The Android startup-smartphone gamble

Scrappy young companies are making some interesting Android devices — but buying into the startup-smartphone bandwagon doesn't always pay off.

Startup Smartphone
JR Raphael

One of the most interesting things about Android is the diversity and choice of hardware its open model enables. With software that any manufacturer can utilize, there's practically no limit to the number and variety of devices that can be offered under the Android umbrella—a sharp contrast to the single-manufacturer-with-a-few-similar-devices setup that other mobile operating system provides.

Both approaches have their own sets of advantages and drawbacks, as we've discussed extensively over the years. With Android, the platform and the device maker are typically two separate entities—with Google's Pixel devices serving as the current sole exception—and that means you have to think carefully about whose product you purchase and what that says about the level of support you're likely to receive over the course of your device's lifetime.

In other words: Buying an iPhone inherently means you're getting an Apple product, but buying an Android phone doesn't mean you're getting a Google gadget. This may seem painfully obvious to those of us who closely follow tech topics, but it's a distinction that's lost on many typical phone users.

And this week, we're getting a fresh reminder of why that distinction matters—particularly when it comes to devices from the less-established, but frequently intriguing startup-style smartphone manufacturers.

These companies often come out with some of the most eye-catching and ambitious hardware announcements in Android—because, plain and simple, they have to. Let's face it: Samsung's pretty much gonna sell a decent number of each new Galaxy this-or-that gizmo no matter what at this point; hence is the beauty of a massive marketing budget and widely recognized brand. But Nextbit? OnePlus? Essential? When these new little-guy companies come online, they've gotta do something grand and unusual if they want any shot at snagging attention.

Maybe it's producing a distinctive design and clever storage management system, a la Nextbit. Maybe it's creating a device that rivals the big boys in horsepower and costs a fraction of the price, like OnePlus. Or maybe it's playing to the "premium"-seeking crowd with a branding-free titanium body and the promise of a new class of ecosystem, as is currently being attempted by Essential.

(See also: Red, the phone-making virgin that's rabidly promoting preorders of its $1,200 "holographic display" smartphone—a concept that might reach the point of being a fully functional prototype somewhere in the next 30 to 45 days. Might.)

Whatever the case may be, if you're considering an Android phone from a lesser-known manufacturer—especially for business use—it's worth weighing the risks that come with putting your faith in an untested company. If you're like most people, you're going to rely on this device for a solid year or two at a minimum, and you want to know the company behind it is going to have your back and properly support its product for that full period of time.

Folks who dropped their dollars on Nextbit's Robin phone last spring are learning that lesson the hard way right now. Nextbit was bought by PC-gaming giant Razer this past January, less than a year after its phone took flight—an endgame one could reasonably argue was probably the company's goal from the get-go. And this week, Nextbit cut off support for customers, leaving those who purchased the Robin with nowhere to turn if problems arise.

(Nextbit says it'll continue to provide software updates through next February, though its efforts in that department have never exactly been exemplary: It took the company a full seven months to provide the Android 7.0 Nougat upgrade to users, which would have earned it a failing grade on my Android Upgrade Report Card if Nextbit had been impactful enough to be included.)

OnePlus, meanwhile, has been the target of near-constant criticism for its poor post-sales support—something that's not entirely surprising for a company with limited resources. And as for Essential—well, it's now been 66 days since its phone was announced, and we still haven't heard any specifics as to when it can be purchased or when it'll actually ship (...yup), not to mention what kind of support can be expected once you fork over your 700 smackeroos.

My point isn't to universally knock startup-style Android device manufacturers or to unequivocally say you shouldn't support their efforts. Heck, even with established Android phone manufacturers, timely and ongoing software updates are frequently anything but a given. But the younger and smaller a company is, the more variables you have to weigh—and the less solid data you have available to guide you to an informed choice. That's especially troubling if you select a device you intend to rely upon for an extended period of time.

At the end of the day, what you have to ask yourself is what's most important in your next phone purchase—what factor or factors will make the most meaningful difference in the device's effectiveness over the course of its life. There's nothing wrong with rolling the dice and trying that exciting new product from the latest unproven company, if whatever it offers speaks strongly enough to your mobile productivity needs.

But as this week's Nextbit bail out reminds us, there's more to a mobile device than its initial sales pitch. Just be sure you're aware of that bigger picture and the risks you're accepting as part of your decision.

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