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Amazon helps fund Andy Rubin’s AI-driven smartphone venture

How the world turns – Andy Rubin, who created Google’s Android, has secured investment from Google’s fearsome rival Amazon, for his new handset venture.

Amazon’s investment arm, Alexa Fund, is part of a $300m round secured by Rubin’s
Essential Products, whose PH-1 AI-driven handset has suffered a string of delays, but is reportedly set to make its appearance in good time for the holiday season. Other investors include Chinese internet and ecommerce giant Tencent, and Access Technology Ventures.

The PH-1 will run Android and will be exclusive to Sprint in the US, but will be available unlocked via Amazon and Best Buy. It is expected to be a high end device in the same bracket as the Google Pixel or Galaxy S8, running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, with 128GB of internal storage. It will be heavily focused on AI and augmented reality applications with a 360-degree camera.

Amazon has failed to come remotely close to Google’s impact on the mobile devices market, especially with the failure of its Fire Phone, but of course it has a significant role in delivering content, apps and cloud services to all those devices. That has not stopped it trying to control the end gadget too, however, and its Kindle tablets and ereaders, and its Echo home products, have helped to drive new ways of consuming on the wireless network (bundled cellular access in the ereaders; low cost tablets as loss leaders for content and subscriptions with Kindle Fire; AI-driven assistants embedded in a speaker with Echo). Its involvement in Essential is bound to stoke speculation that it might want to partner with a new vendor in order to tie a distinctive, modern smartphone to its own services.

Rubin, who has former Apple and Google engineers in his 40-strong team, is also reported to be working on a platform which will tie multiple mobile and smart home devices into an AI engine – and that, of course, would relate directly to Amazon’s strategy to push its services to all kinds of mobile and home devices, tapping into its AI engine Alexa. Alexa could even become that engine for Rubin’s portfolio as it expands.

Rubin is convinced AI is the next big change to ripple through the technology industry. When he initially announced his plans at the turn of this year, he told a conference: “New computing platforms happen every 10 to 12 years. What’s the next platform? It’s about data and people training AI systems to learn.”

But rather than looking ahead to new, as-yet ill-defined categories of devices, as Amazon’s labs are doing; or working on a ‘post-device world’ in which everything accesses the internet, as Google has discussed; Rubin is planning a good old traditional smartphone to be the centrepiece of Essential.

He registered the company Essential Products Inc. with California regulators in November 2015, and in late 2016, registered ‘Essential’ with the US Patent and Trademark Office, listing smartphones, tablets, accessories and “computer operating software for mobile phones” among its goods and services.

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