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Carl Pei's Nothing announcement reveals the underbelly of modern OnePlus
Earlier today, OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei finally revealed the name of his new company: Nothing. The in-your-face moniker is garnering the new venture plenty of publicity. That’s a real feat considering we still have no idea what it is that Nothing will create. Pei would only commit to Nothing being a “London-based consumer technology company.”
Without any formal commitments from the brand, there’s pretty much nothing to say about Nothing. However, that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty of interesting stuff going on within Nothing’s press release and Pei’s discussions of the company thus far. The kicker is that those statements shed more light on the company Pei recently left than they do on his new venture.
I want to highlight two bits of info we learned today and theorize on how they paint an unflattering picture of OnePlus as it stands today.
Nothing won’t “relabel somebody else’s products”
An interview with Carl Pei launched at The Verge in tandem with the formal announcement of Nothing. The Verge attempted to dig any information it could on Nothing out of Pei, but he didn’t budge. He did have one bit of cryptic info, which we’ve posted here:
“[Nothing is] a completely independent company owned by our founding team and our investors,” says Pei, with its own R&D department. And despite using contract manufacturers to build its devices, Pei says Nothing won’t just “relabel somebody else’s products.”
Anyone who follows the tech world closely will understand that last line as an apparent dig at OnePlus. While the company has always borrowed heavily from Oppo and its other sister brands under the BBK banner (and, later, the OPLUS banner), the Oppo-ification of OnePlus has only gotten worse over the years. In 2020, the company abandoned all pretense and launched two “new” phones — the Nord N10 and Nord N100 — that were near carbon copies of Oppo phones.
Coincidentally, those phones launched right around the time that Carl Pei left the company. Pei’s statement to The Verge heavily suggests that part of the reason he left OnePlus could have had to do with this lax attitude towards the brand’s own market identity.
“There’s a reason why a lot of products on the market look quite similar”
Pei continued to throw gas on the fire with another statement to The Verge. As he explained how Nothing will be independent, he tossed this bomb:
“There’s a reason why a lot of products on the market look quite similar,” Pei observes. “It’s because they share a lot of the same components and the same building blocks.”
Once again, this very much seems to be a thinly-veiled admonishment of OnePlus. Ever since that company’s inception seven years ago, there has been a lot of scrutiny towards how connected it is to other Chinese brands. It’s obvious that OnePlus doesn’t operate completely independently. For example, OnePlus’ birthday was December 16, 2013. By April of 2014, the company already had designed and manufactured the OnePlus One. Clearly, a brand new startup couldn’t achieve that without serious assistance.
While Pei’s tight-lipped nature prevents us from coming to any true conclusions, I can’t help but feel that he probably became frustrated with OnePlus’ recent moves towards being less independent. When Pei co-founded OnePlus, he was only 24 years old. Based on the quotes, it’s perhaps the case that he felt that the company would start by getting a little help from its associated brands and then gradually become more independent. The existence of the OnePlus Nord N10/N100 — as well as the similarities between the leaked OnePlus 9 designs and the Oppo Reno 5 — suggest that’s far from OnePlus’ current direction.
Is Carl Pei just fanning the flames for headlines?
I could sit here and dissect everything Pei revealed today for a long time. Even though we need to extrapolate quite a bit due to his incredible skill at playing his cards close to the chest, one thing is absolutely certain: Carl Pei left OnePlus and isn’t shy about using that to push Nothing.
With that in mind, it’s very possible that Pei is just playing a PR game. Maybe he left OnePlus not out of frustration with the company’s direction but for other reasons. Maybe his statements today aren’t specific digs at his former employer but simple admonishments of the tech industry at large. I don’t know.
Pei is a master at building hype.
I do know that Pei is a master at building up hype. While he was with OnePlus, his pre-launch interviews and announcements always revealed just enough to get people salivating but not enough for them to have any real grip on the product. This was something he fully put into practice in the build-up to the OnePlus Nord — a project he spearheaded while at the company. The resulting PR campaign for the mid-ranger was as extensive as it was exhausting. Clearly, he’s ready to use those same skills with Nothing.
The trick he’ll need to play now is using his connection to OnePlus to hype Nothing, but not becoming reliant on that. Pei is smart enough to know that he can’t be “the guy who left OnePlus” forever. He needs to forge a new identity if he wants Nothing to stand on its own. After all, if my theories about his departure from OnePlus are correct, then the last thing he would want is to be beholden to another brand.