Carl Pei, former founder of OnePlus and now the face of the Nothing brand, has stirred up the company Nothing Phone 1 for what feels like ages. You’d think the smartphone world has seen it all, but Nothing has a brilliant plan for bringing the fun back to phones. No, it is not with foldable. Nor are they mini-phones, nor are they the camera-centric frenzy that has gripped both Western and Eastern smartphone brands.
With the Nothing Phone 1, Pei wants to bring back beeps and bloops to your smartphone in an effort to make your phone the most distracting thing in your life (more than it already is), and it’s not quite clear. There’s nothing here.
The Nothing Phone 1 lets you customize the back of the phone to light up with up to 900 LEDs for the so-called glyph interface. It lets you see who is calling you, whether your phone is wirelessly charging your earbuds, and other trivialities without looking at your phone’s display. Nothing also introduces a selection of ringtones and sounds to complement these LEDs.
So what’s my problem here? It’s not just that most people use cases and therefore won’t use most of these features. It’s also that Nothing’s bounding box features are inherently distracting — not just to you, but everyone around you.
We’ve reached a point in smartphone etiquette where it’s clear that everyone keeps their phone on silent half the time. Our smartphones are packed focus and do not disturb modes that make it easier than ever to silence relentless notifications. Nothing turns this logic on its head in an almost literal sense. Since you’re using your phone with the screen facing you, who benefits from the LED taillights? What’s the point of something like “reversing to silence” for a Nothing Phone 1 user?
Holding your phone upside down no longer means you want to interact with the physical world. It’s instead an invitation to dive back into more, to play with your phone, and disconnect even more. The phone invites you to use it, and use it, and use it. You get the feeling that the people behind the Nothing Phone 1 don’t understand why people use their phone. Is it a tool or is it a toy?
There is an argument that smartphones are boring. We don’t see round phones anymore, nor do we get wild form factors like the LG Wing† Instead, we see phones that take good pictures, phones with slightly faster processors, and boring old phones that do the same thing every year.
“You have a few big companies and the way they work is more structured and systematic,” Pei said in an interview with Engadget† “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, they get their feedback and they look at their competitors and the general market landscape.”
That’s pretty good. Yes, the early pace of phones was breathtaking, with new and shiny stuff every year. Honestly, those new and shiny things are still being added. Every year your phone gets a little faster, chargers a little faster, and screens get a little brighter. It’s slow and steady progress, as we’re no longer groping in the dark looking for what we want. We know what we want from phones, and we’ve gotten pretty good at refining that.
Nothing is big, something is that it offers novelty in a world where smartphones are boring† But that’s only really true in the US market. There are many perfectly beautiful phones outside the US. You can use a Naruto phonea phone with racing stripes, or one you can write on with a pencil† And that’s not even talking about the many foldable phones available.
Novelty itself is not a very useful selling point. There has to be something more when the novelty wears off that keeps you engaged. I’ve been quite critical of foldables for their weaknesses, but they’re slowly gaining momentum. And you can see why. Once the “oh, my phone can fold” novelty wears off, foldable users will still have the “I can turn my phone into a tablet” factor. Even devices like the Galaxy Z Flip 3 have a functional use thanks to their ultra-compact size.
When the temptation to use the best iPhone or Pixel camera disappears, you’ve got a pretty good phone, clean software, and good updates for everything else. The best part? All these “novelties” are still things that you come into contact with on a daily basis and that you would use on a daily basis. When the allure of the Nothing Phone 1 wears off — that is, when you buy a case and turn on Do Not Disturb mode — you’re left with what looks like a standard mid-range Android phone. That’s not innovation. That’s a toy confuse tool.