Amazon is among the tech giants backing Essential, the smartphone hardware company founded by Android creator Andy Rubin, as it prepares to put out its first products in a bid to unseat Apple and Samsung in the competitive smartphone arena.
In a report from the Wall Street Journal today the company confirmed it has raised a $300 million funding round led by Amazon’s Alexa Fund and Chinese internet company Tencent. Essential also told WSJ that Amazon and Best Buy will be the company’s U.S. launch partners.
Amazon released the following statement from Paul Bernard, director of corporate development for the Alexa Fund, on the investment:
Essential Products has a compelling vision and roadmap for connected devices that integrates voice technology in novel ways. We are excited to see Alexa become part of that vision where interacting with technology is simple, helpful and creates an interface that others can build on and innovate. We look forward to what will come from this collaboration.
One thing we still don’t know is when Essential will release its first products, a smartphone and a smart speaker powered by a digital assistant. “We’re a few weeks away,” Niccolo De Masi, Essential’s president told WSJ.
The common themes among Essential’s first products are the ability to “play well with others” through open ecosystems, and long lifespans.
The Essential Home speaker can control music, answer questions and manage tasks, among other things, similar to other digital assistants. It can be activated through voice, touch or even just glancing at it, and the device is free of the “boxes, tubes or strange lights” the company says are found in other smart home hubs. The speaker’s “Ambient OS automatically introduces itself to new and existing devices and helps set them up in no time,” according to Essential’s website.
Privacy is another big selling point for Essential Home. The Echo and other digital assistants tend to rely heavily on the cloud, while Essential Home talks to other devices over the in-home network and runs its digital assistant locally on the device.
The phone is slick and stripped down on the outside and high-powered at the core. Along with the phone, Essential is releasing several accessories, such as an attachable 360-degree camera and a docking station. The phone runs on Android and starts at $699.
Rubin’s resume rivals that of anyone in tech. Before co-founding Android, which Google acquired in 2005, he worked at Apple spinoff General Magic. There he helped build some of the first internet-connected mobile devices, precursors to smartphones. Another company he co-founded, Danger Inc., went on to build the phone later branded as the Sidekick for T-Mobile.
On his website, Rubin explained some frustrations he hit on during a discussion with a friend one night that led him to start Essential:
As the night went on we inevitably began talking about what we didn’t like about the current state of technology. Less and less choice. More and more unnecessary features cluttering our lives. An increasing sea of products that didn’t work with one another…
And just when I was about to drop another criticism it hit me: I am partly responsible for all of this.
For all the good Android has done to help bring technology to nearly everyone it has also helped create this weird new world where people are forced to fight with the very technology that was supposed to simplify their lives. Was this what we had intended? Was this the best we could do?
I left that night reflecting deeply on what was great and what was frustrating with the current state of technology today. After another long talk with my friend we decided that I needed to start a new kind of company using 21st century methods to build products for the way people want to live in the 21st century.