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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Nothing’s Carl Pei Wants to Start a Smartphone Revolution (Again)

What if we told you 2021 was just a warm-up? Sounds like a threat in 2022, doesn’t it? It is actually the tagline behind the latest news from Nothing, a tech company headed by OnePlus cofounder Carl Pei

The “warm-up” was the Nothing Ear 1, a pair of earphones released last year, and the then new brand’s first product. As the second act, Pei has just confirmed something of an open secret in the gear world: Nothing is making a smartphone, called somewhat obviously the Phone 1. 

Tech pundits said they knew it was going to happen, they just didn’t know when. Now we do. The Nothing Phone 1 is due in Summer 2022. 

Bored? You Should Be

Talk to Carl Pei and you will hear as much disaffection as excitement about tech, though. “Today, everyone is so passionless about technology. On the consumer hardware side it’s basically more and more of the same, in terms of products,” he says. “Less and less differentiation, and consumers are not as excited anymore. People don’t really want to watch the launch events for new products.” 

Now, this does not tally with YouTube views of Apple’s recent announcements. And Pei told WIRED almost two years ago he’d stopped watching tech launches long before that—but he does have a point. 

The fastest growing companies in phones are the Chinese giants, who hide their self-cannibalization behind a series of sub-brands. Oppo, Realme, OnePlus, and Vivo are all part of the same group. You’ll find eerily familiar models across these ranges, whose similarities are hidden behind different names, camera-housing shapes, and finishes. 

Xiaomi’s Redmi and Poco lines have converged uncomfortably this year too. The Poco X4 Pro and Redmi Note 11 Pro 5G are virtually identical, for example, bar some largely superficial differences. Imagination is in short supply in 2022. 

Are you weary from such a lack of vim? Pei thinks you should be. “It's very boring today in the industry, and sleepy—and here we are with something new and ready to shake things up,” he says.

Claiming a startup like Nothing can be the solution, in an industry that has felled giants like HTC and LG, is boldness verging on the perverse. And it is no doubt fueled by the success he had at OnePlus. The Nothing Phone 1, however, tis a sight worth grabbing some popcorn to witness at the very least. 

Nothing’s Depressing Drip Feed

Unsurprisingly, Nothing follows the old OnePlus model of publicity, where droplets of information are slowly wrung out of a wet rag hung over a parched fan base. Nothing’s light shower for today showed us a hint at the Phone 1’s Nothing OS interface. Its “always-on” display mode suggests the Phone 1 will have an OLED screen. 

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And we also saw a series of large, distinctive shapes that will feature in the design of the phone’s back, which, if the design language follows the Ear 1’s, will be see-through. 

“One principle we have for designing products is that somebody should be able to see the product for two seconds and then close their eyes and be able to sketch a very iconic part of it,” says Pei.

What do these hieroglyph-like shapes do? What do they mean? That part has been left out of the early reveal, because at this point asking such questions is at least as important as the answers themselves. It’s how Nothing gets us to talk about, think about, a phone that's not due for months. 

One likely answer is these are white LED strips that light up with different behaviors based on who calls or messages you, letting you see what’s up without you having to glance at the screen. Perhaps they use multicolor LEDs, for a hyperactive light show whenever you play music? 

And even if that pans out, maybe it won’t be as crass as it sounds, because the Nothing Phone 1 was—is being—codeveloped in partnership with Teenage Engineering, which did a pretty good job on Nothing's AirPod-beating buds. 

March of the Hipsters

Teenage Engineering is not a STEM scheme for underprivileged kids, but a minor millennial-generation design icon that made products like the Teenage Engineering OP-1 and Pocket Operator synths. More recently it worked on the designs of gadgets like the Playdate portable console. 

If you’re in your thirties, can’t get a mortgage, and like tech, there’s a reasonable chance you have cooed over a Teenage Engineering product at some point. 

You’ll realize this partnership was crucial to Pei’s plan when you hear about his final goal: “We want to create the most compelling alternative to Apple,” he says. 

“When [Apple] started, they had their crowd, the creatives. They got the creatives onboard with the rationale that the creatives will help them attract more people to the brand, because they were the culture makers, the writers, artists, people who created culture. But now that Apple is so big and so mainstream, there's no longer a brand that's catering to those early adopters or culture makers anymore. So that's where we fit in.”

The hope is that Teenage Engineering can give the Nothing Phone 1 its “creatives” clout. And to an extent it already has, helping the company to amass $144 million in funding from venture capital and high-profile backers like YouTube star Casey Neistat and Twitch cofounder Kevin Lin. 

Teenage Engineering makes and designs excellent products for people to identify as creative types. That you’d actually be better off with a budget Novation MIDI controller than a Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator only further demonstrates the company’s design nous. 

Its products get their hooks into a generation that remembers the days before social networks, misses physical media, and mourns the way the tangible and tactile has been washed down the sink by all things digital. You’ll find no better embodiment of this than the hand-crank controller of that Teenage Engineering-designed Playdate console. 

