Hype giveth, and hype taketh away
There was a lot riding on Nothing’s Phone 1 launch this week. For months, the company’s CEO Carl Pei, who rose to prominence as one of the co-founders of OnePlus, has been making big promises about Nothing’s first smartphone. “Consumer tech, how did we let it get so boring?” the CEO asked rhetorically during a livestream back in March. “We’ve all experienced the gap between the future we were promised and the one we’re living in now.”
The implication, then, is that Nothing will be the one to close that gap. Indeed, in its invites for this week’s launch event in London, the company characterized the event as “an invitation to unlearn everything the industry has taught us.” In a recent interview, Pei said Nothing is aiming “to bring people back in time to when they felt more optimistic about gadgets.” No pressure then.
It’s a level of promise that I’m not sure any device could live up to, but I’ll be damned if I was going to be the one who missed out if Nothing succeeded. Sure, prior to the event, there were already signs that we were about to see something less like “a consumer tech revolution” and more like “a smartphone”— a midrange one, in fact, that wouldn’t even be sold in the US. But maybe the in-person event would shed more light on Nothing’s revolution.
That’s what led me, on one of the hottest days of the year, down a series of nondescript alleyways in London trying to find the inauspicious location where Nothing had decided to hold the in-person portion of Tuesday’s launch. When you’re promised a revolution, your thoughts might turn to huge stadiums, the Brandenburg Gate, or perhaps a Parisian café. Nothing’s revolution would take place at its London design studio in Camden.
If Pei’s good at one thing, it’s taking every opportunity to create “edgy” marketing. Ahead of the launch, Nothing plastered various European capitals with street posters that sat alongside advertisements for local gigs and festivals. The implication? This is more of a cultural event than a simple phone launch. I even spotted a few in my suburb of south London, while across Twitter, people posted photos of posters appearing in Paris and Berlin (all helpfully retweeted by Nothing’s social media team).
As I approach the event, I bump into another attendee, who it turns out is one of Nothing’s several thousand community investors, who between them have plowed millions of dollars into the company, according to funding platform CrowdCube. That’s in addition to more traditional institutional investors like Alphabet’s GV and other notable names in tech, including “father of the iPod” Tony Fadell, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, and YouTuber (sometimes) Casey Neistat.
Nothing’s relentless commitment to hype has attracted some impressive celebrity investors. And, more impressively still, the involvement of these investors has gone on to create even more hype around the company. In total, CrowdCube reports that Nothing has attracted over $150 million in funding across seven funding rounds. Not bad for a company that, to date, has only released a pair of kinda okay earbuds.
The Nothing investor declined to tell me how much he’s put into the company (he would only say that it’s less than £10,000 and above £2,000) and is open about the fact that his Nothing shares are just one of the investments he holds. “There are certain things it’s very hard to get investments into,” he says. “How often do you have a new phone brand launched with quite good people behind it?” But despite putting a significant chunk of money into the company, he seems relatively cool on Nothing’s products themselves. He admits he hadn’t bought the Ear 1 earbuds last year and said he’d probably pick up a Phone 1 but only as a second device.
I walk through the crowd to the event space itself and see Nothing’s employees mingling about. There’s Adam Bates, the former Dyson design lead who now serves as Nothing’s design director, and Teenage Engineering’s Tom Howard, who’s also working on Nothing’s design team — names that brought Pei’s company lots of attention in the run-up to the launch. They’re all dressed trendily but casually, and although there are one or two people in button-down shirts in attendance, they don’t seem to be Nothing employees. Younger attendees mill around, decked out in high fashion streetwear, while the tech journalists in the crowd dress to delicately toe the line between looking professional and avoiding overheating in the sun.
I head inside and try to set myself up for the Phone 1 presentation but quickly find out that there’s no public Wi-Fi in the space. I’m told that this is necessary to save the bandwidth needed for the livestream. It also turns out there’s no AC, and the heat outside means that it very quickly becomes incredibly hot and humid in the design center that Nothing has repurposed for its launch. Someone mentions an air-conditioned room upstairs that people had to vacate before the event started. If the intention was to get them into this bottom room to make it look nice and busy for the livestream, then it’s worked — it’s heaving.
Even aside from the lack of AC and Wi-Fi, the event space is unusual for many reasons. There’s no stage and no seating aside from a large box made of exposed wood in the center of the room. The entire forward-facing side of the box is occupied, so as a compromise, I sit facing the rear of the room. It means I don’t have to touch sweaty skin with any strangers, but in exchange, I get to crane awkwardly to see the video screen behind me.
