20 Jul Does the world need another mid-level smartphone manufacturer?
According to Betteridge’s Law any question asked in a headline can be answered with the word ‘no’. On the face of it then, this blog should be one word long, but the launch of the Nothing smartphone last week warrants a bit more attention, even if the conclusion will ultimately be predictable.
New kid on the block?
Nothing has been a marketing phenomenon since it launched some jazzy looking earphones in 2021. Founded by former OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei, the company boasted in early 2022 that it was bringing something completely new to the boring old smartphone market.
Pei has form here. OnePlus started as a techie phenomenon. The first device – OnePlus One – shipped with the Cyanogen OS – a hybrid of Android that could be modified and personalised. When the OnePlus Two phone was being shown in London for the first time, I thought I would pop by to see what the fuss was about. I was amazed by the number of people queueing simply to get a glimpse of a phone they would not even be able to buy on the day. The queues were almost Apple-esque.
Over time, OnePlus became bigger and more corporate. When Cyanogen closed in 2016, the company moved to a more stock version of android and much of the geek chic was lost. The company began partnering with the major mobile operators and looked more and more like a “me too” mid-level smartphone brand, more recently fully integrated into OPPO.
Carl Pei left to set up Nothing – which is described on its own website as ‘The most hyped tech company in years’. First impressions from this week’s Nothing phone launch suggest hype is the right word because I am yet to see anything here that will change the smartphone world.
The name of the company neatly answers the question ‘what is different about this smartphone?’ What I saw was not a ‘radical reinterpretation of mobile tech’ (Wallpaper magazine) but a familiar shaped device nicely designed but – other than a couple if gimmicks – lacking the wow factor.
The consensus in XL Towers was that it was the most Apple looking Android. But – in my view at least – Apple fans will continue to be loyal to Apple. A lookalike will not be enough to convince the mob to drop their ‘one ecosystem’ and defect.
And Android fans want their device to excel in some way or another, whereas the Nothing phone just seems to be moderately good at everything; not the best camera, not the worst, average battery life, ok screen, but nothing that shines. The pricing is keen at £399, but I can buy an OPPO Reno 7 with better specs and still have more than £100 left over. In fact, pretty much any of the flagship OPPO/Xiaomi/RealMe devices stack up positively against the Nothing phone.
Of course, the software might be amazing, and many people will love the glyph interface (at least until it gives them a headache) but I do not buy this as anything more than novelty. For me it takes away for the product’s design rather than adding to it.
Crash and burn?
Being profitable in the smartphone market means investing billions to sell tens of millions and I cannot see more than a niche for Nothing sadly. The smartphone market is a marathon not a sprint, and the journey is littered with corpses of huge technology companies fallen by the wayside. I would love Nothing to be something but I fear it is not.