Here’s something to raise your eyebrows. Essential, the company founded in 2015 by disgraced former Google exec Andy Rubin, released images of its Project Gem smartphone on Tuesday—and it basically looks like a phone chopped down the middle.
Rubin left Google in 2014 after allegations of sexual harassment and coercion, with his $90 million exit package and accusations that the tech giant shielded him and other executives sparking considerable backlash including a massive walkout by Google’s own employees. (Since then, Google workers have said the company retaliated against them for their involvement in the walkout, and court documents in Rubin’s divorce claimed he operated a “sex ring.”) The company he founded afterwards, Essential, released the minimalistic PH-1 phone in 2017 to a poor review by Gizmodo, though we deemed it a somewhat more competitive option as it plummeted to less than half price.
The phone Essential and Rubin unveiled on Tuesday has a “radically different form factor,” namely that it’s elongated with a vertically oriented UI, as well as large icons and side buttons. It also has what looks like a pretty big camera bump on the back, which might indicate a big switch from the underwhelming camera in its predecessor. There’s also a divot on the back of the device positioned approximately in the same place as a fingerprint sensor.
Gem is confirmed to be the successor to the original PH-1, according to the Verge.
Other Gem features include a “colorshift” material on the back of the device that appears to change hues depending on the light striking it, which is visually striking but perhaps not a major selling point given the ubiquity of protective cases.
Interestingly, last year Bloomberg reported that Essential was working on a phone designed to have a small screen and powered by an assistant that attempts to perform several functions for the user without manual intervention. Said phone would “require users to interact mainly using voice commands, in concert with Essential’s artificial-intelligence software.” Leaks from XDA Developers last month showed Essential’s new phone had code identifying a “fingerprint walkie talkie” mode speculated to be a way of activating said assistant, in which case perhaps that pit on the back is not a fingerprint sensor at all. Bloomberg noted that Rubin had previously characterized plans for a assistant integration and small screen as a way to fight “addictive” phone use, which sure, whatever.
On the other hand, this new form factor would appear to preclude normal use of many apps, and god only knows how convenient using the keyboard will be. If the primary mode of interaction with the device is intended to be a voice assistant, that could get real annoying—and really privacy-limiting—fast. Then there’s the whole matter of all that detestable behavior attributed to Rubin, which should probably give potential customers pause.