“Technology has lost its momentum. He feels stagnant and a bit bored.” As Dyson’s former chief designer, Adam Bates is probably one of the best-placed people in the country to make this claim. I came to King’s Cross to meet him and Carl Pei, the co-founder of the OnePlus phone brand. Together they are the superstar team behind Nothing, the enigmatic London start-up that has created the most anticipated (and downright crazy) new smartphone of the year. “We think it’s time to get some fun back,” says Bates.
A few days before its launch, I was treated to a hands-on preview of what has been dubbed the “nothing phone.” The excitement around the new phone is such that 200,000 people have paid a non-refundable deposit for it, despite knowing nothing about its specs or even how much it will retail for.
It’s a leap of faith that, Pei and Bates argue, shows that other device makers have become so obsessed with market research and fear of failure that they’re completely risk-averse. People want something new, and Nada is about to give it to them.
Part of the hype around Nothing is due to the consortium of design and tech heavyweights who came together to make the phone. Alongside Pei, who is the CEO of Nothing, and Bates, the chief designer, the company is also backed by Teenage Engineering, a team of renowned technologists who build the mixers for the Swedish House Mafia.
Nothing also boasts an eclectic mix of celebrity backers (including Steve Huffman, the CEO and co-founder of Reddit, and Kevin Lin, the co-founder of Twitch), and crowdfunding, as well as institutional investors like GV (formerly Google Ventures). Walk into the Nothing studio and you immediately feel the quirky energy: this is a company about to launch a product full of digital wizardry, yet the mood board on the wall is dominated by images of analog tape cassettes. You have to admire the irony.
So far, the only thing known about the mysterious contraption, which Nothing calls Telephone (1), is that it looks phenomenal. It has a transparent chassis with a rear panel that features over 900 LEDs, arranged in a circuit design inspired by urban transit maps, like Harry Beck’s classic 1933 design for the London Underground. It turns out that these LEDs serve multiple functions. For example, they light up in different ways when specific people call. That means you can place the phone screen-down and still notice that his partner is trying to locate you by the taillights. These chassis lights can also act as a soft fill light when taking photos in low light conditions. There are plenty of other neat touches too, like a battery progress bar on the back of the chassis so you can see at a glance how much battery is left without even turning on the screen.
Without a doubt, Phone (1) is a radical slice of industrial design at a barely believable price point which, according to “trusted sources”, starts at £399. Despite the cheap price, you only need to hold one for a moment to feel its quality. Give most affordable phones a tight grip and they’ll flex a bit, but the phone (1) is carved from rock-solid aluminum and has Gorilla Glass on the front and back.
While the look and feel are unparalleled, the real issue is whether the phone (1) brings enough technology to the party. Clearly, compared to other flagship phones, the company has been forced to cut some expenses to reach such a low price. For example, the processor is only mid-range, even if it has been customized to offer wireless charging. And this means that passionate gamers are unlikely to enjoy blazing speeds in the latest titles.
Pei and Bates are eager to talk about the fact that Nothing has created its own operating system, which is essentially an overlay on top of the stock Android system software. Nothing OS is partly about design (expect lots of dot-matrix fonts and other fancy touches) and partly about functionality (for example, the fact that it will automatically adjust the audio quality on your own headphones when you’re gaming compared to music playback). The core ethos of Nothing is to make technology fun again. This is mostly about hardware design, but also about making it easier to use, which is why this is important.
200,000 people have paid a deposit for the phone, despite knowing nothing about its specifications
Pei insists that this phone offers much more than you expect: impressive cameras, for example. Made by Sony and Samsung, and usually found on more expensive phones, these are the size of chocolate buttons, compared to the puny lenses on most budget phones. It’s a surprise to see only two lenses (wide and ultra wide, since you ask) given that many phones are adorned with up to four. But Pei rightly insists that sometimes less is more on a tight budget. “There is a secret within the industry, and that is that most of these cameras are not very good.”
It’s too early to say if Nothing’s stylish lenses deliver sharp results because it depends on multiple factors. As Ian Fogg, Vice President of Industry Analyst at Opensignal, points out: “A new phone may have great specs on paper, but is it put together effectively? There’s a lot of experience in how you integrate things.” The jury is out, but the phone (1) is unlikely to rival the photographic abilities of a flagship phone, even if it is capable of whipping up mid-market rivals.
Some might say that’s enough, especially given that many people are tightening their belts due to the cost of living crisis. After all, a phone is ultimately a luxury good. However, Francisco Jerónimo, associate vice president of IDC Europe, disagrees. He points out that the UK is a mature market with high expectations. The average selling price of a phone here was £633 in 2021 and now we only replace them every 30 months or so.
“Buying a cheap phone rarely provides a good day-to-day experience, and therefore people prefer to pay more, even if it means they keep the phone longer.”
Jerónimo describes the scale of the challenge that Nada faces in making her mark. Firstly, it’s very hard to turn people away from iPhones, which make up almost half of the UK mobile phone market, with another third consumed by Samsung alone. Even the mighty Google has barely made an impact with its Pixel phones, which it has been pushing hard.
Despite all of the above, there are plenty of opportunities for Nothing to take hold. To do so, the Phone (1) must stand up to proper scrutiny but, assuming there are no hidden drawbacks, it could redefine expectations. The first step is to gain a fan base and have something to build on, then add models with more specifications (it’s easy to forget that the original iPhone had a creaky chassis, no App Store, and couldn’t cut/paste text). If Nothing’s first release (they’ve previously released headphones, called Ear (1)) is anything to go by, they’re already on their way; according to Pei, they sold almost 600,000 units in one year. He tells me they’re keen to appeal to fans of high design, an interesting target consumer, because many of those people will be Apple owners who opt for the iPhone because of its industrial design. But will these people change from the Apple ecosystem with all the integrated services that they now have? Only time will tell.
Others may have tried and failed, this is for you, Essential and Wileyfox, but that doesn’t mean anyone else should try. One thing is for sure, the future of affordable technology suddenly looks brighter.
Five reasons to smile about Nothing Phone (1)
This is far from the first device to offer a transparent chassis or LED alerts. Apple’s iMac and Nintendo’s Game Boy, among others, have already played this card. What is new here is not a single element but, rather, the way so many new design ideas converge. It is the complete package.
The phone (1) is certainly distinctive and will be available in black or white to match existing Nothing headsets. Much less obvious is the build quality that makes it workable, like the polished components. The risk is that it repels as many people as it attracts, but hey, surely choice is always a good thing.
The Nothing team is cautious about the launch price. So let’s say extremely reliable sources have confirmed to Standard that the phone (1) will cost from £399 in the UK. To put that in context, this is less money than Apple charges its customers just to fully upgrade the iPhone 13’s storage capacity.
This company has ambitious plans for a family of products, but Pei says the phone (1) will work just fine, even with existing gadgets. For example, it will detect if you are gaming and automatically reduce the audio quality in your Ear (1) headphones to reduce lag. It will also offer widgets to modify these audio settings without opening applications.
Nothing’s logo is based on an old-fashioned dot-matrix printer, and apparently this isn’t just retro branding. Anyone who pre-orders the phone(1) or invests in the company can now claim an NFT point as a form of loyalty points, and Pei says these points will provide access to “different activities.” The mind is stunned.