You have to give the Essential Phone credit for managing to carve out a spot in our attention, given what a phone-heavy year 2017 is turning out to be. On the one hand, Samsung is about to make its play for phablet redemption with the Galaxy Note 8, successor to the ill-fated (and fiery) Note 7. Shortly after, we’ll get to close the book on all the rumors around what could be Apple’s most dramatic iPhone upheaval in years, as the iPhone 8 makes its much-anticipated debut.
The accompanying actors are attention-seeking, too. Stalwarts such as Motorola and HTC are keen to demonstrate their ongoing relevance, while relative upstarts like OnePlus and Huawei build ever-increasing fanbases. Leaks about Google’s Pixel 2 are snapped up by eager Android-lovers, hungry for a taste of the next “pure” experience of the best-selling platform.
Kudos, then, to the Essential Phone – a not-inexpensive device on only one of the major carriers – for stoking the interest it has. It ticks all the right geek-appeal boxes, that’s for sure. Eye-catching edge-to-edge display? Check! Cool modular accessory design? Check! Handiwork of “father of Android” Andy Rubin? Check! Throw in the premium materials and the general exclusivity, and it’s little surprise that the Essential Phone has been the talk of Android fans for the past few months.
My colleague Vincent Nguyen described the handset as akin to vanilla ice cream. “There’s nothing terribly exciting or flavorful about it, true, but it’s the ideal base for adding on whatever toppings your taste buds desire,” he argues. “In many ways, Essential’s first phone is the vanilla ice cream of the mobile world. The hardware isn’t that exciting at first glance: it looks like a slab of glass, no matter how it’s held or placed on the table. Like the ice cream, though, the Essential Phone is the base for what’s to come.”
There’s some truth in that, though the reality is also that the toppings section of this particular ice cream parlor currently has just one choice on offer. Essential’s 360-degree camera is undoubtedly a good example of the company’s modular platform, highlighting the magnetic mount, ability of the Essential Phone to power accessories, and the high-speed wireless link used to transfer data like bandwidth-heavy 4K video. After that, at some point, will be a docking station. Beyond that? Essential isn’t saying.
No company is entirely transparent about its roadmap, of course, and Essential would be highly unusual if it spilled everything it had planned for the next few months. Still, even in just my relatively short time with the Essential Phone, I’ve been reminded of how early in the life of this “game-changer” we still are.
Last night, Essential pushed out a new firmware update to those of us with early access to its phone. It added a high dynamic range (HDR) mode to the native camera app, along with stability and other improvements. The camera changes were a big deal, because while most people are excited about Essential’s 360-degree camera module, the photos it takes from its integrated twin-cameras have been only average.
Of course, firmware updates are a fact of life for modern smartphones: indeed, we generally welcome them. One of Essential’s big commitments is to Android updates for at least two years, and security updates for a year beyond that, too.
Still, it underscores the fact that the Essential Phone is very much at the bleeding edge of what Essential the company is doing. It’s currently a fairly raw version of Rubin & Co.’s vision for what its smartphone should be, and do. It’s also at the vanguard of an all-new – and ambitious – ecosystem.
Essential has taken on two big challenges. On the one hand, it’s trying to kick-start a modular platform, one which will require the cooperation and commitment of third-party hardware developers in order to succeed. Essential itself may have plans to release a new modular device every few months, but it’s a relatively small team and the expansion will need more than just the accessories it can produce if it’s to gain traction.
At the same time, though, Essential is also trying to fulfill Rubin’s vision of an artificial intelligence, different from the Wikipedia-searching, weather forecasting agents we’re currently familiar with. As he sees it, the goal is a “virtual version of you that’s operating in this phone,” that ushers in a new age of software and experiences on what’s arguably the most personal device we each rely upon. Even for someone sitting at the head of a multi-million startup accelerator with a clutch of AI-developing companies under its roof, that’s no small challenge.
Buying the Essential Phone today undoubtedly gets you in on the ground floor of that. Still, it’s unclear just how long you’ll be waiting for the elevator to take you any higher up. With any new device, the best advice is always to buy it because it does what you want it to today, not for the promise of what it might do tomorrow. Essential makes a mighty strong pitch, certainly, but for the moment all they can sell you is a clean Android phone that makes plenty of promises.