Andy Rubin is a smart guy. He founded and created Android (alongside, as he says, a team of people) and played a large part in where the operating system is today. He also created the first phone to merge together email, threaded messaging and the Internet in the Danger Hiptop, renamed the Sidekick by T-Mobile, in the early 2000s. So he knows what he's doing in the technology space.
When he left Google in 2013 after heading up the company's robotics division for a year, he founded a venture capital firm, Playground Global. That sounds a little safe, until you realize what Playground is doing.
With Playground, Rubin is funding the next generation of hardware startups. Not just any hardware startups, either -- the startups are all focused on AI or machine learning products. Playground not only funds these early-stage companies, but also provides space for them to build their products, with engineering studios, 3D printers, electronic labs and the like.
Recently, a company funded and incubated by Playground, Lighthouse, announced its first product, a smart camera that allows users to search for and find events in the camera's footage. For example, you could search "Did anyone walk the dog today?" and the software would bring up what it thinks is evidence of someone walking the dog.
Rubin also has his own startup, named Essential. This was born out of Playground -- Rubin is an investor in one and a CEO of the other -- which creates some interesting parallels and potential conflicts of interest. Nevertheless, Essential announced its first two products yesterday, a phone (named Phone) and a Home Hub (named Home). Both are powered by the company's operating system, Ambient OS. Rubin appeared on stage at the Code Conference, talking to veteran technology journalist Walt Mossberg about Essential and its products. He revealed Essential has its own AI-powered "assistant," but declined to talk about it. Instead, he spoke about Playground and its rationale for existing, and Essential and its new products. (See Android Founder's New Company Takes Aim at Tech Giants, Bets on AI.)
In particular, Rubin came out with this quote, which is extremely telling about what one of today's most influential technology innovators thinks is the next big battleground for technology:
"If you look at ecosystems, and especially software platform ecosystems, if you look at something like the PC, and MS-DOS as one those ecosystems, that was a software platform. Then after MS-DOS you've got Windows and Macintosh and they add a Graphical User Interface (GUI) to that. Each one of these cycles gets bigger and bigger. Once you have a GUI, you can do the browser and the Internet happens. Once the Internet happens, you want to cut the cord and take it with you, and that's mobile. So what's post-mobile? I think two years ago, when we started this thing, we thought it was AI and machine learning, so we've built a fund around that, to plant the seeds today."
The Essential Phone doesn't "run" Ambient OS in the same way the Home device does. The Phone runs stock Android with some software wizardry on the backend to utilize the clever, modular, wireless and magnetic accessory pairing system (which the Home also uses), along with the assistant Rubin didn't want to talk about. He did say, though, that Ambient OS will be open source and they are encouraging developers to build both hardware accessories and software for it, although he admitted Essential will have to be the instigator of building those accessories, at least to start with. When Mossberg quizzed him about the fragmentation problem Android has, because of the open source nature of the Android operating system, he didn't give a clear answer, although did say the company has a "solution" for it.
If you're at all interested in how AI and machine learning is going to affect the next wave of consumer electronics, I urge you to watch Rubin's talk, which is embedded above.