Essential devices literally don’t live up to their brand name

This home device is Essential – at least in name. Image credit: Essential Products

Essential Products has launched a series of products aimed at creating an ecosystem, but none of them do anything or enable anything that is desperately new. Consequently, the real beneficiary from yet another nice looking, easy to use phone will be Google, whose ecosystem will be front and center of Essential’s flagship device.

Essential was founded by Android creator Andy Rubin, and has launched two devices and two accessories in a bid to stitch together the fragmented smart home space.

Let’s start with the Essential Phone, which is similar to the Galaxy s8, although its screen is lower resolution, not waterproof and the battery has a slightly lower capacity. Its one major area of differentiation is that the chassis is made from injected titanium and has a ceramic back, potentially making it much more resistant to being dropped and scratched. When it comes to screen protection, both are using Gorilla Glass 5, meaning that resistance to screen smashing should be about the same.

It also has two pins on the back (much like the Moto Mods concept) to which accessories can be attached. The API for the accessory pins will be made available to developers to create their own devices to attach to the phone.

However, it has the price to match at $699 compared to $750 for the Galaxy s8, which is where I think the trouble will begin. Essential Phone is nice looking but I can’t see how it does anything that is not already available and outside of chassis resistance, Samsung gives more hardware bang for the buck.

Essential has also launched Essential Home, a voice activated home controller that aims to bring the smart home together in one place. This is something that the smart home badly needs, as the Alexa user experience is dire and hardly any products and services work with Google Home.

This product is different for two main reasons:

  1. It is not designed to play music, unlike other offerings although it does has a small speaker like the Echo Dot. Instead, it is aimed at bringing all of the home’s devices together into a single place to manage them in an easy and fun to use way. This device is also able to integrate these products such that smart devices can work together in new, fun and potentially very useful ways. For example, when the timer goes off, the room’s lights can be flashed on and off rather than the generic alarm bell sound that everyone else uses.
  2. Home has a small screen on the top that is designed to enhance communication and interaction with the user. RFM research has found that voice communication with machines is very far from being good enough to work effectively without a screen for output. Consequently, this configuration makes a lot of sense.

The device runs its own OS called Ambient OS, but Essential intends to open this up completely such that anyone can write functionality for the product.

This device takes a massive risk because 70% of the usage of devices in this category is as a Bluetooth speaker. Consequently, there is a sizeable risk that this device will not appeal to the majority of users looking to buy something in this category.

Another big issue is the source of the AI that will be running Home, as this will be the heart and soul of this product, and the AI in Ambient OS currently looks as dubious as Bixby.

As for the accessories, Essential has launched a charging plate for the Phone that connects through the two pins as well as a 360 degree camera.

I think that the charging plate is pretty useless, as wireless charging is starting to come of age, and inclusion of one of the standards in the device would have enabled a good user experience with products already present in the market and in users’ hands. For example, because the Galaxy S8 supports Qi charging, it will work with any compatible pad.

When I originally wrote about Essential Products, my view was that it needed to produce must-have devices. In that regard, I think it has failed.

The Phone is a Google Ecosystem device with a few nice features but less bells and whistles than the Samsung Galaxy S8 for almost the same price.

The Home has the most potential, but it is taking an awful risk in that it is not addressing the biggest use case by far, and has dubious AI. It will also be dependent on third party developers, meaning that it will need volume – but even in its best case, it is not going to out-ship Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa.

Consequently, I remain unconvinced with regards to what is special and different about Essential Products, and suspect that many consumer electronics buyers will feel the same way. Differentiation in hardware is extremely difficult meaning that Andy Rubin needs to have some software tricks up his sleeve that he is yet to show. Failing that, it seems that this company will end up enriching Google more than itself.

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