by: Nic Fildes, Telecoms Correspondent
The new smartphone developed by the founder of Google’s Android platform will be launched in Britain this year after the start-up company held talks with UK networks over an exclusive deal.
Essential, which has raised $300m to tackle Apple and Samsung’s stranglehold on the market, is planning its international foray with launches in the UK, western Europe and Japan, although it has yet to launch its minimalist $699 handset in the US.
It is the brainchild of Andy Rubin, the Android founder who left Google in 2014.
Essential executives held talks with UK operators including EE last week to seal a launch date. It has signed up with Sprint in the US.
The phone, which is based on Android and sold with no preloaded apps, has been designed for “trend setters and technology seekers”, according to Niccolo de Masi, chief operating officer of Essential.
The company has also developed a $50 360-degree camera attachment that is the size of a human thumb that snaps on to the top of the phone, which it believes will appeal to content creators.
Essential aims to speed up innovation within the smartphone sector by building modular elements that can be clipped on to the smartphone.
Mr de Masi said that the audio, fitness and virtual reality segments offer opportunities for the company to outpace its established rivals.
“Consumer choice has declined due to Samsung and Apple,” he said, adding that those companies have “slowed the pace of innovation to boost quarterly profits”.
Mr de Masi ran mobile content company Monstermob in the UK during the last decade and left his role as chief executive of Glu Mobile, the developer of the Kim Kardashian mobile phone game, to join Mr Rubin.
The company has 100 staff and has raised funds across the industry. Foxconn, the company that assembles the iPhone, the Chinese internet company Tencent, Access Technology Ventures, billionaire Leonid Blavatnik’s fund, and a host of venture capital firms including Redpoint have backed the company.
It is also funded by Mr Rubin’s own technology fund Playground, which is in turn backed by Google and HP.
Alongside the smartphone, Essential also has designs on the home automation market.
It has developed its own operating system to connect devices from different companies.
Mr de Masi declined to comment on whether the “Ambien” operating system would be used for future smartphones instead of the Android platform that Mr Rubin originally created.
The launch of the smartphone in the US missed a June deadline set by Mr Rubin although its debut is imminent, according to Mr de Masi. Analysts have argued that the Essential phone could struggle to make a mark despite its heavyweight backers.
Ben Wood, an analyst with CCS Insight, said: “My view is that there would be little or no interest in the Essential phone if it were not for the involvement of Andy Rubin.
His personal brand has been enough for the device to get on to the radar of the technorati in the current sea of smartphone sameness.”
Mr de Masi countered Android grew from an obscure start-up under Mr Rubin to running 86 per cent of all smartphones this year. “Android proves it can be done,” he said.