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Nothing is borrowing all the right moves from the early OnePlus playbook
Today, Nothing formally announced its first-ever smartphone known as the Nothing Phone 1. The company is the brainchild of CEO and co-founder Carl Pei, whose previous job was acting as co-founder and C-level officer of OnePlus. Everyone who has been following OnePlus’ trajectory since its inception in 2013 has likely already noticed the Nothing/OnePlus similarities over the Phone 1, although we still don’t know much about the device.
What we do know is that it will have a Snapdragon processor and an “iconic design.” It will also come with a new Android skin known as Nothing OS, which the company describes as a “fast and smooth” experience of “pure Android” with some subtle refinements.
If the company sticks with the release strategy we’ve already seen from the Nothing Ear 1 — its first product — then the Phone 1 would probably be an online-only purchase direct from Nothing’s website. Likewise, if the pricing strategy of Ear 1 is any indicator, the Phone 1 will probably undercut its closest competitors.
Have you heard this all before? You probably have since this is the same basic strategy we saw from early OnePlus. Most OnePlus fans would likely agree that that’s a good thing.
Nothing and OnePlus: If it ain’t broke…
The OnePlus One (shown at the top of this article) was also a Snapdragon-powered Android smartphone with an iconic design. It was the first phone to support Oxygen OS, which, at the time, was a minimalist Android skin promoted as “fast and smooth.” OnePlus sold the One online direct to consumers at an unbelievably low starting price of $299.
Carl Pei (shown above) was there at OnePlus when this all happened. He seems to remember those moves clearly, as we can’t help but notice the similarities between that strategy and Nothing’s new smartphone release. After all, why would he want to change it? By all metrics, the OnePlus One was a sensation. Originally, the company planned on selling 10,000 units; it ended up selling a million.
I'm sure Carl Pei would love to sell a million units of the Nothing Phone 1.
The parallelism doesn’t stop there. Nothing is emphasizing and trying to recreate the same community engagement as OnePlus. The ideas of connecting with users and listening to their feedback are a clear focal point for Pei. As an incumbent in the tech industry, Nothing is also positioning itself as a disruptor, an innovator with a vision, and a cool brand that appeals to the geekier crowd. Although the vision is new and the pain points it’s trying to address are different, the story arc aligns perfectly with OnePlus.
As an old-school OnePlus fan, all of this has me pretty excited for Nothing’s first phone. Over the past few years, OnePlus has sacrificed its niche ideals in an attempt to become a brand that appeals to a broader base. Coincidentally (or not), the changes started happening right around when Carl Pei left. If Pei wants to rekindle the early flames of OnePlus with a new brand, I would fully support that.
Of course, we haven’t seen the phone yet. I’m not going to get too excited until we have some more information. But if Pei wants to use his time at OnePlus as a springboard for his new company, that’s more than enough to pique my interest.
This is not OnePlus, though
Despite the apparent Nothing/OnePlus connections with the Phone 1, it’s a sure bet that Carl Pei is not interested in making his new company the next OnePlus. Pei has tried to distance himself from his former employer at every turn, which makes sense since he is focused on doing his own thing now.
During a roundtable interview with him at Mobile World Congress 2022, he told me Nothing’s ambitions align much more with Apple’s than OnePlus’. By that, he meant that the whole point of Nothing is to create a full ecosystem with products that all play off one another. (And Pei reiterated this during the Phone 1 teaser event today.) Even the name “Nothing” references how seamless and invisible technology should be in our lives. OnePlus has never had this ambition.
Carl Pei interview: Nothing and the boring tech industry
Likewise, for all the similarities I’ve mentioned already, there are certainly plenty of differences between Nothing and OnePlus. For starters, OnePlus’ first product was the One, whereas Nothing started smaller with a set of earbuds. OnePlus leveraged R&D support from sister brand Oppo, while Nothing is totally independent. Pei is also putting himself more at the forefront with Nothing, which is much different from the early days at OnePlus.
Once again, this is all really exciting to me. As much as I loved the glory years of OnePlus, those days are clearly over, and trying to capture lightning in a bottle would be a fool’s errand. Cribbing from OnePlus’ strategy a bit is a great idea, but Pei is smart enough to know that times have changed.
Is there room at the table for Nothing today?
When OnePlus exploded onto the scene in 2014 with the One, the smartphone industry was incredibly different. The idea of a “flagship killer” — a powerful phone which cut the right corners to keep a low price — was brand new. In fact, OnePlus coined the whole flagship killer mantra.
Since then, we’ve had not only multiple smartphones but many entire companies come along to try to capture that market. Realme (which is also connected to BBK, OnePlus’ parent), Poco, and others all owe OnePlus a significant debt. Even the big players like Samsung and Google probably looked at the early days of OnePlus and felt the need to respond, albeit within the premium flagship zone.
Continued reading: On its road to success, BBK is leaving OnePlus behind
But that was nearly a decade ago. Now, Realme has far surpassed OnePlus in the global market. Xiaomi dominates the mid-range sector around the world. Even Samsung, once derided for its neglect of anything below the flagship tier, now commands a mighty presence with the Galaxy A series.
How is Nothing going to separate itself from the pack? We know the phone will look unique, most likely with a transparent design. Pei is talking big about how the company’s phone and earbuds will work together, but we don’t know what that means quite yet. We don’t even know whether the Phone 1 will go up against a flagship like the Galaxy S22 Ultra or a mid-ranger like the iPhone SE (2022).
In other words, Pei might be able to get a foot in the door on his name alone. Using the successful plays from OnePlus’ early strategy as a launching pad seems like a smart move as well. But the industry is fierce right now and Nothing has the deck stacked against it. Here’s hoping Pei is ready for a fight.