Android Intelligence Analysis

The glorious return of the scrappy Android underdogs

The Android hardware startups are back — and you'd better believe it's worth your while to notice.

Android Underdogs
BedexpStock/JR Raphael, IDG

Android Intelligence Analysis

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A funny thing is happening now here in the land o' Android.

At a time when you'd think the powerful big dogs of Android devices would be dominating the dojo and leaving little air for anyone else to enter, a series of small, scrappy startups is earning attention among the Android enthusiast crowd as it gears up to enter the arena.

By all common logic, these companies oughta be on a virtual suicide mission. Most market share analyses show Samsung consistently clawing onto the lion's share of Android phone purchases, with even the other big-name Android phone contenders fighting over relative scraps of the hardware-buying pie (which, incidentally, is most assuredly not apple-flavored).

Heck, even Google itself has been facing a slow and seemingly arduous process to bring its self-made Pixel phones from niche-level products for people in the know to household names that command a meaningful chunk of the market — to turn 'em into devices that are on the radar of regular, non-geek-card-carrying humans, in other words. And that's Google we're talking about, for cryin' out loud.

And yet, as we speak, two ambitious companies are preparing to do the impossible — to force their way into the realm of Android hardware and offer devices they promise will be genuinely different from the status quo.

[Love Android? Get fresh Googley insight in your inbox with my Android Intelligence newsletter. Three things to know and three things to try every Friday!]

Whether or not they succeed is something we'll have to wait to see, of course. But with absolutely zero uncertainty, I can assure you this: The very fact that they're even trying is a huge win for us as appreciators of interesting technology — and their pending presence in the crowded Android market is in and of itself a pretty spectacular win.

Familiar faces, familiar bite

The companies in question here may be new to the game of Android phone-making, but the actual mammals behind them are anything but inexperienced.

The first and most intriguing to me, personally, is a first-time phone-maker called Osom. As we speak, it's in the midst of talking up its first Android offering — a sleek-lookin' little ditty known simply as the Osom OV1.

Osom Phone - Android Osom

Behold: the Osom phone. (And yes, it's pronounced like "awesome.")

The OV1 was originally slated to launch around February, but that timing was pushed back to this summer and then more recently to the fourth quarter — with the latest delay apparently being driven by a desire to ship the phone with a newer, yet-to-be-available Qualcomm processor.

In terms of appearances, if the phone looks familiar, it should: The Osom OV1 is essentially a successor to the Essential PH-1, an Android-fan-favorite phone that launched in 2017 amidst grand plans for an entire ecosystem of smart home products around it. Despite that device's exceptional design and unusually impressive approach to timely software support, the company behind it eventually went under — and no official follow-ups or complementary devices were ever released.

Essential Phone - Andy Rubin Essential

The not-long-for-this-world Essential Phone. Rest thee well, sweet prince.

Osom is (pardon the pun) essentially picking up where Essential left off, with much of the same team behind it — though with one key exception: At least outwardly, the Essential Phone revolved around Android founder Andy Rubin, whose association with the product gave the company immediate credibility and put it instantly on the map. But Rubin's reputation these days isn't what it once was, to put it mildly — and so with Osom, the team he'd assembled is branching out on its own and moving beyond that tainted association.

So what makes the Osom OV1 so interesting? Why should anyone care? Well, a few reasons:

  1. Based on all the teases, the phone is shaping up to be downright gorgeous and as premium as can be — with a "zirconium ceramic" back, titanium for its camera housing and physical buttons, and a stainless steel frame. Now, does any of that change anything about how the device actually works? Of course not. But it'll certainly make it stand out from the crowd and appeal to a certain sort of tech-totin' hominid.
  2. According to its creators, the phone will shy away from the common Android pattern of screwing around with Google's core Android software mostly just for the sake of change and will instead follow in Essential's footsteps by offering a close-to-stock experience, with a focus on both optimal user experience and swift and reliable software updates.
  3. All basics aside, the Osom OV1 will differentiate itself by offering a strong focus on privacy, with yet-to-be-detailed enhancements that'll supposedly offer more control over how exactly data is shared in different situations.

Oh, and the Osom team has said its device will sell for less than a thousand bucks — a significant factor when most premium-tier phones are now climbing well into four figures.

And that's only part one of this next-gen Android underdog story.

Much ado about Nothing

The other incoming Android hardware startup is similarly new and yet also familiar. It's called, rather amusingly, Nothing — and it's a mystery-shrouded project orchestrated by OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei.

Nothing has already produced a pair of earbuds — which, erm, okay — but now, unofficial reports indicate the company has been quietly showing off a prototype of a new mobile device with plans to launch it publicly in April.

What makes the Nothing phone something worth buying is something we don't yet know. Details about the device are still incredibly scarce.

But Pei managed to build up a passionate following of Android enthusiasts with his early efforts at OnePlus. Those first several OnePlus flagships were carefully catered to the tech-lovin' community, with a sensible approach to software — a "stock-plus" sort of philosophy not all that dissimilar to what Osom is now doing — along with exceptional hardware and almost shockingly affordable price tags, especially in those early days.

OnePlus has since pivoted toward pursuing a more mainstream sort of appeal (and made — and then waffled on — some questionable decisions with its products in order to accomplish that). And to be fair, those efforts seem to be paying off: The company's sales were up a whopping 524% from year-to-year in 2021, according to one analysis.

So, yeah: If there's any person who knows how to squeeze their way into an overcrowded market and manage to make a dent, Pei sure seems like the guy.

Now, look: We're talking 100% about unreleased, theoretical products here. I certainly can't tell you if they'll be worth your hard-earned nickels at this point or if they'll be able to hold a candle to the current top options within the Android hardware ecosystem.

What I can tell you, though, is that diversity has always been one of Android's greatest assets. Unlike the Apple ecosystem, where it's very much a one-size-fits-all, love-it-or-leave-it sort of mindset, Android has always offered an array of different device styles and options.

In recent years, though — with HTC and LG failing and flopping, Motorola straight-up sucking, and once-promising scrappy startups like Essential, Nextbit, and OnePlus either folding or focusing on very different goals than the ones that made them popular — the realistic level of meaningful choice among those of us seeking exceptional flagship-quality experiences on Android has become surprisingly slim.

Suffice it to say, shifting back to a situation where we have genuinely compelling choices — ones with with different but similarly stellar overall user experiences — would be a huge leap forward for us creatures who appreciate Android and appreciate having interesting options. And really, regardless of whether you ultimately end up buying an Osom phone or a Nothing phone, having those companies pushing the boundaries of what's possible within a premium Android device can only be a good thing in terms of increasing competition and forcing everyone throughout the ecosystem to stay on their toes.

And one more thing: While having a measly 1% of the overall smartphone market may seem like peanuts to a company like Google, 1% of that massive meat pie is actually a pretty astronomical number by most non-gigantic corporation standards.

Consider: Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.4 billion smartphones were sold worldwide in 2021, according to the number-crunching nerds over at Gartner. One percent of that would be 14 million.

That's 14 million sales with a mere 1% of the overall smartphone market. That means even a fraction of a percent — let's say, 0.25% — would still be a hefty 3.5 million products shipped.

Osom and Nothing don't have to do much to build healthy and sustainable businesses. Even if they're barely a blip on the radar within the broader smartphone market, they could conceivably be killing it by their own measures of success. And, more important, they could be enriching our options in a significant way that brings Android's earlier days back to mind.

The Android underdogs are back, baby. And believe you me: No matter what kind of phone you currently like using, their second coming is something well worth celebrating.

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