Andy Rubin’s Essential Gem Isn’t Just a New PhoneOctober 27, 2019
On Tuesday, Andy Rubin emerged from his nearly year-long Twitter silence to show off a prototype of a mobile device, an elongated product that marries the body of a tiny TV remote with a more modern touchscreen.
“GEM Colorshift material,” Rubin tweeted, followed by “…still dialing in the colors.” His third tweet could have been ripped directly from the script of a technology keynote and, in a way, was a callback to an earlier era in tech, when the inventors of newfangled things made declarations about their products and willed new truths into existence: “New UI for radically different formfactor,” Rubin said.
In that earlier era, tech enthusiasts and journalists would have no reason not to take that statement at face value—to give the unabashed benefit of the doubt that this shiny, colorful object and new user interface might usher in a new phase of mobile computing. And who better to put this forth into the universe than Andy Rubin, the cofounder of the Android mobile operating system? After the Twitter reveal on Tuesday, one prominent journalist tweeted that he didn’t know what the product was, but he wanted one; another said he was ready for this “super-shiny prong of weirdness.”
But if you happened to scroll through Rubin’s timeline, you’d see that his most recent prior tweets, from October 25, 2018, were in response to a thoroughly reported New York Times article. The story chronicled the sexual misconduct allegations made against Rubin during his time at Google, which Google reportedly investigated and found credible. These ranged from pressuring a woman into having oral sex, to berating subordinates, to viewing bondage sex videos on a work computer. Still, he was given a friendly farewell (in the form of tens of millions of dollars). Rubin tweeted that the story contained “numerous inaccuracies” about his employment at Google and “wild exaggerations” about his compensation, and said the allegations were part of a smear campaign. Then he went silent.
Until this week, when Rubin decided to share the phone-like thing. Based on geolocation information displayed on the device, the photo appears to be taken from Playground Global, the Palo Alto–based investment firm and engineering lab Rubin founded after he left Google. The map on the device happens to show a route to Palo Alto Airport, where Silicon Valley’s wealthiest park their private aircraft. Post-Google, Rubin also started a smartphone company called Essential. This new product, named Gem, is part of the Essential group.
Does it matter, though? Does it matter which umbrella the product falls under, whether it has a 12-megapixel camera, how many widgets it runs, or whether it has a new UI for a radically different formfactor? Does it matter if it has a color-shifting case? For tech enthusiasts and early adopters, these things might matter, if and when it ships. But the bigger question is whether, in an era of heightened scrutiny of the technology sector, it is possible to divorce new gadgets from the people who make them and the ethos of the corporations that fund them. And even if it’s possible, should we compartmentalize these factors? Or should we just accept new products as new products?
Almost as swiftly as some people embraced the new Rubin prototype, and a couple of press outlets published articles with hardly a mention of Rubin’s prior alleged misconduct and Google payout, others were quick to remind everyone that the internet never actually forgets. “Created by ‘$90m-payoff-from-Google’ Rubin,” NBC News technology editor Olivia Solon tweeted. “Just going to recirculate this terrific NY Times story from last year instead of tweeting about a smartphone company with zero market share,” said Bloomberg’s Shira Ovide.
Then, on Wednesday morning, David Ruddock, the editor in chief of Android Police, published a lengthy statement regarding the publication’s plans for covering Essential products going forward. Ruddock said that, while Android Police may eventually write about a new Essential phone, it will no longer be accepting any access from Rubin’s startup, including press conferences, briefings, or review devices.
“If Rubin was just one executive with limited, peripheral power over the larger decisions made by a business—someone involved incidentally, and not essentially—this would be different. But Andy Rubin is Essential. Essential is Andy Rubin,” Ruddock said. “His company would not meaningfully exist, receive funding from investors, or attention in the media if it did not personally ride on the back of his reputation as a legend in mobile technology.”
Rubin, through a spokesperson, said he stands by his earlier tweets and declined to comment on the editorial published by Android Police or the question of whether products should be disassociated from the people who create them.
Ruddock’s line was firmly drawn, although one could easily point out that the existence of a publication called Android Police is due in no small part to the man who invented Android. Declining to partake in certain levels of access becomes a much more wobbly stance when you consider that much of the tech press, myself included, writes about the world’s most popular operating system, which Rubin cofounded, on a regular basis.
Ruddock’s observation about power is the part worth unpacking. Rubin’s fall from tech-god grace didn’t occur simply because he had outsize power. It happened because of allegations that he abused that power. And yet even after he left, Google became an investor in his new firm, Playground. Back in 2017, when information about the terms of Rubin’s 2014 Google departure started to come to light, Rubin took a brief leave of absence from Essential, yes, but only to report to work at Playground—in the same physical building. Rubin still had all of the opportunity in the world to toil away on new projects. And now, with a few tweets, he’s sharing that work.
When it comes to tech’s “playground” for the powerful, there traditionally have been few consequences. And who’s to say, exactly, where the blame lies for this? We have spent decades now boosting tech entrepreneurs, holding them up as the rock stars of our time. We have put inventors like Andy Rubin on the covers of magazines like this one. In 2017, I was part of another media organization that hosted a conference where Rubin revealed the Essential phone, and I was as excited and intrigued as anyone around me. That year, I met with Rubin at least twice to discuss new products, which I later wrote about, because they struck me as innovative. We’ve all sat in meetings with other humans and paid more attention to the shiny things laid out before us than to the influence of the people across from us.
At the time, the chronological lines weren’t as clearly drawn between money and payouts and even more subsequent money and the resulting products. The power dynamics that had been playing out behind closed doors—on Silicon Valley campuses, in Hollywood, in politics, in academia—hadn’t yet spilled out into the metaphorical open office spaces. #MeToo hadn’t yet gone viral, and the connections weren’t always being made between sources of funding and the ability for those sources to overtly influence the ideas being put into our brains.
In the case of consumer tech products, the simple idea that companies often want to put in our brains, through brilliant marketing and digital osmosis, is “You should buy this.” And as a writer who covers the consumer technology market, I’m often trying to answer that simple question of whether or not people should invest their time and money to acquire a product. But with so much information at our fingertips, the answer is no longer a straightforward yes or no.
Now, it’s nearly impossible to disassociate Amazon’s Ring DIY camera kit from its role as a police surveillance tool. It’s difficult to disentangle Amazon’s consumer bonanza days, like Prime Day, from stories about the stress being put on the company’s logistics workers—not to mention the global environment. Facebook now makes a home video portal with cool AR features, but its reception in your home probably depends on how your roommates or family members feel about Facebook’s privacy policies, its role in politics, its position as a veritable vacuum for your personal data. Apple often boasts about its polished and impeccable industrial design, but it has accomplished this by making it nearly impossible for consumers to repair their own products or, God forbid, try to leave its ecosystem.
Andy Rubin’s Essential has made another phone, despite reports that highlighted his alleged abuse of power. Eventually, we may write about this phone; consumers will ultimately decide on their own whether they want to buy it or use it. They may not care at all about other factors, like a founder’s reputation. And the caveats attached to new consumer tech products may change or evolve over time.
But the caveats are real, and it’s getting harder to look at consumer products and their pretty packages without thinking about the people making them, and the power behind them.
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