The Great Essential Phone Tragedy

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Courtesy of https://shop.essential.com/products/phone

Bloomberg.com broke news on May 25th that Essential, the punchy smartphone startup from Andy Rubin of Android OS royalty, has cancelled its sophomore device, choosing instead to direct its efforts towards a smart home system and put the company up for sale. It is a startling fall from grace for a company that was valued at over $1 billion dollars in the summer of 2017, prior to it shipping a single device to eager customers.

And those customers were eager. Essential was supposed to be what Android was always meant to be. This wasn’t going to be Google’s OS held back by outsourced hardware from LG, HTC, and Huawei. This wasn’t going to be Google’s OS perverted and corrupted by egregious bloatware from the likes of Samsung. This wouldn’t be the compromises in processing power, camera potential and design that mid-range devices contended with to push units out of stores and into the hands of budget consumers. No, this wasn’t going to be any of that. From early renders and appearances, this was finally going to be the answer to iPhone – a premium minimalist design encasing the latest innards. It was going to be a pioneer in full-body screen. The Essential phone would have a notch before the iPhone. It would do dual cameras right, unlike its competitors in Huawei, LG and OnePlus. The name itself promised what die-hard Android users seem inexplicably drawn to: pure, stock Android; the bare essentials. No over-the-top software gimmicks that only end up boggling down the phone in the long term, no more instances of duplicate carrier and manufacturer apps. Just the essentials of what a smartphone needs.

Then, in August 2017, the phone finally hit stores. I walked into Telus, Canada’s exclusive launch partner for the Essential Phone, to catch a glimpse of the smartly named Ph-1. Get it? What can be said? It was gorgeous. I instantly fell in love. The full-body screen that fit into a package just marginally larger than my aging iPhone 6S, sandwiched in titanium and ceramic, melted into my hand and beckoned me towards the checkout counter. It was the most beautiful phone that I had ever seen this side of that iPhone from 2010. The $1050 asking price made the adult in me walk out of the shop empty-handed.

I decided to do my research, and almost immediately problems began to surface.

Headphone jack? Nope. Evidently Apple was correct and a 3.5mm socket is not an essential component of the idealized Android experience.
Waterproofing – standard on both iPhone and all flagship Android devices since 2016? Nope.

Then, even more issues appeared: the camera software, the only app of the sixteen that ship pre-installed in Essential’s OS, was buggy and prone to crashes. The cameras themselves performed poorly in dim light and struggled to live up to their own pretentions. Some units exhibited quality control issues. Some had Bluetooth issues. It was a mess.

I eventually got my hands on an Ph-1. Slow sales, estimated by some to be under 100,000 units through Christmas-time led to the phone’s price being slashed to $650. With its resell value dropping, I managed to snag one on Kijiji. I eagerly unboxed it, popped in my sim and got to acquainting myself with the Essential. I gave it a month. I desperately wanted to love it, for it to perform like that iPhone 4 had faithfully and beautifully for so many years. But issues persisted. Signal reception was poor – shockingly poor, and unseen since budget phones circa-2013! That same full-body LCD was plagued by lagging touch latency and responsiveness issues. The camera app had been fixed, but only so much. Battery life was intermittent, and cracks began to show in the software. It was like stock Android, but just didn’t seem to perform like stock Android should. Apps crashed, the phone would freeze, restart itself, photos wouldn’t save to the phone’s 128 GB of storage. It was heartbreaking. I sold my PH-1 for a bargain to someone coming from a OnePlus 2. I looked online to see if I was the only one who suffered from such an experience. Maybe my unit was defective? No. Reddit and developer forums revealed I was one of a plethora of disappointed and equally heartbroken customers.

How could this have happened? How could a billion-dollar company, created by the man responsible for the Android OS that successfully powers every device but the iPhone, get it so wrong? Why did Essential leave out so many useful features and believe it could demand a premium fee for its product?

In truth, the Ph-1 seemed to be a phone released a year too late. In 2016, Google launched the Pixel. It was a phone that signalled their coming of age as a hardware manufacturer. The Pixel lacked waterproofing but offered that idolized stock Android experience and a camera that can only be described as brilliant. It’s only other shortcoming was a somewhat pedestrian design, but even that was sacrificed to maximize function and utility. Looking at it’s spec sheet, the Ph-1 tried to match the Pixel, to offer it’s customers the Pixel experience with the premium design to rival Apple.

For all his genius, Andy Rubin appeared to have forgotten the golden rule of technology: if it’s released, it’s already outdated. Early 2017 phones adopted waterproofing and exceptional cameras as the norm. Samsung, LG and HTC protected their phones from liquid damage. Only HTC dared rid itself of the headphone jack. OnePlus, HTC and the Pixel duo demonstrated the capability of well-optimized and clean software. Somewhere in that competitive world of high-end Android devices, Essential lost its way. The biggest howler of them all proved to be the one thing many would have expected to be flawlessly executed – software. The camera and display were largely down to software optimization. Even some of the signal issues were attributed largely to poorly designed shifting between signal towers within the software.

For a company that made a big fuss out of providing the essentials of a good phone, Essential left far too much out. At Telus, it’s entered end of life, offered on zero dollar plans in the same categories as the Samsung A5, LG Q6 and other mid-range devices. For it’s shortcomings, the company now appears to be paying a price. This fall from grace carries with it and important lesson that anyone of the top brass at HTC, BlackBerry and LG will be quick to tell you is relevant. Innovate, but do the small things right. Get the… essentials down first.

Essential’s impending demise is a tragedy for the smartphone world. It highlights the difficulty of breaking through the ranks of Samsung, Apple and LG. All hope, however, is not lost. Years ago, there was a plucky upstart called Nextbit that crowdfunded its phone, the cloud-based Robin. Though the company is no longer around, anyone who doesn’t recognize the Robin’s DNA in Razer Phone is deluding themselves. Whoever buys Essential off Rubin’s hands will have plenty of good hardware to work with. A tinker here with the software, a bit of tailoring with the camera, add in some waterproofing, drill in a headphone jack and you have the makings of a very successful smartphone. Hey, HTC, LG, Sony or Xiaomi! Here’s lookin’ at you, kids.