If you follow mobile phone design, you’re familiar with Essential, an indie manufacturer that lit up the tech press but failed to find commercial success with its first phone. The company is showing off a new concept on Twitter.
While the first Essential phone kept the same basic slate profile of a modern smartphone and attempted innovation with a camera notch and modular add-ons, this “Project GEM” device is a more radical departure, with a much taller and slimmer silhouette. It basically looks like a standard Android phone, if you skewed it to 150% height and 50% width in Photoshop.
In less technical terms: if phone design was a piece of paper in a kindergarten classroom, a standard phone would be a “hamburger” fold. This Essential concept is a “hot dog” fold.
Beyond that, there’s not much to say about the hardware. It’s a phone (or maybe a TV remote? Hard to say.). It’s got the now-standard rounded corners on its super-tall screen. It has what looks like a cutout camera on the front, a camera with a large bump on the back, and a fingerprint reader. It’s running what looks like live (if not final) software, with a custom user interface making more efficient use of that odd-shaped screen than unmodified Android would. It appears to have multiple interactive panels, in a vaguely widget-like arrangement, on its long screen. We don’t know if it’s running Android like the original Essential PH-1, but given the operating system’s open source flexibility, that seems likely.
Assuming that there aren’t any huge surprises hiding in the hardware, one might be tempted to dismiss this as either an easy way to gauge interest, or a serious product that’s trying to find a profitable new niche. (And of course, it could be both.) Many manufacturers are looking for an edge with gentle innovations in hardware, like pop-up cameras from OnePlus to kill the screen notch. Sony is trying something similar to this Essential design, but far less extreme, with its extra-tall Xperia 1. The Palm brand has been resurrected to try and make super-tiny Android phones as “secondary” devices. And all that’s without mentioning more ambitious shifts, like folding phones from Samsung, Huawei, and others.
But there’s a more interesting way to approach this. Let’s give Essential the benefit of the doubt and assume that this will become a real flesh-and-blood (um, aluminum-and-glass?) product at some point. What problems would a super-long, super-skinny phone solve? This isn’t one of the radical Nokia designs of the mid-00s, where a company that thought it was invincible was creating insanely weird stuff, just because it could. This is, I would guess, a hardware and software team with specific goals, looking to redefine at least some of the ways that we interact with the ubiquitous slate phone form factor.
“We’ve been looking for a way to reframe your perspective on mobile,” the tweet says. And it’s not the first company to try and shake up a phone market that’s become predictable, if not outright boring (in a good way). If Essential wants to shift the standard form factor, it looks like they’re going to try to do so in a more gentle way than, say, the Galaxy Fold or Surface Duo. That’s a less exciting goal, but perhaps a more attainable one.
If you’re tempted to dismiss this as a Hail Mary pass from a company that’s failed to gain a foothold in the incredibly competitive smartphone market, I would suggest holding off. Recall that, when the original Galaxy Note came on the market with its “insanely big,” “colossal,” “gargantuan” 5.3-inch screen in 2011, it was met with similar scorn. The Galaxy Note is one of the best-selling lines on the planet, and it’s pushed every single manufacturer on the market into bigger and bigger phone screens, including the normally unshakable Apple. Ignoring seemingly odd design choices is something manufacturers do at their peril.
That said, the Galaxy Note had one of the biggest tech companies in the world behind it, and even in 2011 it was expanding on a growing trend. By comparison, Essential has name recognition among gadget news addicts, and that’s about it. If they want to shake up the smartphone market, they’ll need to demonstrate how that new form factor can actually benefit users. We’ll be excited to see what they come up with.