There was a lot of riding on the launch of Nothing’s Phone 1 this week. For months, the company’s CEO Carl Pei, who rose to prominence as one of the founders of OnePlus, has been making big promises about the first smartphone as nothing. “Consumer technology, how did we make it so boring?” asked the CEO rhetorically during a live broadcast in March. “We have all experienced the gap between the future we were promised and the future we live in now.”
The implication, then, is that there will be nothing to bridge that gap. Indeed, in its invitations to this week’s launch event in London, the company described the event as “an invitation to undo everything the industry has taught us.” In a recent interview, Bey said that nothing is meant to “bring people back in time to a time when they felt more optimistic about gadgets.” No pressure then.
It’s a level of promise I’m not sure any device can deliver, but I’d be damned if I’d be the one I missed if nothing worked. Sure, before the event, there were already signs that we were on the verge of seeing something less like a “consumer tech revolution” and more like a “smartphone” – a mid-range phone that, in fact, wouldn’t even sell out in us. But perhaps the personal event sheds more light on the revolution of Nothing.
That’s what led me, on one of the hottest days of the year, down a series of nondescript alleys in London trying to find the ominous location where none decided to keep the personal part of Tuesday’s launch. When you pledge a revolution, your thoughts may turn to huge stadiums, the Brandenburg Gate, or perhaps a Parisian café. Nothing will revolutionize our London design studio in Camden.
If Pei is good at one thing, he takes every opportunity to create “edgy” marketing. Prior to the launch, nothing colorized many European capitals with street posters placed alongside advertisements for local parties and festivals. Archaeology? This is more of a cultural event than a simple phone launch. I even spotted a few in my south London suburb, while on Twitter, people posted pictures of posters showing them Paris And the Berlin (Everything has been helpfully retweeted by Nothing’s social media team.)
As I approached the event, I came across another person, who turned out to be one of several thousand community investors who had invested millions of dollars in the company, according to funding platform CrowdCube. That’s in addition to more traditional institutional investors like Alphabet’s GV and other notable names in technology, including “the father of the iPod” Tony Fadel, Reddit CEO Steve Hoffman, and YouTuber (sometimes) Casey Neistat.
There is no strict adherence to the hype that attracts some famous investors. Even more impressive, the participation of these investors has continued to create more hype around the company. In total, CrowdCube reports that nothing has attracted over $150 million in funding from seven funding rounds. Not bad for a company that has so far only released a pair of fairly good earbuds.
A None investor has refused to tell me how much he put into the company (he would only say it’s under £10,000 and over £2,000) and is open about the fact that his none equity is just one of the investments he owns. “There are certain things that are very difficult to get investments in,” he says. “How often is a new phone brand launched behind by very good people?” But even though a good portion of the money has been poured into the company, it looks relatively cool on none of the same products. He admits he didn’t buy the Ear 1 headphones last year and said he might get the Phone 1 but only as a second device.
I walk through the crowd to the event space itself and see nothing mixed up with the staff. There’s Adam Bates, former head of design at Dyson who is now Nothing’s Design Director, and Tom Howard of Teenage Engineering, who also works on Nothing’s design team—names that brought Pei a lot of attention in the lead up to launch. They are all dressed fashionably but casually, and although there was one or two button-up shirts in attendance, they did not appear to be employees. A smaller mill is around it, decked out in high street fashion, while tech journalists in the crowd meticulously dress the line between looking professional and avoiding overheating in the sun.
I head inside and try to prepare myself for the presentation of the Phone 1 but soon discover that there is no public Wi-Fi in the space. I was told that this is necessary to provide the necessary bandwidth for live streaming. It also turns out that there is no air conditioning, and the heat outside means that it quickly gets very hot and humid at the center of the design that hasn’t been repurposed to launch. Someone mentions an air-conditioned room upstairs that people had to vacate before the event started. If the intent is to carry them into this lower room to make them look nice and busy for live broadcasts, then it works – it rocks.
Even apart from the lack of AC and Wi-Fi, the event space is unusual for many reasons. There is no platform and no seating except for a large box made of exposed wood in the middle of the room. The entire forward-facing side of the box is occupied, so, as a compromise, I sit facing the back of the room. That means I don’t have to touch my sweaty skin with any strangers, but in turn, I’m awkward seeing the video screen behind me.
