Essential Phone launches in Sprint stores as company president speaks in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- At the cell phone industry's biggest U.S. conference ever, where Samsung booths dominate the exhibit halls, a keynote speaker took the stage Wednesday morning from a phone maker with no booth at all.

"We're focused on bringing, I like to put it, 'sexy' back to the consumer electronics space," said Niccolo De Masi, president of Essential.

Essential is a startup with about 100 employees, funded to the tune of $330 million. It was founded by Andy Rubin, a man who's been called the father of the Android mobile operating system. De Masi said the team of smartphone industry veterans set out to solve a problem:

"Consumer choice has plummeted," he said. "Everyone has ended up with the same device."

De Masi is referring to a striking similarity in the design and features of the world's most popular smartphones. Last year, Google's first Pixel smartphone was both praised and criticized for strongly resembling Apple's iPhone. Apple's new iPhone X shares key physical traits with Samsung's Galaxy series -- including the new iPhone's OLED display, which is manufactured by Samsung.

"The lack of choice that's transpired in the last few years is not good for the industry, it's not good for consumers," De Masi said.

He says Essential wants to offer consumers an alternative. The $700 phone is made of ceramic and titanium, and reviewers have verified the claim that it can withstand a 6-foot drop unscathed.

"I think titanium and ceramic will be exciting for most manufacturing companies in 2020," De Masi said. "We're doing it 2017."

De Masi said the materials allow a thinner bezel and a back casing that's free of antenna lines. The phone is a smooth, shiny slab, with a small notch in the top of the screen for a selfie camera, and a few dots and rings on the back. But two of those dots are much more than meets the eye.

"Literally just snap on the back, the light goes on," De Masi said, as he pulled out a tiny 360-degree camera module that magnetically sticks to the back of the phone and draws power through the two silver dots -- a proprietary accessory port that will play host to other add-ons Essential will release as often as once a quarter.

De Masi said Essential put nearly as much engineering into the camera as it has into the phone -- shrinking its form factor while figuring out new ways to dissipate heat so that it can record and stream 4K video continuously while staying cool to the touch.

"We think this is the future of social media," he explained. "Imagine what that does to the future of news. The future of sporting events."

De Masi added that while many social platforms already support 360-degree video, capturing and posting it has proven too difficult for all but the most determined users.

At Mobile World Congress Americas, where De Masi spoke, Essential joins a bevy of other startups aiming to bring new capabilities to the supercomputing devices we carry in our pockets.

NanoPort, a lab based in Silicon Valley, showed off examples of phones that stick together with magnets, seamlessly playing video across multiple screens, and a new haptic hammer that replaces a phone's vibrating alert with one that can emulate the subtle vibrations of everything from a human heartbeat to the recoil of a pistol in a video game.

Lion Universe showed off a phone that can play 3D movies -- no glasses required -- and has the attention of film distributors who never got to cash in on the 3D home television market that vanished as quickly as it began.

De Masi said the Essential team knows it's not alone in the drive to make smartphones do more, and said he believes consumers have an appetite for something different. More than 30 percent of orders for the phone on Essential's website were placed from an Apple device, he said. Now, he said Essential plans to reach a whole new audience as it launches in Sprint retail stores.

"What I'm most proud of," De Masi said, is that alongside Apple and Samsung, "we're spoken of, already by consumers, as one of the three choices this fall that really matters."
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