Monday, May 16, 2022

Nothing’s first smartphone is aimed at Apple, not OnePlus

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Nothing will launch its debut smartphone this summer, its CEO and former OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei announced during a livestream today. Called the Phone 1, it runs on Android and is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. And yes, it was this phone where Carl Pei was photographed with Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon on it – albeit wrapped in a privacy-protective sleeve.

The Phone 1 will be the company’s second product after the release of its Ear 1 true wireless earbuds last year. A short teaser trailer released today suggests that the phone may have a series of light strips in the back of the phone.

But nothing is not ready to talk about specifications or price. During an interview with The edge prior to today’s event, Pei was even hesitant about what function these light strips could serve in the final device. Can we get a new take on the notification light, which was once a standard problem on numerous Blackberry and Android phones, including some from OnePlus?

“Maybe,” Pei teases with a grin.

But when it comes to software, the CEO is more outspoken. Today, Nothing releases a series of images of Nothing OS, the Android skin that it aims to send on the phone 1. The images don’t reveal much about what the software could do, but Pei is keen to highlight the look, which very deliberately aligns with the rest of Nothing’s branding. The interface is a sea of ​​black, white, and red that leans heavily on the dotted font that Nothing uses for its logo.

Pei also really likes the sound of the phone, an area he says is often overlooked. “Our sound design is really cool,” he says, “so be sure to check that out.”

Nothing OS home screen and widgets.
Image: Nothing

“Many organizations have huge silos between different teams,” said Pei, who explains how the product team often works separately from the design team, which is separate from the software and marketing teams. Nothing, he says, wants to offer a “single vision” across all of its devices, which appears to be challenging when the startup already has design teams working in the UK, Sweden and China.

Nothing’s press release says that the Phone 1 Android’s Nothing OS will distill it down to “just the essentials, with every byte serving a purpose”. However, don’t expect the phone to evoke the spirit of the Essential Phone, even though Nothing acquired the rights to the brand early last year. Pei tells me that the acquisition was just about acquiring his trademarks when “Nothing” could have been called “essential.” But in the end, “we decided nothing was probably better,” Pei says (think of the “better than nothing” jokes).

Nothing, Pei says, aims to create products with a single-focused design language for everything from hardware to software, so there’s never any confusion that they’re from another company. It is quite a task in a world of smartphones that are increasingly indistinguishable from each other. Pei cites Dyson’s designs as having the kind of individuality he would like to emulate by Nothing – it’s no coincidence that Dyson’s former head of design, Adam Bates, recently joined Nothing to serve as design director.

“Because [Adam Bates] had a very high role at Dyson, he is able to take a lot from his old team,” Pei tells me. “So we probably have one of the best industrial design teams in the world.” Bates works with Jesper Kouthoofd and Tom Howard of Teenage Engineering, who are focused on the direction of the design of Nothing at a high level.

While the appearance of the Phone 1’s Nothing OS is clearly a priority, what matters more to the company is what the device represents: a critical step in Nothing’s attempt to build an ecosystem of interconnected devices. The strategy isn’t new — Pei talked about it at the company’s launch last year — but with the unveiling of the smartphone, the ecosystem now has a central device to anchor to.

Nothing OS lock screen.
Image: Nothing

The always-on display.
Image: Nothing

The aim here is less to compete with other Android phones like the one Pei launched when it was part of OnePlus. Instead, he wants to compete with Apple and the broad ecosystem often referred to as the “walled garden.” Pei specifically cites Apple’s impressive Universal Control as the kind of feature he wishes Nothing’s products would eventually be capable of, citing the WWDC 2021 keynote where Apple demonstrated dragging and dropping a photo from an iPad onto an iMac. using a third, separate MacBook — all completely wireless and without any prior configuration.

As with Apple, whose ecosystem combines first-party devices like phones, laptops and true wireless earbuds with third-party products through platforms like HomeKit, nothing plans to manufacture some of these devices itself while relying on integrations with partners to expand its ecosystem. † So, nothing wants his phone to be able to seamlessly control his Nothing-branded earbuds, while also controlling other products like a Tesla car or Apple’s AirPods.

However, competing with an ecosystem of a company worth more than $2 trillion will not be easy. For starters, Nothing doesn’t have nearly as much of its own tech stack as Apple does. A feature like Universal Control is cumbersome enough for a company that manages all its components, let alone a startup like Nothing that is built on top of another company’s operating system.

Pei doesn’t have a clear-cut answer for me about how nothing is planning to pull these kinds of ecosystem integrations together, but he thinks the company has something to lure other companies in.

“I think we can convince partners much more easily because we help them do a lot of the work they can’t do themselves,” Pei says. In fact, he sees nothing like one day almost acting as external consumer technical advisors for companies looking to launch new products, helping with everything from design to supply chains and engineering. “This is an end-to-end capability that we are imbuing our partners with.”

Nothing OS home screen.
Image: Nothing

The CEO stops by saying that Nothing will produce white-label products that other companies can sell (“I think we’re going to be very adamant about stock ownership,” he says when I ask). But if, for example, an old sports brand wants to release wearables, Pei wants Nothing to be the company they can turn to for help. It is very similar to the approach that Chinese tech giant Xiaomi pioneerswhere it has combined elements of corporate venture capital investment with an ecosystem approach to grow its formidable business.

Controlling an entire ecosystem can have its drawbacks, such as the consumer lockdown that comes with Apple’s infamous walled garden. One of the nice things about a company that only produces headphones is that it is motivated to update its accessories everywhere. But that could change if you suddenly start producing both phones and earbuds. †[Nothing earbuds] will work better with the Nothing smartphone as it is integrated at the system level and not just at the app level,” Pei tells me.

Launching a smartphone is one thing, but trying to build an entire tech ecosystem to compete with Apple companies is an even bigger task for a company that has only released one product to date — especially when that product, the Ear 1 earbuds, some rough edges at launch. But while Pei has big ambitions for Nothing, he says the company will take things one step at a time for the foreseeable future. That means the next step is the most important: actually launching the Phone 1.

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