Essential is no longer selling phones, but should we still believe in Andy Rubin's vision?

The Home hub speaker and wireless charger are officially vaporware too.

essential front
Michael Simon/IDG

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Apparently Essential doesn't feel like a full product catalogue are all that necessary to a sound business plan. Following a Bloomberg report that claimed the fledgling and flailing phone maker headed by Android creator Andy Rubin has slashed its workforce by 30 percent and was prepping the company for a sale, Essential has now stopped selling its namesake product, the PH-1, a titanium-and-ceramic beauty of a handset that never quite lived up to its own hype.

In a statement to 9to5Google, Essential confirmed the phone was indeed sold out on its website, as indicated by a banner where a "Buy now" button should be. However, te spokesperson also added that it "won’t be adding any new inventory," a sure sign that the once-hyped handset is officially discontinued. (As of this writing the phone is still available at Amazon in black and gray.)

At the time of its launch, Essential Phone was the first handset with an "edge-to-edge" notched design and a complete lack of branding, but was missing premium features such as water resistance, wireless charging, and (at the time) a headphone jack. It was originally priced at $799, but was quickly discounted to $599. 

After 18 months, this hurts current Essential owners more than future ones. All this basically means is that Essential won't be producing any more accessories, meaning Rubin never fulfilled his vision for the PH-1. The Essential Phone's proprietary magnetic connector was one of its best selling points, giving the phone an expandable future a la Moto mods. It shipped with a single 360-degree camera that left much to be desired, but Essential promised more were in the way, including an anticipated wireless charger, a necessary accessory since the Essential Phone doesn't support the Qi standard. We can now assume that's not coming. And that radical Home hub that was supposed to "proactively manage your life"? Yeah, forget that too.

essential home hub Essential

The Home hub was supposed be a thing, but it's disappeared from Essential's website.

In fact, the only two product tabs on the Essential website are the phone and Audio Adapter HD, both of which are out of stock. It's been more than a year and a half since Essential Phone originally launched, and now the company has stopped selling its flagship product, wiped all references to its smart speaker, and basically turned its brand into a high-priced dongle purveyor.

Based on the latest estimates, just 80 employees are left to handle day-to-day operations. And we don't really know the status of Rubin either, since Essential hasn't really commented since The New York Times ran a story claiming Rubin was one of three executives who left Google following accusations of misconduct by female employees.

What comes next?

But Essential says the lack of any actual products to sell hasn't slowed its roll. In the short statement, the company said it is "hard at work on our next mobile product."

essential phone back Michael Simon/IDG

Will Essential's next product be a phone?

We have an idea about what that mystery device could be. According to another recent Bloomberg report, Essential is working on an AI-powered handheld device that relies mainly on voice commands to perform tasks. Sources told the publication that the phone-like gadget will be able "to book appointments or respond to emails and text messages on its own."

Pardon me if I seem skeptical, but I have a hard time believing Essential has developed an AI engine that's more advanced than Google Assistant and a voice-powered OS the likes of which we haven't seen. It never even demoed the Ambient OS behind the Home hub that never shipped, and Essential Phone didn't have any proprietary AI or machine learning smarts aside from some computational photography tricks that weren't nearly as good as Google's. So I'm taking Bloomberg's report with a grain of salt.

But Essential is being coy with it wording here, so I expect if and when its next product arrives, it won't be a traditional phone. And that's just fine. I'll admit that today's Essential Phone is vastly superior to the one that initially shipped thanks to a steady stream of updates--which Essential promises to continue developing--but a premium Android phone that doesn't crash and stutter isn't anything to boast about. There's nothing about the Essential Phone that's any better than a phone such as the Galaxy S9 or OnePlus 6T, and without any new accessories, there isn't much hope it ever will be. 

But to be fair to Rubin and Essential, selling a premium phone in 2019 with a Snapdragon 835 processor isn't a great look, so discontinuing the PH-1 is probably for the best. And besides, all is not lost. Rubin's name still carries weight in the Android world, so whatever it sells next will surely make headlines. But for now, Essential is basically an accessory maker, so if you're looking for a $149 headphone jack adapter (which you can finance for around $14 a month), it should eventually be back in stock. As for Rubin's vision of disrupting the status quo, we'll have to wait a little longer. 

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