This week, Essential's Andy Rubin previewed the company's next product, a long, narrow phone thing likely called GEM. It's intriguing, and given Rubin's pedigree — he was the mind behind Danger, Android, and the Essential Phone — it was definitely newsworthy.
But his preview, echoed by Essential itself shortly thereafter with more official-looking photos, was overshadowed by a renewed conversation around Rubin as a person and leader. In 2018, four years after leaving Google, the New York Times reported that in 2014 Rubin was accused of sexual misconduct by a Google employee with whom, until a few months earlier, he was in a consensual relationship. Google learned of the affair in early 2014 and worked with Rubin shortly thereafter to quietly leave the company, buoyed by a $90 million exit package to be paid out over two years.
In early 2015, Rubin used some of that money, along with over $300 million in seed capital, to launch Playground Global, a venture firm slash incubator slash hardware startup. Inside Playground, he launched Essential, which began work on the Essential Phone along with a number of now-dead smart home products. In the interim, Rubin quietly took a leave of absence from Essential before returning. In May of this year, he was reportedly forced to step down from Playground, though he still runs a now-independent Essential within the same building.
It's all very messy, very confusing. None of the allegations have been proven in court, and Rubin's only statement since the NYTimes article was released disavowed the reporting, claiming his accuser made "false allegations [as] part of a smear campaign to disparage me during a divorce and custody battle."https://twitter.com/Arubin/status/1055632398509985792
It's unclear whether GEM's coordinated Twitter unveiling is the beginning of Rubin's plan to return to public life after nearly a year of silence. David Ruddock, EIC of Android Police, issued a statement shortly afterward, saying the site will no longer work with Essential's PR, nor will it accept review units, as long as Rubin is at the helm. He followed up with a more lengthy explanation on the website.https://twitter.com/RDRv3/status/1181722451526373376
I've been thinking about whether Android Central needs to follow suit, drawing a line in the sand about working with companies led by bad actors.
It's tough, because unlike bigger corporations like Google, Facebook, Amazon, or Apple, Essential is Andy Rubin. Playground is, or at least was, Rubin. That's how the company's framed it, putting him forward as the primary actor in a tiny troupe attempting to push the tech industry forward. Breathless profiles of Rubin emerged shortly after Playground opened, positioning him as the fearless leader shepherding small companies through their incubation periods.
I believe the victim who accused Rubin of sexual misconduct, as I believe women in general who come forward, with little to gain and so much to lose, about harassment, abuse, and misconduct. I don't think it's in the best interests of this tech industry to cast aside accusations of Rubin's bad behavior just because he's helping develop a new shiny thing that we can collectively fawn over. It's not worth it. We need to hold truth to power and, more importantly, we need to hold power to account. Rubin is a very powerful man, shielded by some of the most powerful executives in the world. Google, for its part, not only paid out a significant sum of money to Rubin upon his departure but shortly thereafter invested heavily in Playground Global itself. It's not clear how widely the truth about Rubin's departure spread, but nonetheless it's clear he wasn't punished — in fact, he could be seen as being rewarded — for his behavior.
I'm stopping short of outright saying that we won't work with Essential anymore, but I am going to approach what's next very cautiously. If and when the GEM is released, or Essential inevitably teases more products, or Rubin shows up in public life again, as so many men accused of misconduct have been allowed to do, we will approach it with the scrutiny it deserves.
If that's not a tough enough stance for some people, I'm sorry. If that's too tough a stance, well, I'm not sorry, and I hope you'll try to see if from the victim's point of view, as our culture needs to do so much better, and so much more often, than we do today.
Thanks for reading and enjoy the rest of your Sunday.