Android creator Andy Rubin early Tuesday unveiled his vision for the future of consumer devices: Phones with software that’s not consumed with bloatware or extra features from carriers like AT&T or Verizon. Devices in your home that all connect and communicate with each other, regardless of whether they’re made by Apple or Samsung or Google.
His new company has an equally audacious name: Essential.
But how can he succeed where so many others have failed — to make his brand pro-consumer in a way that makes all the other tech and wireless giants play nicely? For now, his answer isn’t very specific.
“I’m trying as hard as I can,” Rubin said Tuesday evening at Recode’s Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. He was answering a question about preventing carriers from adding bloatware — extra apps from handset makers and carriers — to your phone.
Earlier in the day, Rubin gave us our first glimpse at Essential. So far there are two main products: A high-end titanium phone with attachable components, like a 360-degree camera. The second is a smart home hub called Home, which competes with the Amazon Alexa and Google Home. Other devices are expected in the future.
During the Code Conference interview, Rubin said the goal for his smart home devices is to create an open ecosystem that supports different standards and protocols. To do that, he’s created a new operating system called Ambient OS, though details about it are still scant. The hope is for Home to support the digital assistants from all the various tech titans: Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri — not to mention a new assistant from Essential. There’s a “trick” to that, he said, by plugging into those companies’ developer tools, which allow app makers to build for those ecosystems.
Still, getting those companies to open up their platforms is no easy feat.
“I’m going to offer to support all those,” he said. “And it’s really up to the companies that support all those ecosystems if they want to work with me.”
Representatives from Apple, Google and Amazon didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on whether they’d allow their digital assistants on the Essential Home.
The uncertainty over being able to work with big tech companies underscores just how hard it is to make a dent in the consumer electronics market. Newcomers have to navigate a space occupied by powerful tech giants with tight control over their ecosystems. Even Google, which has a generally good reputation for creating open platforms, might have reasons to shut out access to competitors.
“Everybody’s creating an island by creating their own ecosystem,” Rubin said. “Building bridges is the best way to describe what we’re doing with the Home device.”
For Rubin, Essential is a test to see if he can make lightning strike again. As the creator of Android, he brought the smartphone to the masses. In 2005, he sold the startup to Google for $50 million and shepherded it to the most dominant mobile software in the world. Android now runs on 2 billion devices and almost nine out of every 10 smartphones shipped on the planet runs Android.
Rubin left Google in 2014, where he had most recently been running the company’s nascent robotics division. His followup act was Playground Global, a tech incubator — techspeak for a company that nurtures young startups — that specifically helps firms creating hardware products. Essential itself is one of Playground’s portfolio companies.
On Tuesday evening, Rubin showed off the Essential devices for the first time publicly. He also gave a few other tidbits about devices. The attachments connect through magnetics and wireless USB, and they attach in a way that if Essential radically changes the physical design of the phone, the attachments would still be usable.
For now, he’s said he’s selling the devices on Essential’s website but later will get distribution through carriers and other retailers.
But he still doesn’t have many specifics on how he’ll get the tech giants and carriers to get on a kumbaya level.
What he will say, though, is that he doesn’t want Essential to be just a niche brand.
“We’re going for it,” he said. “We’re swinging for the fences.”
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