By Lauren Goode
On Tuesday, Andy Rubin emerged from his nearly year-long Twitter silence to show off a prototype of a mobile device, an elongated product that marries the body of a tiny TV remote with a more modern touchscreen.
â€œGEM Colorshift material,â€� Rubin tweeted, followed by â€œ…still dialing in the colors.â€� His third tweet could have been ripped directly from the script of a technology keynote and, in a way, was a callback to an earlier era in tech, when the inventors of newfangled things made declarations about their products and willed new truths into existence: â€œNew UI for radically different formfactor,â€� Rubin said.
In that earlier era, tech enthusiasts and journalists would have no reason not to take that statement at face value; to give the unabashed benefit of the doubt that this shiny, colorful object and new user interface might usher in a new phase of mobile computing. And who better to put this forth into the universe than Andy Rubin, the cofounder of the Android mobile operating system? After the Twitter reveal on Tuesday, one prominent journalist tweeted that he didnâ€™t know what the product was, but he wanted one; another said he was ready for this â€œsuper-shiny prong of weirdness.â€�
But if you happened to scroll through Rubinâ€™s timeline, youâ€™d see that his most recent prior tweets, from October 25, 2018, were in response to a thoroughly reported New York Times article. The story chronicled the sexual misconduct allegations made against Rubin during his time at Google, which Google reportedly investigated and found credible. These ranged from pressuring a woman into having oral sex to berating subordinates into viewing bondage sex videos on a work computer. Still, he was given a friendly farewell (in the form of tens of millions of dollars). Rubin tweeted that the story contained â€œnumerous inaccuraciesâ€� about his employment at Google and â€œwild exaggerationsâ€� about his compensation, and said the allegations were part of a smear campaign. Then he went silent.
Until this week, when Rubin decided to share the phone-like thing. Based on geolocation information displayed on the device, the photo appears to be taken from Playground Global, the Palo Alto-based investment firm and engineering lab Rubin founded after he left Google. The map on the device happens to show a route to Palo Alto Airport, where Silicon Valleyâ€™s wealthiest park their private aircraft. Post-Google, Rubin also started a smartphone company called Essential. This new product, named Gem, is part of the Essential group.
Does it matter, though? Does it matter which umbrella the product falls under, whether it has a 12-megapixel camera, how many widgets it runs, or whether it has a new UI for a radically different from factor? Does it matter if it has a color-shifting case? For tech enthusiasts and early adopters these things might matter, if and when it ships. But the bigger question is whether, in an era of heightened scrutiny of the technology sector, it is possible to divorce new gadgets from the people who make them and the ethos of the corporations that fund them. And even if itâ€™s possible, should we compartmentalize these factors? Or should we just accept new products as new products?
Almost as swiftly as some people embraced the new Rubin prototype, and a couple of press outlets published articles with hardly a mention of Rubinâ€™s prior alleged misconduct and Google payout, others were quick to remind everyone that the internet never actually forgets. â€œCreated by â€˜$90m-payoff-from-Googleâ€™ Rubin,â€� NBC News technology editor Olivia Solon tweeted. â€œJust going to recirculate this terrific NY Times story from last year instead of tweeting about a smartphone company with zero market share,â€� said Bloombergâ€™s Shira Ovide.
Then on Wednesday morning, David Ruddock, the editor-in-chief of Android Police, published a lengthy statement regarding the publicationâ€™s plans for covering Essential products going forward. Ruddock said that, while Android Police may eventually write about a new Essential phone, it will no longer be accepting any access from Rubinâ€™s startup, including press conferences, briefings, or review devices.