Andy Rubin doesn’t compare to Bill Gates, Sundar Pichai or Tim Cook in terms of popularity and familiarity. But his contribution to modern technology is just as impactful. He is the inventor of the world’s most widely used smartphone operating system – Android. All said and done, Android as a platform took off massively only after it was acquired by Google. It doesn’t discount Rubin’s contribution to the project, or that he spent nearly eight years at Google overseeing the operating system’s development as it became one of the most popular operating system in the world. In his second avatar, Rubin is back. But would his stamp of authenticity be all it takes to make Essential a runaway success?
Since the rise of Android, Rubin moved on from Google. His latest project is Essential Products, starting with the Essential Phone. With flagship specifications, coupled with innovative design and features, the Essential Phone looks great. There’s a lot to offer from its edge-to-edge screen, modular capability, photography prowess and top-end specifications, and the phone sticks to its minimalist design by skipping everything from the 3.5mm jack to a logo at the back.
Essential’s approach to the industry brings us to two very distinct examples of similar attempts. Parallels can be drawn with OnePlus, a company that started small, but succeeded with its promise of great specifications with competitive pricing. Today, OnePlus has a bustling and active community, gains unprecedented attention in online conversations and can be considered among the top players of the online-first smartphone segment. If Essential manages to build its community the same way and gains a fan following, it could well grow to be the next OnePlus.
However, there is one other parallel that can be drawn, and this is one that Essential will hope to avoid. Some of you might remember Obi Worldphone. Founded in 2014, Obi Worldphone also hoped to be a maverick smartphone maker with a focus on design, building phones that offered different design and great specifications for the price. And one more big similarity exists here; just as Andy Rubin’s association with Essential is being played up massively, Obi Worldphone heavily banked on the fact that it is backed by former Apple CEO and influential angel investor John Sculley, another well-known name in the industry.
Indeed, a lack of initial interest could backfire on Essential much in the same way that Obi Worldphone barely managed to generate any buzz beyond the initial push. It was barely about the product there, with more focus given to the fact that John Sculley backed the project, hoping that would be enough to convince potential buyers of the phone’s potential. Today, Obi is entirely insignificant, having launched its last smartphone over a year ago in March 2016 and showing no signs of revival.
Essential’s approach is similar, with talk being centered on the company’s famous founder and lead backer, giving less attention to the actual product itself. Unless Essential shifts the conversation to the product and convinces buyers that what they’re getting is something special, the company is bound to go the Obi Worldphone way.
Furthermore, if you look at the Essential Phone from an Indian perspective, it’s an uphill battle from day one. The lack of brand recognition will be the company’s biggest problem, further complicated by the fact that the phone doesn’t even flaunt its own brand name. Buyer concerns will range from quality, after-sales support and flaunt-value, none of which are convincing enough to win over the Indian buyer. And if Essential goes with the online-only model of distribution, it’s limiting its scope and reach to a small segment of buyers that are also subject to the same issues of not knowing whether they can rely on a relatively unknown name. Furthermore, I have my doubts as to whether anyone beyond the typical technology enthusiast knows (or for that matter, cares) who Andy Rubin is, and if that would affect a purchase decision. ALSO READ: The success that Oppo and Vivo have tasted in India hints at reasons well beyond specifications
The Essential Phone does look promising, and knowing that the creator of Android has something to do with this phone is reassuring to users who value good software. It’s also likely do gain some attention in North America and Europe, where users are more inclined to buying premium products and design will play a bigger role in the buying decision. However, whether it can succeed in India is anyone’s guess right now.