Essential is Bleeding Consumer Trust Before its Products Even Reach Customer Hands
Whenever a new device is announced, manufacturers make statements and promises — sometimes it almost feels as if the statements are meant to be forgotten, and the promises broken after everyone’s attention has withered. Blame can be put on both the manufacturer and the recipient (though only in part): the manufacturer for making a promise that they don’t intend to keep, and the recipient for mistaking a statement for an essential promise.
In some cases, marketing and advertisements are separated from the people who are actually responsible for making the promise or statement come true, and talking heads simply overextend what is possible. Some make statements simply to use them as a marketing point, like insisting their camera solution, performance, or battery life is better than it actually is. OnePlus’s “Dual Camera, Clearer Photos” slogan is a perfect example of a statement that many took as a promise or an assurance of quality… in practice, the OnePlus 5 has one of the more disappointing cameras in its price point, and looking at full crops is anything but “clearer”. On the other side of the spectrum we have companies promising long lasting batteries when we know in practice that, unless you use your phone as a door stop, it won’t be lasting as long as the company claims. In many cases as consumers we tend to look past these statements, we may not fully regard them as promises or obligations (at least not until they aren’t broken), and see them as simply marketing terms and statements — nothing more. It is pivotal in the early months of a new manufacturer coming into the market that they both make waves but not find themselves drowning in the unattainable statements and deadlines they promised. Unfortunately, Essential – a device, marketing team, and CEO that seem to blur the lines between fact and fiction and possible and impossible – have found themselves in this very situation and they are quickly going from the darling of the internet to a frustratingly under-achieving billionaire startup propped up by one name.
Andy Rubin, on stage at Code Conference on May 30th, stated “You can reserve it now, and I wouldn’t take reservations if it wasn’t going to ship in 30 days or so”. While it comes just shy of an actual hand-shake promise, viewers were meant to take that statement verbatim and as all of us know, they didn’t quite make that 30 day promise… not by a longshot. People were quick both take, and dismiss this statement as it was the words of a deity since it came from Andy Rubin – the “father” of Android – and his company. This attitude continues through today. Despite being just shy of 90 days since his proclamation as of 8/27, no phones have actually arrived, with the shipping notifications having just started. On Friday – the 25th – Gizmodo wrote a scathing piece detailing how Essential not only missed the initial 30 day window, but then the subsequent promise that devices would be shipped within 7 days of the payments being taken which would have been Wednesday the 23rd.
This piece gained a lot of traction on Reddit and Twitter and prompted Essential’s Twitter account, which up until this point was just promoting glorified “First Look” meet & greet events, to actually reply stating that the tracking information, inferring shipping, would be going out that day. Obviously many of the big name sites were quick on the damage control for Essential by publishing pieces using this tweet and no actual future owner information indicating that this shipping actually was occurring… and of course, it wasn’t. In fact as of Monday night, no phones had been shipped despite tracking numbers being emailed to pre-orders on Friday and on Monday many users began to get tracking information updated and the device would be delivered from China by Wednesday, but things aren’t so simple. It seems that for many the device missed the FedEx cutoff delaying delivery until Thursday, a full 15 days after the preorders went live. Amazon preorders also suffered a “glitch” causing many orders to be canceled and requiring them to be reordered (luckily, the problem was solved). Finally, to make the situation even worse for the most die-hard fans who also ordered the as-of-yet unreviewed 360 camera, those shipments do not even have tracking information yet, leaving some worrying if they will even get their phones this week. Rightly so, many early adopters have been taking to the forums and Reddit to express their displeasure at the fact that Essential is still using smoke in mirrors and large media coverage to gloss over their missteps.
The second – and likely the Achilles heel of the Essential Phone – is its Camera. Over 30 days before devices actually shipped out Essential took to their blog to highlight the time and attention they were putting on their camera experience. Early initial reviews were lukewarm, however as more reviewers are taking more than just a few short days to evaluate the device, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Essential had indeed over extended on its promise that they would be tuning their camera until the last possible minute to provide the best photographic experience possible. Reviewer Mr Mobile (YouTube) was clear and concise in his summation, concluding that the camera “is not good”. Essential was — yet again — quick on the damage control for this and pushed an update around the time his review went live to his large audience. Despite this, he was quick to discount this new update as a modest improvement but still greatly missing the mark on low light performance. Gizmodo likewise had a terrible experience with their Essential camera with their review highlighting its slow shutter speed, hit or miss performance, and buggy application. This is a far cry from the “best photographic experience possible” and is more in line with what you would expect from a completely new company, with a new team, and a first generation product… which is not what we were all sold on, though it’s quite clearly what we are offered in the end.
Finally we come to carrier support. In Andy Rubin’s blogpost on the Essential website announcing the availability of the Essential phone, the post ends with the headline “Available today. Compatible with all carriers.”, only that is not entirely true. In an email screenshot posted by Reddit user j_dee_m, Essential stated that the phone was not yet certified with Verizon which must still have been the case when Andy posted to the blog on August 16th, clearly misleading potential buyers. Fortunately, this is little more than an inconvenience for Verizon users as in most cases uncertified phones can still be used with the network. Typically the only issue is that the SIM Card has to be pre-activated with another phone and then moved to the uncertified ones. Most network activities should work just fine much like the Nexus 6P and 5X and other uncertified devices on the network, but again it won’t be until early adopters have their hands on the phone that we will know what potential issues this poses.
On the surface it is easy to see each of these situations as the petty grievances of people who have little far too much time on their hands, but in aggregate it goes far beyond that. Andy Rubin lied about the device being available within 30 days. Then, he misled us about the phone being certified on all carriers when it clearly was not. Essential over promised in relation to their camera performance. This sort of behavior should not be tolerated from any OEMs but should especially be avoided by new ones trying to nuzzle their way into the heavy duopoly of smartphones. But Essential isn’t a new one like some others, at least if you were to look at the vast number of Rubin fans who are quick to their defense, or the buyers into their seemingly absurd $1-billion dollar valuation. Essential rides high on its namesake as being the new company of the “Father of Android”, and not due to its merits or earned trustworthiness — as stated earlier, it was propped up by one name, shooting past similar devices with unluckier origins. First impressions are lasting and Essential has not left a positive one. Their marketing wants you to think they are different from everyone else, and they do a good job portraying that on the surface, but when you dig a little deeper it is clear that they are not the company they perhaps aspired to be.
Far from disrupting the market by offering an “Essential” smartphone, the company has delayed its product into a terribly competitive release period with devices like the Note 8 and Moto Z2 Force already unveiled, and others like the LG V30 and future Pixels or iPhones looming in proximate months. With multiple high-profile employees leaving for greener pastures, it seems as if Essential might have had grand ambitions it wasn’t able to execute neither in time nor in form. So far the Essential phone has not managed to prove that the company is as serious as it portrayed itself to be, or that it’s capable of achieving its noble mission in such a competitive market. We see OEMs make mistakes all the time, and some have managed to pull through despite early pitfalls, but none of that is easy. It’s time for Essential to shape up, as the company still has quite a bit to figure out. Ideally, it should have sorted it all out ahead of their bombastic unveiling, when most people still had high hopes for their kind of new comer.