OSOM: The team behind the Essential PH-1 is back, and privacy is their focus

Jason Keats, a key member of the now-defunct Essential company has returned, and privacy is his goal. Jack Wallen interviews the OSOM founder and CEO to learn more.

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Image: iStockphoto/NicoElNino

I remember the Essential PH-1 well--for a while, it was my favorite Android phone. It had a style unlike any device to use Google's mobile OS. It was built like a tank, elegant, and unique.

It was also an underpowered device with a terrible camera. Yet, I used it proudly because no other phone said "class" quite like the PH-1. 

Then, as quickly as it came into being, the company behind the PH-1 died. No more updates, no more promises of uniquely crafted devices--it was simply gone. That disappearing act came as no surprise, given the problems surrounding the phone. Even still, it stung a bit. To this day, that phone remains one of my favorites.

Imagine how I felt when it was reported that the team behind the Essential PH-1 was getting back together.

Well, some of them.

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Andy Rubin, the founder of Essential, won't be there, but the head of R&D Jason Keats will be on board. What does Keats have up his sleeve? During his last ventures with Essential--a product, called Gem, which never got off the ground--Keats realized the need for privacy on mobile devices had become of singular importance. To that end, Keats' new company OSOM, which doesn't even have a functioning website yet (the link osom.design gives an ERR_CONNECTION_CLOSED error), is focused on bringing an entire suite of products to market.

OSOM stands for Out of Sight Out of Mind. The focus of the new company isn't to re-create the PH-1 or any of the devices Essential never completed. What OSOM does plan on releasing is a complete mystery. 

However, the goal of OSOM is quite clear: Give users control over their data. This goal will be met with a combination of hardware and software.

I reached out to Keats, founder and CEO of OSOM, to ask him a few questions that I thought might shine a bit of light on what the company had in store. Here's how that went.

Jack Wallen: How do you plan on giving control of data back to users, especially with apps/sites like Facebook that are very adamant about not allowing users to rein in who uses their information?

Jason Keats: For us, it's all about choice. Currently, you don't have much of one. We, as consumers, accept it as the norm. There are so many examples of people's privacy being sold and compromised, and we don't (and won't) make money off of people's data. After all, it's your digital self, companies shouldn't own it, and the fact that you are currently paying these companies to monetize your data is, in our opinion, wrong. 

Jack Wallen: Although you aren't going to resurrect the products left behind by Essential, are there aspects of the PH-1 that you might borrow, and are there lessons to be learned from it's failure?

Jason Keats: We built incredible products at Essential, yet only one came to market. We shipped one phone and several accessories, but there were software shortcomings. Unfortunately, none of the other astounding and unique products we developed saw the light of day. But the team was fantastic, and as Essential was coming to an end, I knew there was substantial untapped potential. This team has a lengthy track record of designing, engineering, mass producing, and selling millions of devices.

Jack Wallen: Will you be producing a new phone and will it be Android based? If so, will you be using the full Google stack? 

Jason Keats: We are not prepared at this time to answer exactly what we're building, however, OSOM's software team was solely responsible for Essential's regular Day 1 security updates.

Jack Wallen: Will these devices be focused mainly on privacy or a combination of privacy, security, and usability? If so, how will you marry those three ideas together to form something consumers will want?

Jason Keats: Our main focus is privacy--hardware, software, and services. We know people care that their privacy is being monetized, but there isn't currently a good user experience to solve that. 

Jack Wallen: It sounds as though you might not just be focused on consumer smartphones. If not, what else? Are we talking tablets? IoT? Edge? Something in between?

Jason Keats: We are building multiple hardware and software products and we are partnering with the best vendors in the world. Though we're not ready to divulge details, there is a profound lack of real emphasis on privacy in the tech sector today.

Jack Wallen: Can you give me an idea on release date, price point, and specs?

Jason Keats: Our first product will launch in 2021, and details will be released when ready.

Effectively, we get the non-answer answer. In other words, we have no clear idea what OSOM is up to, but the task before them is monumental. With companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Twitter in a perpetual state of monetizing our information against us for profit, it seems like an almost insurmountable goal. Those companies have a virtual stranglehold over that data and show no signs of letting up. 

We all use apps that collect information from us and the operating systems that host those apps do not (or cannot) do enough to protect us. Consumer privacy is not respected by those companies and the platforms we use to access their services are at their mercy.

With that in mind, I can only guess as to what OSOM is planning to do. Maybe a version of Android that works with VPNs and anonymizers to deliver a platform that prevents the transmitting and saving of user data, served up on hardware with camera and mic kill switches? Such a solution would be a hard-sell for an average consumer that prefers convenience to actual privacy and security. 

If OSOM has any hope of succeeding, whatever they deliver cannot require users to be involved. Consumers want a product that doesn't get in their way of using the apps and services they depend on, even when those apps and services are monetizing and sharing their data.

Or, maybe OSOM is going the bigger picture route and thinking beyond mobile devices. Truth is, only time will tell, but until Keats and company finally let us in on their secrets, we'll just have to keep guessing.  

OSOM's goal of handing privacy over to the consumer is a lofty, long, and hard mountain to climb. Hopefully, the OSOM team is up to the challenge.

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