“I want to do something” crazy stuff,” Jason Keats says with a laugh. “I want to return that GEM phone.”
He reaches behind him and pulls the remarkably slim device from a shelf. The battery is dead, but it still works as a support. Essential released images of the prototype device in October 2019 – about four months before the company closed its doors. All that’s left now are a handful of devices and the dreams of some of its co-creators like Keats, who would found OSOM a few months after Essential’s demise.
“It’s a new way to interact with your device,” explains Keats. “It actually worked really well with one hand, with a big screen, a quality camera. It was so easy to use. And the length allowed us to have a good diversity of antennas in the device, even if it was a small form factor.
OSOM’s first phone, unveiled late last year, shares more design DNA with Essential’s first handset, the PH1. From a purely hardware design perspective, it’s not particularly adventurous. Keats notes aside that people have stopped him on the street to ask if it’s the iPhone 14 while he’s using it.
“Our first product has to be a more traditional device,” explains the OSOM co-founder/CEO. “You can’t be like, ‘Here’s a crazy brand with a crazy thing.’ You’re going to sell like five.”
So the Bay Area company opted for a much simpler design with the OV1. It’s a premium flagship, devoid of the glitz of, say, Nothing’s first product. Among other things, it provides a pragmatic framework on which the company can conduct future experiments – a sign of a serious company selling a product with serious concerns such as user privacy.
However, as we discovered last month, the OV1 will never see the light of day. In its place comes the Saga, a device from blockchain startup Solana, which offers the promise of a web3-first mobile experience. It’s basically the OV1 with a slightly different paint job (one of Solana’s requests was the addition of green buttons to match the company’s branding) and the blockchain company’s web3 software stack.
Keats says he was introduced to Anatoly Yakovenko through a mutual friend when the CEO of Solana Labs explained that the company was looking for a hardware maker to bring his dream of a blockchain-centric mobile device to life. The pair chatted about Signal and met over coffee a week later.
“We realized there were such interlocking parallels between our fields and our visions for the future,” Keats says. “He needed someone who could build hardware and have it manufactured, who knew the players in Asia to actually build a quality piece of equipment. We needed a user and customer base that was enthusiastic about consumer choice, self-determination and individual privacy.”
Keats will not reveal details of the deal, only explaining that OSOM is suddenly much less concerned about its future. “They are our exclusive launch partner and certain MOQs (minimum order quantity) are involved. They made an investment in the company that guaranteed our future.”
The deal moves the release of the already delayed device from the fourth quarter of this year to “early 2023.” With the extra months before release, OSOM chose to improve the camera sensor and increase the RAM and storage, from 8/128 GB to 12/256 GB. Those numbers came with a price hike, pushing the device from its earlier promise of “well under” $1,000 to around it.
“I said, look guys, first device, sell it for $1,000 and show you sell a $1,600 phone for $1,000,” explains Keats. “That says a lot about what we want to do. We’re trying to build that community and build a super premium phone. The other side of that is that it gives us a chance to make a cheaper version in the future.”
OSOM’s decision to cooperate out of the gate is understandable. The US phone market was considered nearly impossible to crack long before sales began to decline. Launching a new handset from a new mobile company seems like a recipe for disaster. Essential – with its pedigree and hype – has reportedly sold less than 90,000 units in its first year of existence.
Keats cites Carl Pei’s talent for building an organic fan base as inspiration for OSOM’s attempts to break into the US market (also nothing is a big bet on crypto/web3). The promise of a privacy-focused handset with good specs and vanilla Android sounds good, but does that all add up to a product that can really stand out in a mature and saturated market whose sales have been consolidated under a few major players?
A crypto-focused deal sets the product apart in a crowded market without a radical Hail Mary like the GEM design, which can then be served to Solana’s loyal fanbase. Keats says closing a deal at this early stage wasn’t a make or break, but certainly gives OSOM a lot more breathing room than it would otherwise have.
It is not clear how long the exclusive deal with Solana will last. And while there’s some concern that focusing so heavily on the crypto market will serve to pigeon-hole the product, Keats notes that if they’re simply looking for a new Android device without all of the stuff, users could delete the Solana stack. web3 stuff . Availability will be limited at launch anyway, as the companies focus on getting the product into the hands of the developers. More general availability will follow later.
“Over the next two months, they’re going to be announcing some cool stuff for their developers and for early adopters,” explains Keats.
Looking ahead, in addition to the crazy form factors, one can look at several patents that Essential has been awarded in its short lifespan. The list includes several focused on imaging, including the drive to make an under-screen camera that doesn’t suck.
“Some of [the patents] we own now,” says Keats. “Those I cared about are from OSOM. And we’ve also submitted 20 or 30 at the moment.”