The Week in Tech: Are Smartphones Interesting Again? – The New York Times

Each week, we review the week’s news, offering analysis about the most important developments in the tech industry.

Hello, I’m Dai Wakabayashi, and I cover Google in San Francisco for The New York Times.

For the most part, writing about smartphones over the last few years has been pretty boring. Can you get that excited about a phone going from two cameras to three?

But this was an interesting week for smartphone news, illustrating both the promise of developments (pun alert) unfolding before us and the challenges of trying to do something new and different.

A few days after Motorola (supposedly) started selling its foldable Razr phone, Samsung showed off its latest attempt at a bendable smartphone. The early reviews of Samsung’s Galaxy Flip Z seem cautiously optimistic, with some reporters praising the glass screen and the sturdy-seeming hinges. I am more excited for these phones than my colleague Brian X. Chen, who made the levelheaded argument that these handsets were probably not ready for prime time and seemed like more trouble than they were worth.

But I don’t think I am alone in experiencing a little device wanderlust. That was part of the bet behind Essential Products, once considered one of the most promising hardware start-ups in Silicon Valley.

Essential Products was started by Andy Rubin, a former Google executive who had a successful track record in the smartphone industry. The company had raised $330 million. But Essential’s first product, a premium smartphone, flopped. When The New York Times and others reported Mr. Rubin’s departure from Google after an employee had accused him of sexual misconduct, it created even more challenges for the company.

This week, Essential said it was shutting down. The company said it saw “no clear path” to deliver its latest handset to customers. Essential was trying something different. It had developed a so-called companion phone named Project Gem, but carriers did not want to offer it, and the company decided to pull the plug.

I asked a former Essential employee whether they thought this was a sign of how hard it is to compete in the smartphone industry. This person, who asked not to be identified because of a nondisclosure agreement with the company, called that analysis “lazy” and pinned more of the blame on dysfunction within the company.

The former employee said Essential had spent “a bunch of time and money” on a separate second smartphone called PH-2 (the first phone was called PH-1) to near completion only to scrap it when none of the carriers expressed an interest in it. This prompted an exodus of talented workers from the company.

The former employee said there were other red flags: There were more managers than engineers at Essential, and many quality assurance engineers, even though there was only one (poor-selling) product.

In addition, Mr. Rubin, who was supposed to be the driving force behind the products, seemed not fully engaged because he was busy dealing with his personal matters, the former employee said.

A spokeswoman for Essential did not respond to a request for comment.

Also, and I’ll stand my ground on this: It’s really hard to break into the smartphone market.

  • The changes in the world of smartphones came against the backdrop of alarming world news: Fears about the coronavirus outbreak forced the cancellation of the telecom industry’s annual gathering, the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

  • The United States is putting more pressure on the Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei. On Thursday, the Justice Department unveiled new charges against the company that invoked racketeering statutes usually used to bring down mob kingpins.

  • I loved this column by Kevin Roose about Carlos Maza, who has become one of YouTube’s biggest critics for failing to crack down on right-wing creators who have targeted him for harassment. But the column also captures beautifully how creators like Mr. Maza rely on YouTube as a way to make a living even as its policies leave them exposed.

  • Welcome to elections in 2020. This wonderful article about how Michael R. Bloomberg is paying influencers to help him be meme-worthy and hip is a cringe-y delight.

  • Hindsight is 20/20. The Federal Trade Commission said this week that it had ordered Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft to provide information about hundreds of acquisitions over the last decade. These acquisitions did not require regulatory review because they were considered small. It does seem like regulators are now scrutinizing every nook and cranny of these companies.

  • Amazon still wants the big, government cloud-computing contract — and is willing to fight for it. A federal court ordered Microsoft to stop working on a $10 billion Pentagon cloud-computing contract until Amazon’s legal challenge into how the deal was awarded is resolved.

    Amazon has protested the decision to award Microsoft the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure project, claiming that President Trump had interfered with the bidding process because of his feud with Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive.

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