Insert Retro Here

But how does this play out in a phone? So far we only have a glimpse. The Nothing Phone 1 has a sound-recorder app with a retro analog tape-style controller that lets you rewind clips by turning this virtual tape reel. It is an idea pulled straight off of Teenage Engineering’s OB-4 speaker from 2015. That speaker had a motorized dial that let you rewind and “remix” audio played back. 

“Sound is a really important part of design that I think too often gets overlooked,” says Pei. “On one level it’s technical, but on another level we want to show a kind of nostalgia or relatability.”

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The sound recorder’s virtual-physical dial supposedly represents this nostalgia. But it is also a trinket, sure to be left gathering virtual dust by most just as, we imagine, 95 percent of Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator synths sit on shelves gathering actual dust. 

So where’s the actual meat of the Nothing concept? We have to broaden out to Pei’s concept of the Nothing OS ecosystem. 

The Nothing OS Ecosystem

Right now, Nothing’s ecosystem encompasses a pair of decent but not earth-shattering wireless earphones, and a phone that doesn’t exist yet. Nothing OS will sit on top of Android in the Phone 1 and is fundamentally largely comparable with the third-party skins seen across the industry. 

How do you create a distinct ecosystem while “distilling the operating system to just the essentials” and adopting a “pure Android” approach, which Nothing also espouses? 

This may rest on the patents Nothing took on in 2021 when it acquired Essential, a tech company founded by Andy Rubin. He was once head of Alphabet’s Google Android division but has completely disappeared from the public eye following sexual harassment allegations that surfaced in 2018 and 2019. 

Essential made a phone with a couple of pogo pin connectors on the back, allowing it to connect to an Essential 360-degree camera and a charging dock, which was never released. The phone was a failure. Essential also announced plans for a privacy-focused smart home system way back in 2017, called Ambient OS. It too was never released.

The Ambient (no relation), a site dedicated to news about smart home technology, described the Ambient OS concept as “IFTTT on steroids”. IFTTT stands for “if this, then that” and is a way to program automations across devices and platforms. IFTTT is great but is used almost exclusively by nerds, because it feels a little like actual programming. You might, for example, use IFTTT to turn your living room smart lights on when your phone gets in range of your home Wi-Fi network. 

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If the new OS can make this rules-based interaction between devices palatable for the average person, Nothing could be onto something. One statement Pei offered during our chat seemed to land on this idea too, despite nothing in the company’s announcement directly relating to this side of the tech.

“On the consumer internet side, these companies have become evil in our minds thanks to privacy issues, anti-competitive issues, and whatnot. So overall, people are not inspired by the technology and we want to be the catalyst to change that again,” Pei says. 

Third-Party Party

However, if this is to be the as-yet-unannounced bedrock of the Nothing Phone 1’s appeal in an ultra-crowded market, it needs to work with a lot of different devices on day one. 

“We want to partner up with the leading brands of the world and help them create products, and, in the process, connect them to Nothing’s ecosystem,” says Pei. “We're also building support for third-party products that we believe our users might need, like the AirPods Pro or a Tesla, so then they're able to control parts of the Tesla through Nothing OS.”

At face value this seems, once again, rather ambitious. Even if the Nothing Phone 1 is a great success, its market share will be tiny. It is not easy to imagine many third-party companies able or willing to justify creating or optimizing bespoke features for the phone. 

Until Nothing becomes established, almost all the work for this would likely rest on Nothing’s side. Such efforts would typically be impossible for a startup launching a phone. Pei has an answer for that too.

“There are two schools to making products. One school is having a very small team in-house while outsourcing most of the work to factories—‘hey, I want this, I want that.’ There’s another school, which is like Apple, where you have overqualified engineers and you have tons of them. And you do everything yourself, and the factory just executes your orders. They just do execution, the legwork. I'm in the latter school,” Pei says. “We're not a 20-person team, like other startups trying to make smartphones. We are almost a 300-person team.”

This approach is also why Nothing has to be hungry for capital. With $144 million raised, it sits second only to smart-ring maker Oura as the best-funded venture-capital-backed hardware maker, and Oura has made a significant mark in the wearables space. 

Nothing has also announced a second wave of community investment "opportunities.” In February 2021, it raised $1.5 million from everyday folk using the Crowdcube platform (in just 54 seconds), reportedly attracting 481 investors. 

“Companies and consumers are becoming closer and closer. I think, in the future, that distinction might even disappear,” says Pei, in yet another bold, media-honed statement. This time around Nothing is opening up $10 million of investment to the public, although the mechanics of this have not been revealed. Let’s hope it’s not NFTs. 

The cash is flowing, and Nothing says it has 140 “ongoing negotiations with sales partners across the world.” Pei will not be drawn on whether these include mobile carriers, but he will say Nothing has established a “small team in LA for special projects.” While Nothing’s workforce is largely split across London, Stockholm, and Shenzhen, China, it may also have an eye on the US market.

As for the Phone 1, Pei will be hoping to repeat the tried and tested OnePlus starting formula of high-spec, mid-tier good design that brought him and Pete Lau such renown. And, if he can pull it off once again, he would do well not to forget that magic recipe, unlike OnePlus


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