The Essential Phone is Standing Up to Apple and Samsung

The Essential Phone is the first product from the technology startup launched by Android co-founder Andy Rubin.

But Essential’s first phone—the PH-1—isn’t taking on Google. The startup is setting out to rupture the Apple-Samsung duopoly.

We’re here to say duopolies need to be disrupted. It doesn’t need to be this way. But it needs to be disrupted from Silicon Valley because it takes fire to fight fire,” said Niccolo De Masi, Essential’s president and chief operating officer. Techvibes spoke to De Masi at a Toronto launch event.

De Masi said that while consumer choice in the phone market has declined, Samsung and Apple have reported the most profitable quarters of any company in history.

“People don’t say, ‘We’re being ripped off.’ They say, ‘It is what it is,’” he said. “We’re not going to let Samsung and Apple postpone innovation for consumers because Tim Cook is maximizing profitability.”

The Essential Phone was engineered with a mix of form and function in mind. The nearly bezel-less 5.7-inch edge-to-edge display is a phablet-sized screen in a phone-sized product. And it comes with 128 GB of storage.

With a ceramic back and titanium border, the PH-1 claims to be more durable than the iPhone or Galaxy and outperforms on device drop tests. There’s no logo apart from a small circle on the back of the phone.

De Masi said the current generation of phone owners is tired of incrementalism; yearly releases of a new phone boasting new features. Essential plans to showcase innovation faster than other mobile companies by launching new accessories—that can attach to the phone through its unique magnetic accessory port—every quarter.

The COO hopes this will also fight “phone boredom” by future-proofing the device.

“I think we’re the start of a new wave. I think it’s going to spur people to look at this product as a fashion statement—who you are, what’s important to you and what you stand for—not just a utility product.”

Building Brand Love from the Ground Up

Essential wants the face of their designers and engineers to be the face of their organization too. With a 100-person team largely made up of former Apple, Samsung and Amazon employees, Essential has the same hardware and software expertise as the tech giants.

As such, De Masi thinks Essential can be the next love brand in phones.

“One of the things Andy and I concluded is that Apple has done a good job at building an emotive connection between consumers, hardware, software, and services—nobody in the Android ecosystem really has,” he said.

But for a new product that isn’t heavily branded, attracting new users and creating brand love could be a challenge.

“I’m not worried about that in the slightest… By compressing product development cycles, we’re always going to deliver greatness,” said De Masi.

“You know you’re on an Essential Phone because you’re recording 360 video anywhere convenient. We’re always going to provide experiences that are new and fresh and that other people simply can’t have.”

Revolutionizing the Selfie—And More

As De Masi noted, one of the phone’s impressive accessories is a thumb-sized 360 degree camera. It attaches to the phone through a magnetic connector built into the device. The camera draws power from the phone battery and uses phone memory—no charging, no SD card. 

“It’s the only spontaneous device for VR capture,” said De Masi, comparing their $50 camera to Samsung’s device that requires a tripod and power cable. “That’s awesome for boardroom tables, but that’s not what people use their phone for.”

De Masi believes the camera is going to revolutionize the selfie, and become the next favourite device of content creators and social media influencers.

But Essential is out to more than change the way people take photos of themselves. They’re also building Essential Home, an AI-enabled speaker that connects home services and devices. The central hub will be powered by an operating system called Ambient. De Masi said Essential’s ten-year vision is for Ambient OS to first choreograph your home, then choreograph your life.

“We want to be a leader in the AI-computing platform of tomorrow. To get us there, we think it goes through the screens and devices of today,” De Masi said.

The Essential Phone is available for pre-order in Canada exclusively through Telus. It’ll cost buyers $290 on a two-year Premium Plus plan or $490 on a standard two-year plan. Preorders are set to be delivered on September 1. If a consumer wants an unlocked, off-contract Essential PH-1, they’ll have to fork over $1,050.

Meanwhile, other Android phone companies are releasing updated version’s of their devices shortly, including the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, LG V30, and Google Pixel 2.