Audacious Fox

Nick Heer, writing about the lack of an experimental, boutique market for smartphones and how Andy Rubin’s new company, Essential, and their Essential Phone might be the first to carve out a niche:

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? […]

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?

I think it’s possible, but not probable. Mr. Heer’s automobile metaphor holds up well, but I think he misses pointing out an important factor: smartphones have incredibly high turnover compared to cars. Someone could own an Alfa Romeo Sedan for 10 years, but only keep their iPhone for 12-18 months. When looking at boutique markets, it’s not only “how interesting can we make the product”, but also “how often will the consumer be deciding between us and something more normal?” 1

Needing to annually, if not continually, reaffirm the uniqueness of your device puts substantial stress on companies like Essential to either make something with more mass appeal, drop prices, or slowly die. That’s not to say a market for experimental smartphones can’t exist, but there’s certainly no precedent for one or a clear path to success. Essential Phone might flourish its first year — there’s a lot of attention on Andy Rubin’s first post-Android project — but will it do well enough to survive, and meet demand, in the years that follow?

  1. As for the comparison to cameras, I think it’s important to note that normal people might own and use multiple cameras, but these same people aren’t buying and using two or three smartphones. Well, unless they’re Dave Morin.

Sunday, June 4, 2017