Android-maker's Essential Phone looks like the future but may fail to take off

The new smartphone from the godfather of Android lit the internet on fire, but looks likely to fall into the same traps as others who have taken on Apple and Samsung
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The internet lit up yesterday when Andy Rubin, the godfather of Android, announced the Essential Phone. While the immediate attention-grabbing feature is the size of the screen (it’s so big that it has a chunk carved out for the front facing camera), there is one thing in particular that makes the phone interesting and definitely one I expect to see aped by other phone makers going forward.

On the back of the phone, just across from the camera, are a couple of little metal pins. While at first glance these may seem like extraneous bits of design, these are in fact what sets the phone apart with the company’s vision for the future. Those pins are magnetic connectors that can be used for a variety of different purposes with a range of accessories. The first couple of examples are a 360 degree camera and a charging point. 

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This is not the first time we have seen something that resembles a modular phone, but it seems like it is the most thoroughly thought out and well designed iteration. The LG G5 was the last high profile phone to boast modular features, but its clunky execution (you had to remove the ‘chin’ and battery, attach the accessory to the battery and then plug it back into the phone) meant that it was a bit of a failed experiment. The Essential Phone still has a USB-C port, but if things go to plan then that could become a rarely used part of the device.

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And the Essential Phone looks like it can compete on paper as well. It’s got a 2.45GHz Snapdragon 835 SoC with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, along with a 5.71-inch, 2560x1312 display. Camera wise it’s competitive with an 8MP front shooter and a dual 13MP setup on the back complete with laser autofocus. Rounding it all out is a 3040mAh battery. So, in comparison with other phones, the Essential is, essentially, on a level with the iPhones and Galaxy S8s of the world, and with that unique future tech you’d think it’s set to be a sure fire success. 

As Google discovered with the Pixel, even if your phone is a critical darling and even if you splash the cash on ad campaigns being a widespread commercial hit is not a guarantee. That’s not to say Pixel didn’t do well. Google doesn’t release sales figures, but by just taking a glance around at its retail presence and its prevalence out in public would indicate that there maybe aren’t as many Pixel phones out there as Google would have hoped. Arguably the biggest reason for this is simply because it’s not made by either of Apple or Samsung.

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Between them, Samsung and Apple have 34 per cent of the market. Chuck in fast growing Huawei and that accounts for pretty much half the phones that were sold in the first quarter. Suffice to say that the smartphone market is a tricky one to be successful in if you’re not one of the big players, and even established names like LG and Blackberry have struggled. For a brand new company with an admittedly nondescript title to come out of the gates expecting to compete with those established names is naive to say the least. 

I want Essential to prove me wrong and be a runaway success to shake up a market that is only now just getting interesting with the emergence of Huawei. I suspect though that it may become an interesting curio that was neat in concept but one that never fully lived up to its potential.

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