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Essential VP: “We’ve always thought of building something premium"

We talk to Essential's Rebecca Zavin about software updates and what lies ahead for the Essential Phone.

Published onNovember 20, 2017

Last week, Essential announced the open beta for Android Oreo for its PH-1 smartphone— better known as the Essential Phone. The beta is available to anyone with the device in hand who, as Rebecca Zavin, vice president of software engineering at Essential, puts it, doesn’t mind that “things aren’t perfect.”

I had the opportunity to speak with Zavin at Andy Rubin’s Playground incubator, where much of the software development for the Essential Phone takes place. We talked about software updates and how it’s more efficient to push system updates through the Play Store. We also touched a bit on why Zavin decided to make a move to Essential after ten years working on Android at Google.

The following is a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited for clarity.

Q: First things first, what’s the current status of the Android Oreo beta?

Rebecca Zavin: We’re going to do a beta for folks who are the main enthusiasts, while we finish off the balance of issues of getting it right for customers. There’s kind of a long tail on things like making sure there aren’t regressions on battery life. You have to spend time collecting data before you can have a confidence level that you have everything locked in.

Q: Essential Phone is one of the few Android models out there without all that “extra stuff.” Does that fact help speed up the update process in any way?

A: There’s not a whole lot of customization we’re doing on top of Android. But to make Android work well, there is a bunch of work that has to go into [development]. Working around things like our in-screen camera and aspect ratio. There’s a little bit of work that has to be done there.

Q: What about improvements to the camera? Is there anything in store there?

We’ve separated camera development from device development so that it's running on its own schedule

A: We’ve separated camera development from device development, so that it’s running on its own schedule. We do have upcoming features there, like a Portrait mode, which we’re going to roll out shortly. We also have some image quality improvements that are less visible to users which we’re working on now.

It may be the case that some of these things launch before the Android Oreo launch—we don’t know exactly when everything is going to land.

Q: Can Essential Phone users expect some updates to come through the Play Store?

A: Camera updates will come through the Play Store, versus the whole overhaul. I think you want to get the fixes out as fast as you can, and the Play Store gives you the maximum flexibility to do that.

Q: What about those who purchased their Essential Phone through Sprint? Will they see their update as soon as the unlocked crowd?

A: We’re going to continue to do rollouts as quickly as we can. In some of these cases, there’s a little more diligence done by our carrier partners. Sometimes there’s a bit of a staggered effect to the rollouts. But [Sprint] is already involved in the Android Oreo activity so we can get through it as quickly as possible.

Q: What’s next for Essential, beyond this software update?

A: At present, the team is focused on two things. The first thing is getting out Oreo with a great experience. The next thing is the global launch in a bunch of geographies. There is no timing on that, and I can’t give you a map of where in the world and when. But that’s the next big effort that we’re going to be taking on.

Rebecca Zavin at Playground’s Silicon Valley headquarters

Q: Before this, you spent over a decade at Google working on the Android source code. Why did you decide to hop over to Essential?

A: I’ve been at Essential for a year and a half, and I decided to hop over in February 2016.

My primary expertise as a software engineer is systems software, and I did a lot of development around the Android HALs, and around graphics, media, and performance—sort of the lower level. App developers touch the API at the top of the Android stack, and there’s other APIs that are on the bottom that OEMs implement for hardware. That’s the stuff I worked on for the Android team.

It just so happened the systems software team at Android sat two doors down from Andy Rubin—that’s how I know Andy. He called me in February— actually, [co-founder of Playground Global] Matt Hershenson called me— and then like five minutes later there was an email to come do this new thing.

I was already in a place where I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. You think, ‘Am I gonna go from Google where I have ten years of history, to another big company?’ I don’t know; there’d have to be a really good reason. The attraction would have to be something small, and there are not many startups that develop the software that touches the hardware, so for me, it’s a good fit.

Q: What’s the niche that Essential is trying to fill in the Android world?

There are big guys, like Samsung, but they’re always with a point of view

A: We’ve always thought about building something that’s premium materials and hardware.

There’s a race to the bottom on the little guys, and there are some big guys, like Samsung, but they’re always with a point of view. When I was with the Android team, it was always kind of a bummer that most of the world was experiencing it through the Samsung lens.

We try to stick to what the user’s need by building something that has the same attention to detail and quality from a hardware perspective, but that doesn’t have that strong point of view from a software experience.

Q: Where will we see Essential six months from now?

A: Six months is a long time in the life of a startup. But you’re going to see more stuff coming from us, more software updates and more accessories.

I think we’re going to be starting to certainly talk about the next generation of devices, too, kind of across our portfolio. We have this ambition to be more of a phone company.

Q: Where will we see Essential landing next — besides the smart speaker we know is coming?

A: There’s nothing we’re ready to share yet, but it is an area under active development.