we'll be there. The problems with stuff like Oculus and HTC Vive right now are the price and the setup. They're not ready for primetime."
Don't Call It a Modular Phone
Rubin considers Project Ara the definition of modular: where you can remove a core component like the processor and replace it. "We're not doing that, which is why I prefer the term 'magnetic accessory,'" he said.
Rubin called Essential a "pro consumer brand" that doesn't ask you to get a new weird dongle every time a new accessory comes out. With features like the snap-on 360-degree camera, Rubin said he wants to move the needle toward a format change in the future, and give consumers a more active role in driving smartphone innovation.
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"Consumers need to tell me whether there's enough innovation in this. The 360-degree camera and the magnetic accessory are two things," said Rubin. "We're in a saturated smartphone market where everyone who wants a smartphone has one, and the consumer doesn't get to feel the innovation anymore. The reason we built this magnetic connector is to continuously produce innovation and show it to the consumer in real time. It's almost like software updates for hardware."
Wireless connectors are also important to Rubin's vision. He said Essential is using Wireless USB 3.0 and has transceivers working at speeds of 10 gigabits per second.
"A wireless connector is the holy grail and we're this close to it," said Rubin. "The benefit of a wireless connector is that I don't suffer from what Moto Mod does, where every accessory has to be in exactly the same location. They've painted themselves into a corner because it has to match all these accessories or throw them away and come out with new ones. I can come out with a phone that as long as it has this magnetic area on it, you can use the accessory."