Believe it or not, Essential seems financially solvent enough to release one more (one last?) smartphone. Despite having no discernible income since the complete flop of the Essential Phone in 2017, canceling the Essential Phone sequel, canceling its smart home device, being put up for sale, laying off 30% of its staff, and having its founder and CEO Andy Rubin stained by a sexual misconduct scandal, Essential is somehow still around. And it hopes you’ll forget about all that stuff while it teases a shiny new smartphone on Twitter.
Meet “Project Gem,” a tall, ultra-skinny smartphone with an aspect ratio approaching that of a TV remote. It looks like what would happen if you took a normal smartphone and cut it in half vertically. The front has an even bezel all the way around the phone, with a hole-punch camera in the top-left corner. The back has a sizable camera bump for the single-lens camera and a divot for your finger, which could be a button, or a fingerprint reader, or both. The color scheme definitely lives up to the “Gem” name, with four versions each showing a different shiny, color-shifting finish.
Every phone must be assumed to run Android unless proven otherwise, but boy, does this not look like normal Android. The hero image features what we assume is the home screen, showing a clock widget, a music widget, and apps icons that live in a 2×2 grid of tiles, making it look a bit like Windows Phone. The home-screen design seems to prefer showing apps as square widgets with some info and functionality, rather than app icons. The Spotify widget shows music controls, the Gallery shows a picture preview, calendar shows your next appointment, “Maps” shows a map with your current location, and we’re going to assume the weather widget shows a weather preview. It’s different, but it also looks pretty scroll heavy, since only four widgets are necessary to fill up the screen.
There doesn’t seem to be much in terms of a system-level UI for displaying things like system navigation buttons, the time, your cell reception, or any notifications. How does any of that work on Project Gem? The only piece of universal UI seems to be a small, horizontal-line button in the top-right corner. What does that do? There’s also what might be a “back” button in the opposite corner, next to the camera in the Maps screenshot.
GEM Colorshift material pic.twitter.com/QJStoiDleH
— Andy Rubin (@Arubin) October 8, 2019
All the evidence we have about the Gem phone so far suggests it is an Android phone without access to the Play Store and Google apps. XDA Developers discovered Android commits from Essential employees referencing this “Gem” phone, and one of the attached screenshots exposed a build string “gem-q-microg-userdebug MICROG.QP1A.190711.020.” You can pick a few bits of data out of this string (it runs Android 10 and was built on 07/11/2019). But the big piece of info is that this build runs “MicroG,” an open source reimplementation for Google Play Services. MicroG is built specifically for devices without Google’s apps and services, allowing apps that call on proprietary Google APIs to still run on non-Google devices. The Gem phone runs an Android fork.
MicroG mostly exists as an open source project for home tinkerers who want to build an all-open source version of Android. It has never been tested in a commercial product, and MicroG’s Github page describes itself as “alpha-grade software and not yet ready for production use.” The lack of a real app ecosystem helps explain why many of the apps look so generic. The only two name brands on the phone are Spotify and Uber, and both of those services have Web apps.
Without Google Maps, it looks like Essential is rolling its own map app. The app, which was prominently featured in one of the five images, is just called “Maps” with a positively generic blue icon. The mapping data is a match for OpenStreetMap, and the app design and iconography don’t match anything on the market. There’s also what looks to be live traffic data, which Essential must be licensing from a provider.
How input would work on a device like this is unclear. A normal keyboard would be nigh-unusable on a display this skinny. A 2018 report from Bloomberg said Essential’s next phone would “have a small screen and require users to interact mainly using voice commands, in concert with Essential’s artificial-intelligence software.”
Bloomberg definitely got the “small screen” part right, so maybe the primary input is voice? XDA found references to a “fingerprint walkie-talkie” mode, so perhaps the divot on the back is a fingerprint reader, and you press on it when you want to enter a voice command.
There’s also an AT&T logo in the clock. Does that mean AT&T is a launch partner, or is that just a mockup? The Essential Phone’s only US carrier partner was Sprint.
That’s about it for Essential’s Project Gem, a phone that raises a whole host of questions with some very concerning answers. Will you really be able to type and use apps on a smartphone this skinny? Does anyone want an app-less smartphone in 2019? Do you want to constantly talk to your smartphone if voice input is the primary option? Will this phone be another commercial failure, and will a second flop be the death of Essential?
Essential says it “looks forward to sharing more in the near future.”
Listing image by Essential