Tech Guide

Why the former leader of Android thinks his new company has an edge over Samsung and Apple

Andy Rubin
Todd Haselton | CNBC
Key Points
  • Andy Rubin thinks his new Essential smartphone can take on Apple and Samsung.
  • He says innovative parts are hard to get in bulk by big companies.
  • Rubin thinks his smartphone accessory strategy will help.

Android co-creator Andy Rubin thinks he can take on Apple and Google with his new Essential smartphone.

During an event at his company's Silicon Valley headquarters this week, he offered a surprising answer when asked how his new device can compete with Apple or Samsung: The over-saturated smartphone market is actually a signal that things are about to change.

"Cycles of innovation shift when you have a saturated market, and this is really important to understand," Rubin said. "So when people are at scale and they're shipping hundreds of millions of devices a year and the market is saturated you're in an upgrade market. You have to convince people to throw away their old phone and get a new phone, and that's really hard to do when innovation doesn't happen."

Upgrade cycles are changing

Andrew Evers | CNBC

Rubin explained that his company, Playground, wants to focus on device margins, the way Apple does, in order to succeed. When he isn't selling phones, he hopes consumers are buying accessories for their devices and other products from Essential.

"Every 18-24 months that you get rid of your current phone and get the next one," Rubin said, "we've created inter-cycle opportunities with our accessory bus. In between those 18-24 months there's new things. The reason we made a wireless accessory bus, if you look at other accessories with pins or modules that slide in and out, that means the exact same form factor has to be your next phone for you to take accessories with you," Rubin said, referencing two magnetic pins on the back of the smartphone that will support an array of new accessories. He promises they'll work on future devices, too.

"We can have a radically different form factor for our next phone, but you can still use your accessories. You need to think like that in a saturated market."

Duopolies are bad


Rubin also thinks there's an opportunity when two firms, in this case Apple and Samsung, run a saturated smartphone market. He likened it to the crowded auto market, noting that folks still like to drive different models, makes and colors of cars. He also said Samsung is too vertically integrated, meaning it isn't positioned to know what consumers want.

This is where Essential differs from Samsung and is more like Apple, says Rubin.

"I love Samsung. I used to work closely with them. They're vertically integrated, building chips and screens and probably mining materials with heavy machinery built by Samsung," he said. "They don't have unique consumer insights to put themselves ahead of consumer demand. Apple does. It has a unique background where software meets hardware and can say in this amount of time consumer interests are going to be on this vector. As a Silicon Valley company we're more Apple-like than Samsung."

Samsung didn't immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.

The power in being small

Andrew Evers | CNBC

"There's power in being small," Rubin argued. "Back up to when the first iPhone was announced, the thing that made it special wasn't hardware tech that was made by Apple. They captured the first capacitive touchscreen, which they didn't make, and they captured the first accelerometer and magnometer, which they didn't make. When Apple combined them you got gestures. That was new. Those two technologies were just suppliers in the industry. If I went to them today and I said I love your new capacitive touchscreen prototype, I need 200 million by next Christmas, they'd fall over, they couldn't produce that many because it's new technology."

Andrew Evers | CNBC

But since his company is small, Rubin believes it can get the latest technology and put it into smartphones, sometimes before his competitors.

"Acknowledging this, we can get more innovations," Rubin said. "The question is how do we continue this in the future once we're super successful?"

That answer remains up in the air.