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Can Carl Pei make lightning strike twice with the Nothing Phone 1?
The original OnePlus was a watershed moment in smartphone history. By stripping down the smartphone to its essentials — performance and value — the company clenched its claim to fame as the maker of the first affordable flagship. More importantly, it was the non-trivial task of creating a community of die-hard fans willing to take a bet on an unknown company and part with cold, hard cash that set the brand apart. And for the most part, it came down to one person — Carl Pei. And now he’s back at it again with the Nothing Phone 1.
I’ve often joked that Carl Pei would be a shoo-in to head some of the best creative agencies in the world. The man is a master of hype, and the casually reserved OnePlus “OG” has an uncanny ability to create mystery through obfuscation. How Pei along with the original OnePlus team succeeded at drip-feeding information, all while creating a rare sense of privilege at being chosen to purchase a product through an invite system could very well be a case study in a marketing course.
But there’s a difference between launching a brand that had the backing of a multi-billion dollar behemoth like OPPO and getting a startup off the ground. Nothing can’t afford to lose everything.
To be fair to Pei, he is no longer bound by the ambitions or limitations of running an OPPO sub-brand. It has long been startlingly obvious that OPPO was halfway envious of OnePlus’ mindshare outside China. Despite working hard to craft a premium image and a significantly broader portfolio, OPPO could never quite achieve that. And so we observed the gradual “Oppo-fication” of OnePlus till it came to a point where the company was practically ready to squander all the goodwill it had earned with OnePlus. Even by succeeding, Pei failed and eventually left the brand he helped build.
With Nothing, he has a clean slate and no looming giant standing outside his door. His formulaic approach of seeding out cryptic clues and favoring tech-forward design trends has so far worked in his favor. The fact that the company is selling its first 100 units on StockX proves that this is a phone designed for the TikTok generation. From the retro-futuristic typeface to partnering with Scandinavian tech-design geniuses Teenage Engineering, the brand is clearly pandering to a “hypebeast” audience. And on the face of it, it appears to be working.
Despite the polarizing design, the Nothing Phone 1 has got people talking. That's as good as viral marketing gets.
The worst thing that can happen to a new brand is when people don’t talk about it. Nothing occupying center-space in conversations at the cross-section of culture, design, and technology is as fantastic as it gets. In fact, as part of a recent office chat, I debated with my colleagues that design truly is the last frontier where a smartphone can genuinely innovate. The Nothing Phone 1 is bold through its selective use of Bauhaus and even Brutalist design sense. It’s a polarizing conversation piece.
The Glyph interface is perhaps the epitome of function-led design — a key tenet of the Bauhaus philosophy. The Nothing Phone employs a series of 900 LEDs laid out in design patterns across the length and breadth of the phone. These act as notification LEDs, charging progress bars, ringtone animations, and even as a fill light while recording video. It’s ingenious and most definitely something no large brand would experiment with. I can’t wait to see what developers do with it.
It's refreshing to see a company talk about playing nice with the broader ecosystem instead of creating a proprietary one.
Pei’s ambitions are, however, much bigger than just design. Pei has talked about creating an ecosystem of interconnected devices, and the ability for the phone to interact with connected peripherals made by other manufacturers too. That’s ambitious. And while he might not be able to achieve all of his dreams within the first iteration or two, it is certainly refreshing to see a company talk about a broader ecosystem over creating its proprietary AIOT (Artificial Intelligence Of Things) strategy.
Competition is fierce, and there’s great value to be found
While design and art are easy enough to appreciate, the proof is in how many people part with money from their wallets. And that is going to be a much tougher task this time around for Pei and his team.
The smartphone market is saturated. Some might even say that there’s a sense of burnout from smartphones, but that’s not a bad thing. Going through the last few years of popular smartphones, it is easy to identify some trends. The focus areas have largely circled around slightly better cameras, faster charging, and a marginally spruced-up design. If you leave aside emerging categories like foldables, groundbreaking innovation has come to a screeching halt. What has come up instead is a steady stream of reliable and dependable phones across a range of price tiers and user requirements. There truly is something for everyone. It’s just not possible to differentiate with pure specs when every second phone has the same souped-up spec sheet. But is a ring of LED lights straight out of Close Encounters of The Third Kind the answer? Only time will tell.
With the economies of scale at play, the Nothing Phone 1 might not be spec competitive.
The sheer economics of introducing a brand new phone make this venture even harder for a startup. Rumors suggest that the Nothing Phone 1 will pack a Snapdragon 7-series chipset putting it squarely in the mid-range camp. Meanwhile, the likes of Xiaomi, POCO, realme, and more comfortably leverage economies of scale to bring higher-end chips and leading-edge cameras to the same segment. It remains to be seen if the market responds positively to a design-first approach at the expense of specs, but historical precedence as we saw with the likes of HMD Global and the Essential Phone leaves me skeptical.
Even from a software point of view, we’ve already got a glimpse of what Nothing has in mind. The beta release of the Nothing launcher proved to be a whole lot of, well, nothing. Additionally, the smartphone brands have certainly moved the needle forward when it comes to software. Compared to the early days of OnePlus, today, software, is more about consumer preference than a case of choosing the less inherently bad or intrusive skin. In fact, brands are even offering three years or more of updates making it harder still to create marketing buzz around those essentials.
It’s not all doom and gloom
While it is great to approach any new piece of technology with a degree of skepticism, the fact of the matter is that Pei has proven that his guerilla marketing tactics work. Not only has he got an overzealous group of fans worked up to a frenzy, but he has also successfully managed to sell over 600,000 units of the Nothing Ear 1.
The invite system, even though we’ve seen it before, is an ingenious solution to the very real problem of scarce supplies and the sheer expense of sitting on an inventory of smartphones. It ensures the rapid movement of units while incentivizing quick purchases.
The Nothing Phone 1 is clearly designed for cool internet trendsetters instead of PUBG addicts.
The loyalty for OnePlus phones was built on the back of internet forum scrolling nerds who pored over spec sheets, and custom ROMs. The smartphone landscape has changed dramatically since then. The creator economy is real, and purchase decisions are absolutely motivated by them. Design sells, and cool gimmicks like innovative LED lights make a splash. While Nothing could still serve as a home for jaded OnePlus fans, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that Pei has made the right call by opting to design a phone for cool trendsetters instead of PUBG addicts.
Look, I want the Nothing Phone 1 to succeed. It’s an exciting and refreshing take on what a phone can look like. I’m also well aware that I’ll forget all about the design the moment I put a case on it, but unlike the monolithic piece of metal that is my Galaxy S22 Ultra, removing the case of the Nothing Phone 1 would still evoke some emotion and even a sense of community if you will. (Editor’s note: Or you could buy a clear case.)
The Nothing Phone 1 shows character, and that alone gives it a genuine shot at success.
Ultimately, the success or failure of the phone is going to depend entirely on how well the brand executes the launch, the pricing, and post-sales support. That, however, doesn’t take away from the fact that Pei’s marketing wizardry has positioned the Nothing Phone 1 to have a shot at genuine success. Maybe lightning can truly strike twice.