Finally, the moment of truth: a great opportunity for “nothing” to show something. The event begins. The video screen turns into a video display of me sitting in a café, and… talking about how the tech industry has lost its way. His now-familiar mantra reads: Consumer technology was exciting (real) – now boring (debatable). We’re told Nothing Phone 1 hopes to change that. Its back is made of clear glass, and we’ve shown the now-familiar light strips that can act as high-tech notification indicators. So far, it looks a lot like what we saw last month in a hands-on instructable from YouTuber Marques Brownlee. (By the way, you should read my colleague Alison Johnson’s hands-on experience with the phone.) With the pre-recorded video going on, I started to wonder if Pei would be attending his smartphone launch party.
contact me. Phone 1 runs Nothing OS, an Android whose design draws inspiration from the kind of blending that design partner Teenage Engineering has used to make a name for itself. There is integration with Tesla cars and NFT Gallery. Its frame is aluminum instead of steel, and both the front and back are made of Gorilla Glass 5. Meanwhile, in the design studio, I could feel my back starting to sweat.
At the end (surprise!), Pei appears in the studio, and the pre-recorded launch turns into a live event. “It’s humid and hot,” his first words to the live broadcast host were. Pei is interviewed among the crowd, who keep having to walk around to make room for the camera crew. The lack of a platform means it’s hard to actually watch the interview, and there’s no active video stream playing in this crowded room that I can watch. People take their videos of the event, and out of my sight I still see a journalist recounting the proceedings while filming the event to his (probably) foreign language audience. I’m thinking of leaving the room to watch the interview on one of the big screens around the event space, hoping the distance will provide a better scene.
After Pei, there’s an interview with a Qualcomm executive and another with someone from Indian retailer Flipkart. The way the live audio is re-pumped into the action during interviews makes it impossible to hear what is being said, even when you are only feet away from the content being recorded. Other people also seem to struggle to hear if the amount of chatter I hear around me is anything to go through.
I give up watching interviews, and after noticing Nothing’s Chief Marketing Officer Akis Evangelidis in the crowd, I go away to ask for him How is the event going? He asks if we can go out to get away from the heat, but other than that, he seems happy. The former OnePlus vice president said nearly 100,000 people have tuned in to the live stream. He says he’s comfortable with that, especially when a lot of Phone 1 designs and features have been previously announced in recent weeks. This is because, he says, there’s nothing he wants to be able to make detections “on our own terms” rather than risk them happening with leaks.
“I’ve been in contact with some of the dropouts out there,” Evangelidis says. “He’s very advanced; they know their stuff.” As we speak, event staff members walk around wearing white bracelets. The ad tells that these bracelets mean employees have 1 phone that people can try out for themselves, like roving demo stations. It seems to work much better than the crowded tables seen in most tech launches, and people don’t struggle to get hands-on time with the phone. The event is peppered with powerful ringtones built into Phone 1 as people try out one of its distinctive features.
After speaking with Evangelidis, I began to wonder how I would feel about Nothing Phone 1 if I hadn’t followed every minute step of the hype cycle before today. Imagine if you heard, all of a sudden, that a mysterious new consumer technology company led by OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei with former Dyson designer among its employees announced its first smartphone. At £399, it’s cheaper than the iPhone SE and runs an interesting Android launcher full of vintage synthesis touches from design collaborators Teenage Engineering. Oh, and it has a neat set of light strips on the back that serve as a fresh, updated notification light. It’s knit, it’s fun, it’s charming.
But, of course, this week wasn’t the first we heard about Phone 1. Instead, Pei and Co. It slowly tended to hype for months with long interviews and a fun 20-minute livestream in March when none had laid out their grand plan for what they hoped to achieve with their smartphone – without actually announcing a smartphone. Its design was revealed a month ago, and its features and specs have crept in over the following weeks along with huge promises that this will be the company that will deliver the sci-fi future we’ve all been waiting for but no company has yet to offer it.
Nothing made headlines week after week as she announced relatively minor aspects of her phone. Clearly, people were interested in the company’s bold promises. Remember that this is a company that is only a year and a half old, and it only announces its second product and first smartphone. This alone is awesome.
So this week I got frustrated to attend what was ultimately the launch of a mid-range Android phone. Not the start of a tech revolution for consumers, not the beginning of a journey to “make technology fun again,” and not a “call to let go of everything the industry has taught us (unless what the industry has taught us is to “expect” air conditioning and Wi-Fi”). If the common principle of winning customers over is under-promising and over-delivery, nothing risks doing the opposite.
As I leave the event, I wonder if this is the double-edged sword of hype. As a new company, nothing compels the world to promise attention and funding. But, having all attended to watch him deliver on those promises, we were greeted with a rectangle of glass and aluminum that shimmered and shimmered. An interesting smartphone, for sure, with thoughtful design touches and some fresh ideas. But the savior of modern consumer technology? Excuse me.