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Let’s talk about Nothing, hype, and revolutions
The Nothing Phone 1 launched yesterday and based on what I’ve seen so far, here’s what makes it special:
- It has some cool lights on the back;
- Nothing is very good (probably too good) at hype building.
Looking beyond the flashy design, the Nothing Phone 1 is very apparently an ordinary mid-ranger, albeit a nicely done one. My colleague Ollie has good things to say about its construction and ergonomics, which make it feel more expensive than it actually is. But other than that, there’s not much to talk about. A leak suggested the hardware and partially the software were made by Chinese ODM giant BYD Electronics. The software additions are minimal. The haptics are great. The camera seems basic. That’s about it.
Let’s move on to the second point. Watching the Nothing Phone 1 launch yesterday, the studied casualness of the whole thing struck me as disingenuous.
After spending months building and orchestrating hype, drip-feeding information to specific publications, giving the biggest tech YouTuber an exclusive, and maximizing the impact of the launch in every way possible, Nothing opted for a very basic launch event. It was just Carl Pei sitting down, giving us an almost off-the-cuff walkthrough of the phone.
I won’t deny it was a little refreshing after so many bombastic product launches, including some from Carl Pei while at OnePlus.
Nothing's Phone 1 launch was transparently manipulative
On the other hand, it was transparently manipulative. Here we are: a young, hip, different startup. A no-bullshit company. We care about the product, not so much about making money. Look at us how little we care about looking fancy — we even shot the whole presentation on a phone.
Carl Pei didn’t tell us what makes Nothing special other than some vague talk about community, the internet, and the future. He mentioned the 10,000 “regular investors” who bought into the company but didn’t bring up Google Ventures and the other heavyweights who invested tens of millions into Nothing.
He did slip some shots at other manufacturers though. Other brands just add extra cameras to look expensive, he suggested. Was it a dig at his former employer? Considering Carl Pei was the public face of OnePlus for many years, it wouldn’t be a good look for him in any scenario.
Pei waved through Nothing Dots, Nothing’s NFT project, in less than 30 seconds. “In the past couple of months, a lot of the team have become quite interested in NFTs,” he sheepishly explained, as if he hasn’t been a vocal supporter of crypto for a while now. Surely the implosion of crypto and the terrible reaction to Nothing Dots had nothing to do with the NFT bit getting buried…
“For us, sustainability has been important right from the beginning, but it’s not something you should talk about a lot,” Pei said. It’s ironic then that Nothing conspicuously prints a carbon footprint on the Nothing Phone 1’s box. All while getting into NFTs, which have a notorious and disproportionate impact on emissions.
Dive in: Why do people say NFTs are bad?
Bringing simplicity back to tech is part of Nothing’s declared mission. That doesn’t apply to the process of actually buying its phone, though, which will require customers to jump through the hoops of an invite system, like it’s 2014 all over again.
In a bit of Freudian slip, Pei talked about how Nothing decided to “leak” its phone’s design months before the launch. He said the goal was to control what kind of images are going out, i.e., the message. And that’s the thing. While the Nothing Phone 1 is nothing special, the way Nothing controls the message is very much special.
Few other companies have the ability to build up hype as effectively as Nothing does, and as OnePlus in the Carl Pei era did. Pei himself is an expert in personal brand building. How many other phone executives do you know by name?
Pei himself is an expert in personal brand building. How many other phone executives do you know by name?
Just like Nothing Phone 1 is a fairly average phone wrapped in a cool light show, Nothing the company is a pretty average startup wrapped in dazzling, carefully engineered charisma.
The problem is the average phone startup tends to fail. It’s very hard to launch a new phone brand and turn it into a viable player. Just ask Essential, Red Hydrogen, OSOM, Nextbit, and others. Granted, OnePlus (under Carl Pei) is a counterexample — but OnePlus has always had the gigantic BBK at its back.
If Nothing won’t be around in a couple of years, should you gamble on buying a phone from it? That’s the question Nothing doesn’t want you to ponder. On one hand, I get it: No startup will ever want to talk about failure. But unlike most startups, Nothing openly cultivates fans, not customers. It wants to build a community and is even asking fans to chip in to become investors. The stakes are higher.
For a company that loves to talk about how different and real it is, the contrast between what Nothing says and what Nothing does, and sometimes just between what it says on different days, smacks of hypocrisy.
Carl Pei and Nothing want to have their cake and eat it too. They’re playing all sides — big buzzwords and trendy topics one day, Gen-Z-friendly messaging the next. Talk of community and regular investors to one audience, brag about big rounds of funding to another. Talk about how eco-friendly the tin soldering is, then plug those power-hungry NFTs a minute later.
The Nothing Phone 1 seems like a good mid-range phone. It certainly looks fresh and different. It’s an alternative to other mid-rangers like the Galaxy A53 and Pixel 6a. One thing the Nothing Phone 1 is not though, is a revolution. Unless you want to call it a revolution in hype-building.