Can Nothing’s cheaper handset really rival the iPhone?
“Tech has lost its momentum. It feels stagnant — and a bit dull.” As the ex-design lead at Dyson, Adam Bates is probably one of the best placed people in the country to make this assertion. I’ve come to King’s Cross to meet with him and Carl Pei, the co-founder of phone brand OnePlus. Together they’re the superstar team behind Nothing, the enigmatic London start-up which has created the year’s most hotly anticipated (and completely bonkers) new smartphone. “We think it’s time to bring back some fun,” says Bates.
A few days ahead of its launch, I was invited for a hands-on preview of what has been dubbed the “Nothing phone”. The excitement around the new handset is such that 200,000 people have paid a non-refundable deposit for it, despite knowing nothing about its spec or even how much it’ll retail at.
It’s a leap of faith which, Pei and Bates argue, shows that other gadget makers have become so obsessed by market research and fear of failure that they are entirely risk-averse. The people want something new — and Nothing is about to give it to them.
Part of the hype around Nothing is thanks to the consortium of design and tech heavyweights who’ve come together to make the handset. Alongside Pei, who is Nothing’s CEO, and Bates, head of design, the company is also backed by Teenage Engineering, a team of renowned technologists who make the mixing desks for 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 crowdsourced funding, plus institutional investors such as GV (formerly Google Ventures). Step into the Nothing studio and you immediately sense the quirky energy: this is a company about to roll out a product full of digital wizardry and yet the mood-board on the wall is dominated by imagery of analogue tape-cassettes. You’ve got to admire the irony.
So far, the only thing that is known about the mysterious gizmo — which Nothing is calling Phone (1) — is that it looks phenomenal. It has a transparent chassis with a rear-panel that features over 900 LEDs, arranged in a circuit layout inspired by urban-transit maps, such as Harry Beck’s classic 1933 design for the London Tube. These LEDs, it turns out, fulfil multiple functions. For instance, they light-up in different ways when specific people call. That means you can place the phone screen-down and still tell that your partner is trying to get hold of you by the rear-lights. These chassis lights can also act as a soft fill-light when you take photos in gloomy conditions. There are many other neat touches, too, such as a battery-progress bar on the rear of the chassis so you can see at a glance how much battery is left without even switching on the screen.
Undoubtedly Phone (1) is a radical slice of industrial design at a scarcely believable price that “reliable sources” say start at £399. Despite the budget pricepoint you only need to hold one for a moment to feel its quality. Grip most affordable phones tightly and they flex slightly but Phone (1) is hewn from rock-solid aluminium and has Gorilla Glass front and back.
While the look and feel are unparalleled, the real issue is whether the Phone (1) brings enough tech to the party. Clearly — when compared with other flagship phones — the firm has been forced to cut some corners to reach such a low price. For instance, the processor is only mid-range, even if it has been customised to deliver wireless charging. And this means ardent gamers are unlikely to enjoy eye-popping speeds on the latest titles.
Pei and Bates are keen to talk-up the fact that Nothing have created their own OS, which is essentially an overlay on top of the standard Android system software. The Nothing OS is partly about design (expect lots of dot-matrix fonts and other elegant touches) and partly about functionality (eg the fact that it will auto-adjust the audio quality on its own headphones when you are gaming compared to playing music). The core Nothing ethos is to make tech fun again. This is mostly about hardware design but also about making it easier to use which is why this stuff matters.
200,000 people have paid a deposit for the phone — despite knowing nothing about its spec
Pei insists this phone delivers way more than you’d expect — impressive cameras, for instance. Made by Sony and Samsung, and typically found on pricier phones, these are the size of chocolate buttons, compared with the puny lenses of most budget handsets. It’s a surprise to see only two lenses (wide angle and ultra-wide, since you ask) given that so many phones are festooned with up to four. But Pei insists, rightly, that sometimes less is more on a tight budget. “There’s a secret within the industry, which is that most of these cameras are not very good”.
It’s too early to say if Nothing’s posh lenses deliver crisp results because it depends on multiple factors. As Ian Fogg, vice-president of industry analyst, Opensignal, points out “A new phone may have great specs on paper but is it put together effectively? There’s a lot of expertise in how you integrate things.” The jury is out here but the Phone (1) is unlikely to rival the photographic chops of a flagship phone even if it’s able to spank mid-market rivals.
Some might say that’s enough, especially given that so many folks are tightening their belts due to the cost-of-living crisis. After all, a phone is, ultimately, a luxury good. However, Francisco Jeronimo, 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 handset here was £633 in 2021 and we now only replace these every 30 months or so.
“Buying a cheap phone rarely provides a good everyday experience and so people prefer to pay more, even if that means they hold onto the handset longer.”
Jeronimo outlines the scale of the challenge that Nothing faces to make its mark. Firstly, it’s super hard to prise people away from iPhones, which account for almost half of the UK handset market, with another third consumed by Samsung alone. Even the mighty Google has barely made an impact with its Pixel phones, which it’s been pushing hard.
Despite all the above, there is plenty of opportunity for Nothing to get a foothold. To do so, the Phone (1) must cope with proper scrutiny but, assuming there are no hidden nasties, it could redefine expectations. The first step is to win a fanbase and have something to build on, then add more highly specced models (it’s easy to forget the original iPhone had a creaky chassis, no App Store, and couldn’t cut/paste text). If Nothing’s first launch — they have previously released earbuds, called Ear (1) — is anything to go by, they’re already well on their way; according to Pei, they sold almost 600,000 units in a year. He tells me that they are keen to draw in fans of high-design — an interesting target consumer, because many of those people will be Apple owners who opt for the iPhone for its industrial design. But will these people switch from the Apple ecosystem with all the bundled services they now have? Only time will tell.
Others might have tried and failed — here’s to you, Essential and Wileyfox — but that doesn’t mean that nobody else should try. One thing is certain, the future of affordable tech suddenly seems brighter.
Five reasons to smile about Nothing Phone (1)
This is far from the first gadget to offer a transparent chassis or LED alerts. The Apple iMac and Nintendo Game Boy, among others, have already played this card. What’s new here is not any single element but, rather, the way in which so many new design ideas converge. It’s the complete package.
The Phone (1) is certainly distinctive and will be available in black or white to match the existing Nothing earbuds. Far less obvious is the build quality that makes this viable – such as the polished components. The risk is that it will repel as many people as it attracts but, hey, surely choice is always a good thing
The Nothing team is cagey about the launch price. So let’s just say that extremely reliable sources have confirmed to the Standard that the Phone (1) will cost from £399 in the UK. To put that into context, this is less money than Apple charges its customers just to fully upgrade the storage capacity of the iPhone 13.
This firm has ambitious plans for a family of products but Pei says the Phone (1) will play nicely, even with existing gizmos. For instance, it’ll sense if you are gaming and automatically reduce the audio quality on its Ear (1) buds to reduce lag. It’ll also offer widgets to tweak these audio settings without opening apps.
The Nothing logo is based on a vintage 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 a dot NFT as a form of loyalty points – and Pei says these dots will provide access to “different activities”. The mind boggles.