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Andy Rubin’s Essential Gem Isn’t Just a New Phone

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On Tuesday, Andy Rubin emerged from his nearly year-long Twitter silence to show off a prototype of a mobile device, an elongated product that marries the body of a tiny TV remote with a more modern touchscreen.

“GEM Colorshift material,” Rubin tweeted, followed by “…still dialing in the colors.” His third tweet could have been ripped directly from the script of a technology keynote and, in a way, was a callback to an earlier era in tech, when the inventors of newfangled things made declarations about their products and willed new truths into existence: “New UI for radically different formfactor,” Rubin said.

In that earlier era, tech enthusiasts and journalists would have no reason not to take that statement at face value—to give the unabashed benefit of the doubt that this shiny, colorful object and new user interface might usher in a new phase of mobile computing. And who better to put this forth into the universe than Andy Rubin, the cofounder of the Android mobile operating system? After the Twitter reveal on Tuesday, one prominent journalist tweeted that he didn’t know what the product was, but he wanted one; another said he was ready for this “super-shiny prong of weirdness.”

But if you happened to scroll through Rubin’s timeline, you’d see that his most recent prior tweets, from October 25, 2018, were in response to a thoroughly reported New York Times article. The story chronicled the sexual misconduct allegations made against Rubin during his time at Google, which Google reportedly investigated and found credible. These ranged from pressuring a woman into having oral sex, to berating subordinates, to viewing bondage sex videos on a work computer. Still, he was given a friendly farewell (in the form of tens of millions of dollars). Rubin tweeted that the story contained “numerous inaccuracies” about his employment at Google and “wild exaggerations” about his compensation, and said the allegations were part of a smear campaign. Then he went silent.

Until this week, when Rubin decided to share the phone-like thing. Based on geolocation information displayed on the device, the photo appears to be taken from Playground Global, the Palo Alto–based investment firm and engineering lab Rubin founded after he left Google. The map on the device happens to show a route to Palo Alto Airport, where Silicon Valley’s wealthiest park their private aircraft. Post-Google, Rubin also started a smartphone company called Essential. This new product, named Gem, is part of the Essential group.

Does it matter, though? Does it matter which umbrella the product falls under, whether it has a 12-megapixel camera, how many widgets it runs, or whether it has a new UI for a radically different formfactor? Does it matter if it has a color-shifting case? For tech enthusiasts and early adopters, these things might matter, if and when it ships. But the bigger question is whether, in an era of heightened scrutiny of the technology sector, it is possible to divorce new gadgets from the people who make them and the ethos of the corporations that fund them. And even if it’s possible, should we compartmentalize these factors? Or should we just accept new products as new products?

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In the case of tech products, the simple idea companies often want to put in our brains is: “You should buy this.” But the answer is no longer a straightforward “yes” or “no.”

Almost as swiftly as some people embraced the new Rubin prototype, and a couple of press outlets published articles with hardly a mention of Rubin’s prior alleged misconduct and Google payout, others were quick to remind everyone that the internet never actually forgets. “Created by ‘$90m-payoff-from-Google’ Rubin,” NBC News technology editor Olivia Solon tweeted. “Just going to recirculate this terrific NY Times story from last year instead of tweeting about a smartphone company with zero market share,” said Bloomberg’s Shira Ovide.

Then, on Wednesday morning, David Ruddock, the editor-in-chief of Android Police, published a lengthy statement regarding the publication’s plans for covering Essential products going forward. Ruddock said that, while Android Police may eventually write about a new Essential phone, it will no longer be accepting any access from Rubin’s startup, including press conferences, briefings, or review devices.

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