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Essential PH

Sep 07, 2023

Essential, the new tech company fronted by Android creator Andy Rubin, unveiled its long-teased smartphone this week.

The PH-1, as it's called, has strong specs, almost no borders around the screen, dual cameras, and a flashy titanium and ceramic design. Apart from that weird camera cutout, it looks pretty good!

It's what Essential is doing beyond the simple phone stuff that may be iffier, if history is any indication.

Part of that involves Essential's smart home plans. The company is working on an Amazon Echo-like smart assistant, as well as a new platform, called Ambient OS, that's supposed to tie everything together.

We simply haven't seen enough of that yet to really pass judgment on it, though.

More inviting to skepticism is Essential's plan to create an ecosystem of "modular" accessories that are built to work specifically with the PH-1. The device has a pair of magnetic connectors on its back; if you have a compatible accessory, the idea is to pop it on and have it work with no fuss.

It all looks similar to what Motorola is doing with the "Moto Mods" line for its most recent phones, or what LG tried with the "Friends" modules for its G5 phone a couple years back. Thus far, Essential has detailed a 360-degree camera and a cordless charging dock as its first two attachments.

In building out this sort of ecosystem, Essential is just the latest in a string of phone makers that have taken a stab at the "modular" concept. Each time, the idea has stood on shaky ground.

Modular phones keep coming back because they’re a great elevator pitch. If you could keep the skeleton of a phone, but upgrade and customize its various components to your liking, it’d mean you wouldn't have to pay for a new device every other year.

In other words, it'd make upgrading a smartphone more like upgrading a desktop PC. Instead of shelling out $700 for a whole new device, you could just buy the bits that actually need upgrading — a new battery here, a better camera there, and so on.

But time and again, we’ve seen the modular idea fail to translate to a successful consumer product.

The highest-profile bust was Google's Project Ara. That phone started out with the idea of making its core components hot-swappable, but later transitioned to focusing on external, attachable accessories. The team behind Ara said it made that switch because it found that most buyers "couldn't care less" about upgrading the internals of a phone. Four months later, the project was scrapped entirely.

Interest in LG's modularity experiment, meanwhile, was low enough for the company to drop it within a year.

Motorola seems to have had the most success. The company said it is seeing "strong shipments" of Moto Mods and the Moto Z phones they work with, singling out sales in Brazil and India in particular, and it introduced new Mods just this week. The company declined to share specific figures, however. And either way, everything is relative: Motorola said it is "on track" to sell three million Moto Z devices within their first year on the market — that's not nothing, but it's still a fraction of the larger players in the market.

The problem with all of these examples, Ara's original vision aside, is that none of them are truly "modular."

There are niche phones like the Fairphone that at least get close to the idea of letting you swap out internal components, but what Motorola and now Essential are doing has little to do with increasing the longevity of the phones themselves. Instead, they’re selling accessories, just ones that are tethered to their own devices.

You can see the appeal of this kind of hardware lock-in from a business perspective. Every Android phone maker not named Samsung is fighting for small slices of a big pie — especially in the high-end market Essential wants to enter — so it makes sense to try to get as much of a return as you can from the handful of people who care enough to buy your device in the first place.

And, to be fair, the process of using an accessory built specifically for your phone is generally smoother than hooking up a more general piece of hardware. They’re literally made for each other.

But the value here has often been limited. The smartphone remains a finite thing, so when it dies, all the add-ons you bought die with it. (Unless you buy other devices from the company, of course.) Each accessory becomes another thing to carry around, and, if Moto is any indication, the modules themselves often aren't as practical as a standalone accessory. Motorola sells an $80 clip-on speaker from audio company JBL, for instance, but there are Bluetooth speakers that cost half as much, work with more than one device, and don't only project sound away from you.

That doesn't mean future accessories couldn't be useful — Google once pitched the idea of a plug-in insulin monitor, for instance. But to get sustained support from third-party accessory makers, the modular phone has to be something of a hit. For most phone companies, it's hard to gain that level of traction. Will Essential keep pumping these things out on its own?

And even if these phones were truly modular, they’d have to deal with the struggles of writing software that can work with varying components, and having all those component makers (Qualcomm, etc.) commit to regular updates. There just isn't an easy solution here, and the limited demand only exacerbates it.

Essential seems to realize the past struggles of others who’ve gone down this route. Here's Niccolo de Masi, the company's president and COO, in an email to Business Insider:

"We’re not doing gimmicks. We’re doing meaningful innovation. We’re doing things with the accessory port that can't be done internal to a phone, like the 360 camera for instance, which would have to stand alone or snap-on. We don't like the modular phone description, because ours are not cosmetic changes. Our innovation provides meaningful experiences for the user."

In other words, the company wants to focus on accessories that do things you couldn't do with the phone itself. The 360-degree camera is that, technically. It doesn't need a battery, either, and it’ll only cost $50 when bundled with the phone. (Though it's $200, around the price of standalone cameras, on its own.) Whether that ease of use is worth it when the camera only works with one device remains to be seen.

To its credit, Essential does seem to be pitching its add-ons as simpler accessories more than things that'll change the way you buy phones. If you don't like them, you don't have to get them. It's probably best if the rest of us look at them that way, too.

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