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Smartphone innovation is running out of steam. Exhibit A: the Essential Phone.


As the co-founder of Android, Andy Rubin was one of the most important figures in the development of modern smartphones. So when he unveiled his latest project today — a new company called Essential that will sell a high-end smartphone — the technology world paid attention.

The Essential Phone, a $699 device whose release date hasn’t yet been announced, will be made out of titanium, which Essential says is more durable than the aluminum and plastic enclosures that are common today’s smartphones. The screen covers practically the entire front of the phone. It also has a unique magnetic connector for accessories, including a tiny 360-degree camera that’s also offered by Essential.

But overall, the Essential Phone seems remarkably similar to devices that are already on the market. It runs a standard version of the Android operating system Rubin created, and in most respects it looks little different from smartphones you can buy today from Apple or Samsung. In other words, one of the smartphone industry’s greatest innovators set out to reinvent the smartphone and found that there just wasn’t that much room for improvement.

It’s a very different situation from the 2000s, which saw several generations of industry-changing smartphones. Before Android, Rubin created a company called Danger in 1999 that made a smartphone called the Sidekick. It never reached a large market share, but it beloved among techies, and concepts pioneered by Danger later found their way into Android.

Around the same time, business customers were going wild for the email-focused BlackBerry. It became so ubiquitous that in 2009 President Barack Obama insisted on being given a hardened version of the device for use as president. Microsoft, Nokia, Palm, and Motorola also had early, innovative smartphones.

Then Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007 and it instantly rendered these non-multitouch phones obsolete. In the past decade, the smartphone industry has largely been a story of other companies trying to catch up to Apple. Today’s smartphones are larger, faster, and have higher-resolution screens than the original iPhone, but they have retained the iPhone’s basic design and user interface.

In its typically enthusiastic write-up of the Essential Phone, Wired gripes that smartphones have become “as personal as refrigerators.” The phrase was intended as a complaint about the state of smartphone innovation. But it makes more sense to look at the situation the other way around: Refrigerators all look alike because refrigerator manufacturers perfected the basic design of a fridge decades ago.

Fridge manufacturers have tried every possible combination of features and configurations, and they’ve settled on the designs that do the best job of meeting consumers’ needs. That’s not to say that refrigerator innovation is impossible, but it’s not surprising that refrigerators don’t change very much from year to year.

Laptops reached the same point more than a decade ago. Apple laptops from the mid-2000s barely look different from today’s laptops. Last year’s introduction of the touch bar was the biggest change we’ve seen in years, and it’s not exactly a revolution.

And now smartphones, too, seem to have reached a point where there’s little room for further progress. If anyone had the potential to fundamentally rethink the smartphone, it would be Rubin, with his extensive experience of innovation in both hardware and software.

This isn’t to say that the Essential Phone won’t be successful. It looks like a good phone that could catch on with customers. But the best-case scenario for the Essential Phone is that it becomes one of the better-selling devices in an already crowded Android phone market. Essential doesn’t pose a serious threat to incumbents like Apple, Google, and Samsung the way the iPhone and Android threatened early smartphones.