Nothing Carl Pei finds everyone else’s smartphones boring


Carl Pei, founder and CEO of mobile tech startup Nothing

Carl Pei believes there is something wrong with the smartphone industry. That’s not to say the cell phones on sale today are bad. Modern phones are consistently faster, more sophisticated, and take better photos than previous generations. But like a growing number of tech enthusiasts, Pei feels that new phones just aren’t as special as the devices that came out five or 10 years ago. So, ahead of the Phone 1 launch on July 12 (pre-orders start today), I sat down with the founder and CEO of Nothing to hear how the mobile startup is trying to bring some innovation, quirkiness, and maybe even a little much Fun back to the smartphone market.

Now there’s a very logical explanation for why newer phones don’t have the same kind of wow factor. When the iPhone debuted, it felt like a revelation. “I used to look at all the starts. I was in Sweden, so I stayed up until midnight or 4 a.m. to see what came out,” Pei said. But in recent years, that excitement has waned, as Pei often skipped big keynotes and relies on condensed summaries to stay current. And it’s not just Pei who feels this way.

Nothing's first smartphone, due to launch on July 12, is simply called the Phone 1.


“When I talk to consumers, they’re also pretty indifferent,” says Pei. “While conducting focus groups, some consumers said they believe smartphone brands are intentionally withholding features just so they can launch something for the next iteration, which isn’t true. But when consumers think that way, it’s a sign they’re kind of bored.”

The big problem for Pei is stagnation. After big players like LG and HTC left the market or became irrelevant, the smartphone industry is dominated by a handful of big companies like Apple, Samsung and Google. “They have a couple of big companies, and they work in a more structured and systematic way,” Pei said. “They have technology roadmaps from partners like Qualcomm, Sony or Samsung Display so they know what’s coming. They do a lot of consumer research, get their feedback and look at their competitors and the overall market landscape.”

However, Pei thinks this approach leads to many similarities. “So they have that information, analyze it, and then create a very rational product that’s going to do well on paper because they used all this great data,” Pei said. “But the problem is that everyone uses the same data and everyone uses the same analysis. So if the input and the method are the same, the output is more or less the same.”

Comprised of 900 LEDs, Nothing's Phone 1 has a unique lighting feature designed to show owners information without having to look at the screen.


That’s one thing Pei is trying to change with Nothing’s upcoming handset, the Phone 1. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel – or in this case, the phone – Pei wants to bring some originality back to the design of mobile technologies. “Maybe we can turn the brain down a bit and turn up the intuition,” Pei said, which is a mantra that has led to some of the Phone 1’s more unique features, including its design, embedded lighting, and glyph interface.

According to Pei, the inspiration behind the Phone 1’s design comes from a concept the team describes as “raw technology meets human warmth,” or technical warmth for short. “It has this machine-like nature, but also quirky and very human elements.” Therefore, instead of hiding the device’s interior behind an opaque back panel like you see on so many other phones, Nothing uses transparent glass that protects components like the wireless charging coil Phone 1 uncovered, heat pipes and more. In many ways, it feels like a modern-day industrialist to rival the clear-plastic-cased Game Boys and iMacs we got in the ’90s and early 2000s.

“I think one of the things we’re trying to do is take people back to the time when they were more optimistic about gadgets,” Pei said. This desire to make tech fun again is something Nothing carried throughout the design process, right down to Phone 1’s codename Abra, which references the psychic Pokemon of the same name. (For the record, Pei says his favorite mon is Squirtle.) There are other quirks too, like the heat pipe on the bottom of the phone that looks like an elephant and the red indicator light on the back that people know lets when a video is running is recorded.

Aside from being visually appealing, Nothing added quirky elements to the Phone 1, like a heat pipe that resembles an elephant.
See if you can spot the elephant hidden in the Phone 1 design.


However, while Pei wants to bring back the fun of gadgets, Nothing always draws on the central design principle, form follows function. Pei said, “We don’t do any decorations. We can design different things and unique things, but they always have to be functional.” The best example of this is the Phone 1’s glyph interface, which uses 900 LEDs arranged on the back of the device to create a sophisticated notification system , which currently does not exist.

