The Boutique Smartphone

One of the things I love most about the automotive industry is the wild variety of stuff that’s possible from a base of four wheels and a powertrain. Most models are designed to be practical, and that’s why the best-selling cars all look very similar to each other and have basically the same functions, with the notable exception of the Ford F-150.

Even with the vast majority of cars being made by companies focused primarily on practicality, there’s still room in the marketplace for boutique manufacturers. Some of them produce fewer than one hundred units annually, with stratospheric prices: Spyker, Koenigsegg, and Pagani, to name a few. That money doesn’t just buy exclusivity — it also pays for radical innovations. Koenigsegg’s Regera doesn’t have a gearbox, for example, while Pagani is well-known for its innovations in carbon fibre composites.

Other companies price their cars more accessibly, but still have a recalcitrant attitude towards any notion of practicality or real-world usability. Alfa Romeo has a solid track record of making cars with more personality than sense. The Giulia Quadrifoglio, for example, is billed as being a performance sports sedan that can run with the likes of BMW and Mercedes, but Patrick George tested one for Jalopnik and found that it’s still an Alfa Romeo:

This feels readily apparent when you step inside. Boy, does it want to be a BMW 3 Series in there. The gear selector, the dashboard, the center console, the shape of the arm rest, the shape and location of the infotainment system’s control knob — all of it feels like it was traced over from the Bavarians, but badly.

The inside is rife with rough and cheap-feeling plastic, not to mention a persistent rattle from the dash plagued us on our weeklong test.

But that’s okay, says George, because the Giulia goes like stink and sounds like heaven.

And that’s something only Alfa Romeo — and companies like them — can get away with. If BMW’s next M4 drove perfectly but had a crap interior, people would be furious. That’s right: BMWs are, according their marketing, “ultimate driving machines”, but Alfas have always been more like pure fun, in sheet metal form.

Of course, this kind of separation between mass-market efficiency and small-market experimentation has been happening in the fashion world since the industrial revolution created large-scale manufacturing. Smaller design houses have the opportunity to find a niche for themselves by designing and making garments that transcend clothing, and become wearable art.

Even the camera market shows a clear division between the two biggest camera companies and the rest. Canon and Nikon have always been reliable and safe bets, but you have to go to a company like Leica to find a monochromatic digital camera, or to Ricoh to get a feature like Full Press Snap.1 It’s not that the big two manufacturers can’t introduce models and features like these; it’s that they’re geared for making models for lots of people, rather than for specific people.

So why isn’t there a boutique manufacturer of smartphones, like there is in many other industries? Why isn’t there a company doing interesting things with the basic smartphone formula of a screen, a battery, and a cellular radio? Is there room for one in the marketplace?

It feels like these are the kinds of questions that Andy Rubin is trying to answer with Essential, his new company. They’re planning on making an Amazon Echo competitor and a full “ambient” operating system for internet-of-things devices, but they’re starting with a smartphone called, simply, the Essential Phone.

David Pierce, Wired:

Most people look at smartphones and see one of the largest and most competitive markets in history, one with no room (or profits) for anyone but Apple or Samsung. And most people complain that there’s no innovation. Rubin disagrees. Vehemently. He sees loads of innovation, but believes companies don’t take advantage of it because they’re simply too big. “When Apple finds some new technology, they’re like, ‘Great, can I have 50 million next quarter?’ Manufacturers are like, ‘No, you can’t. We just invented it,’” he says. Meanwhile, companies design by committee — with too much input from supply chain experts and accountants — and everything moves slowly.

If Essential sells 50 million phones this quarter, Jason Keats, the company’s head of product architecture, is totally screwed. Essential simply cannot produce that many phones. That’s the point. “We’ve gone after technologies and methods of manufacturing that aren’t designed to support 50 million devices,” he says.

I like this attitude. Rubin and the rest of the people who run Essential are smart enough to know that they almost certainly won’t outsell smartphones from Apple or Samsung. But they might be able to produce a far more interesting product, and I think that counts for something.

So, is the Essential Phone interesting? Pierce’s article mentions that it doesn’t use radically different components and it isn’t waterproof, and the Essential website really only points to two noteworthy differences between it and, say, a Samsung Galaxy S8.

The first is that the chassis is made of titanium, which Essential says allows the frame to perform better in drop tests. But after dropping a smartphone, even very finicky people — like me — are much less concerned about the condition of the case than of the display. Even though it’s fifth-generation Gorilla Glass — the same kind first used last year in the Galaxy Note 7 — it’s still prone to shattering on impact.

The second noteworthy difference is the inclusion of magnetic power connectors. Even though we’ve seen similar functionality before in the Microsoft Surface and iPad Pro, I think that’s a cool addition.

The magnetic accessory connectors are probably the most interesting thing about this phone. Aside from that, it still runs stock Android and uses the same kind of internals as plenty of other smartphones. That’s a bit disappointing because, while the Essential Phone may be a perfectly functional device, it’s not as adventurous as I had hoped from a company that’s totally fine with selling fewer units every quarter. If they really are, in the words of their head of product architecture, trying to find “technologies and methods of manufacturing that aren’t designed to support 50 million devices”, I’d love to see more.

Perhaps my expectations are too high here. Perhaps it isn’t possible to have an experimental smartphone company. Cars and fashion are symbols of power, money, prestige, and sex appeal; cameras — even digital ones — are tactile and ultimately personal objects that capture memories. But smartphones have, so far, been utilitarian objects above all else. Is it possible for a consumer tech product to rise to the level of high fashion?

That’s without getting into the inherent uniqueness of the products from more obscure companies. Practically every smartphone, including the Essential, uses parts from the same supply chains and, unless the phone is from Apple, is probably going to run Android. Is it truly possible to have a boutique smartphone company when so much of the phone’s hardware and functionality is predetermined and shared with other phones?

More curiously, I wonder if a boutique smartphone company something we might even want. One of the most revolutionary aspects of the devices you and I use every day is that they’re the exact same products used by some of the wealthiest people on Earth. The commoditization of technology is probably the greatest equalizer in modern commerce since the invention of the printing press.

Unfortunately, the closest thing the smartphone industry has to a firm making niche devices today is Vertu, a company that charges an absolute fortune for basic Android phones wrapped in leather and gold.

Perhaps that’s the only innovation that’s left: changing the case, while sharing technology with everyone else. But the premise of Essential suggests that there’s so much more that can be done from a company that’s okay with selling fewer units, and not having to worry about working at a phenomenal scale.

On the other hand, maybe the most boutiquey smartphone company is the one that makes the most of any single model: maybe it’s Apple. They’re building phones using techniques previously reserved for prototyping and small-scale production, designing their own CPUs, and might even start making their own wireless chipsets. They build their own operating system that nobody else can use, and they make design decisions that have a certain Apple-y quality. They build software and hardware for hundreds of millions of people around the world, and must weigh interesting decisions — like a complete redesign of the operating system, or the removal of the headphone jack — against its impact on that many people. Even so, they still do radical things.

That’s what I’m hoping to see from Essential. Maybe it’s all marketing bullshit, but I really like the idea of a company that is more comfortable experimenting with ideas than gunning for sales. It’s early days, so I hope to see the kinds of technologies that can only be built into phones at a scale of, say, hundreds of thousands of units instead of tens of millions. Any market is better when there are more entrants and crazier ideas. The cool thing about a company deliberately limiting their production capacity — as Essential says they are — is that their ideas don’t need to be judged by how well they sell. But I’m still not sold on the idea that a functional consumer electronics device can, truly, be cool.

  1. I’m fully aware that I’m stretching the definition of “boutique” by using Ricoh as an example, by the way. ↥︎