Amazon joins Tencent in bid to launch new smartphone

Smartphones are driving e-commerce. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)
Smartphones are driving e-commerce. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)

Hong Kong - Amazon.com has joined Tencent and the main assembler of iPhones in backing Essential Products, the startup co-founded by Android-creator Andy Rubin that’s getting ready to sell a new smartphone.

China’s largest social media company and Foxconn Technology took part in a $300m funding round for Essential alongside Amazon’s Alexa Fund and Access Technology Ventures, the VC firm said in a statement. Other backers included Redpoint Ventures, Altimeter Capital and Vy Capital. Access said it contributed about $100m to the pot.

Rubin’s Essential is looking to break into the increasingly competitive field of consumer electronics. The startup, which emerged from an incubator he formed after leaving Google in 2014, is said to be valued at $900m to $1bn and represents his return to a market now crowded with a raft of Chinese players going after leaders Apple and Samsung Electronics.

Its first two products will be a high-end smartphone and an Amazon Echo-like gadget for the home.

“We are in full mass production, ramping up to deliver your Essential Phone,” Rubin, who ran Google’s Android unit for nearly a decade, said in a tweet. “Find out where you can get yours next week!”

The Essential handset, a potential rival to the iPhone and Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S8 includes modern smartphone technologies from a Qualcomm processor to a USB-C port for charging. But it also includes a magnetic connector on the back to connect to accessories such as a camera that takes 360-degree photos and a wireless charging hub.

Without the attachment, the phone has an 8 megapixel camera on the front and a 13 megapixel sensor on the rear, according to Essential’s website.

The sides of the phone are made with titanium, which Rubin’s company claims is impervious to scratches and dents. The back of the phone is ceramic and comes in black, gray, white, and a gold-like colour called “Ocean Depths.” The phone runs a version of the Android operating system with a customised user interface, while the Home device runs a custom system called Ambient OS.

Access said Essential’s total capital has risen to $330m.

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