By giving owners the ability to assign unique combinations of lights and sounds to different contacts, people should be able to see who’s calling or texting without looking at the screen. Even the Phone 1’s ringtones are reminiscent of old-school analog synthesizers, combined with the hiss of a dial-up modem, it’s fresh and retro at the same time. Additionally, the lights illuminate when the phone is charging wirelessly or backwards, while the small LED strip next to the charging port can show how much juice the phone has – once again, without ever seeing the screen.

However, great ideas for phone design and actual implementation are very different things. Making phones is difficult, and trying to break into the market as a startup is nearly impossible. If you look at the industry today, the only company to really break through in the last decade is OnePlus, co-founded by Pei and receiving significant backing as part of BBK Electronics’ tech umbrella. Meanwhile, the junkyard of failed smartphone startups is littered with ambitious companies like Essential (whose trademark and intellectual property are now actually owned by Nothing) that teased similarly big ideas but went down the drain before they ever made a second-gen device. Or think of mainstream companies like Motorola who failed to make modular phones anything more than a novelty with their Z-series devices. And since then, Moto has largely played it safe, decking out endless iterations of its G-Series line.

Unlike many phones that try to hide their components, the Phone 1's transparent design allows you to see features like the heat pipe, wireless charging coil, and more.


“The reason this industry is so difficult is because it requires end-to-end skills,” Pei said. “If you want to start a smartphone company, every single team has to be at least a seven out of ten. And some of them have to be even better if you want your product to stand out in any way.”

“Your supply chain team must be great. Your mechanical engineering, your software, your engineering, your industrial design, your sales, your marketing, your customer support,” said Pei. And if we look back at the PH-1, which had an innovative design and a team with serious pedigree, in the end a handful of issues like the high price and poor camera quality spelled Essential’s downfall at launch.

On the other hand, there are concerns that the Phone 1 is being overrated, although Pei claims that Nothing has already sold more than 560,000 pairs of its Ear 1 buds. Some online commenters have even compared Nothing’s community forums to a cult based on early reactions to a yet unreleased device. But when it comes to hype, Pei feels there’s only one path to success.

“One of them is the path we are currently taking. We try to generate maximum interest in a product at launch. This raises really high expectations of the product to be delivered. And if so, then it’s going really well. If not, it might fizzle out.”

The challenge, however, is that if a company tries to own the hype, the product may never take off, regardless of quality. Pei said, “This way, at least we have a chance to try to deliver a great product. The second option is to be a small business with no marketing budget as no one will know about your device. So even if the product is good, the result is still that nobody cares. You don’t even get a chance to prove yourself. It’s actually our only logical option.”

While the Phone 1 shares the same silhouette as an iPhone 12, the rest of its design ensures you'll never mistake it for any of Apple's devices.


So while the Phone 1’s design is quite unique and eye-catching, Pei preaches a pragmatic approach. Rather than taking a big swing right from the start, Pei is trying to gradually grow Nothing’s business and ecosystem, starting with the first earbuds and soon the first phone.

“We’ll follow quickly. We didn’t invent smartphones. We didn’t invent Android, but we have experience in this market. We see ways we could do better and some gaps in the market.” But Pei knows that nothing needs to be taken one step at a time. “We have to build a position of strength step by step. Then when you’re strong, you can do something really, really innovative because you have a business that’s stable enough to shoot a lot.”

While the success (or failure) of the Phone 1 is yet to come, my guess is that not only is Pei challenging billion-dollar giants with a new smartphone startup, but that Nothing is trying to shake things up in the process. “I think this device is the beginning of something else, but it’s also a gift to our industry,” Pei said. “We’re not saying this is a revolutionary product that will change the entire industry overnight. But maybe it’ll plant a seed in people’s minds.” In a sea of ​​similar-looking glass bricks, Pei hopes the Phone 1 will encourage customers to ask for more creative devices, while also encouraging larger companies to take more risks. “Some things will fail. But ultimately the smartphone market will be much more dynamic and we will improve faster as an industry.”

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