Finally, the moment of truth: the big opportunity for Nothing to show Something. The event starts. The video screen switches to showing a video of Pei sitting in a café, and… he monologues about how the tech industry has lost its way. He recites his now-familiar mantra: consumer tech used to be exciting (true) — now it’s boring (debatable). The Nothing Phone 1 hopes to change that, we’re told. Its back is made of transparent glass, and we’re shown the now familiar strips of light that can act as hi-tech notification indicators. So far, so similar to what we saw last month in a hands-on from YouTuber Marques Brownlee. (Incidentally, you should absolutely read my colleague Allison Johnson’s hands-on experience with the phone). As the pre-recorded video continues, I start to wonder if Pei is going to be in attendance at his own smartphone launch.
Pei continues. The Phone 1 runs Nothing OS, an Android skin whose design draws inspiration from the kind of synthesizers that design partner Teenage Engineering has used to make a name for itself. There’s an integration with Tesla cars and an NFT gallery. Its frame is made of aluminum rather than steel, and both its front and back are made of Gorilla Glass 5. Meanwhile, in the design studio, I can feel my back starting to sweat.
Eventually (surprise!), Pei emerges in the studio, and the pre-recorded launch turns into a live event. “It’s humid and hot,” are his first words to the livestream’s host. Pei is being interviewed amongst the crowd, who keep having to shuffle around to make room for the camera crew. The lack of a stage means it’s hard to actually watch the interview, and there’s no active video feed being shown in this crowded room that I’m able to watch. People are taking their own videos of the event, and out of the corner of my eye, I keep spotting a journalist narrating proceedings as he films the event for his (presumably) foreign-language audience. I consider leaving the room to watch the interview on one of the big screens located around the event space, hoping that the distance might make for a better spectacle.
After Pei, there’s an interview with a Qualcomm exec and another with someone from Indian retailer Flipkart. The way the livestream’s audio is being re-pumped into the event while the interviews are happening makes it impossible to hear what’s being said, even when you’re just feet away from the content being recorded. It seems other people are struggling to hear as well if the amount of restless chatter I’m hearing around me is anything to go by.
I give up on watching the interviews, and after spotting Nothing’s head of marketing Akis Evangelidis in the crowd, I peel away to ask him how the event’s going. He asks if we can step outside to get away from the heat, but otherwise, he seems happy. Close to 100,000 people have tuned into the livestream, the former OnePlus vice president says. He’s reassured by that, he says, especially when so much of the Phone 1’s design and features have been pre-announced in recent weeks. This, he says, is because Nothing wanted to be able to make the reveals “on our own terms” rather than risk it happening via leaks.
“I’ve been in touch with a few leakers out there,” Evangelidis says. “It’s quite advanced; they know their stuff.” As we talk, event staff walk around wearing white wristbands. An announcement tells attendees that these wristbands mean that staff members have a Phone 1 that people can try out for themselves, like roaming demo stations. It seems to work a lot better than the crowded tables seen at most tech launches, and people aren’t struggling to get hands-on time with the phone. The event is permeated by the shrill, synthy ringtones built into the Phone 1 as people try out one of its highlight features.
After speaking with Evangelidis, I start to wonder how I’d feel about the Nothing Phone 1 if I hadn’t followed every minute step of the hype cycle before today. Imagine if, out of the blue, you heard that an obscure new consumer tech company led by OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei with a former Dyson designer among its staff had announced its debut smartphone. At £399, it’s cheaper than an iPhone SE and runs an interesting-looking Android launcher filled with retro synth touches from design collaborators Teenage Engineering. Oh, and it’s got a neat set of light strips on its back that serve as a modern, upgraded take on the notification light. It’s cohesive, it’s fun, it’s charming.
But, of course, this week wasn’t the first we heard of the Phone 1. Instead, Pei and Co. have been slowly ramping up the hype for months through long interviews and an indulgent 20-minute livestream in March when Nothing laid out its grand plan for what it hoped to achieve with its smartphone — without actually announcing a smartphone. We had its design revealed a whole month ago, and its features and specs trickled out over the subsequent weeks alongside huge promises that this will be the company to deliver the sci-fi future we’re all waiting for but no company has yet to deliver.
Nothing has been in the headlines week after week as it has announced comparatively minor aspects of its phone. People have clearly been interested in the bold promises the company is making. Remember that this is a company that’s just a year and a half old, announcing just its second product and very first smartphone. That alone is remarkable.
So it felt like a letdown this week to attend what was ultimately a midrange Android phone launch. Not the start of a consumer tech revolution, not the start of a journey “to make tech fun again,” and not “an invitation to unlearn everything the industry has taught us (unless what “the industry has taught us” is to “expect air conditioning and Wi-Fi”). If the popular maxim to win over customers is to under-promise and over-deliver, Nothing has risked doing the opposite.
As I leave the event, I wonder if this is the double-edged sword of hype. As a fresh new company, Nothing has had to promise the world to get attention and funding. But, after we all dutifully showed up to watch it deliver on these promises, we were greeted with a glass and aluminum rectangle that goes blink blink blink. An interesting-looking smartphone, sure, with thoughtful design touches and some new ideas. But the savior of modern consumer tech? Please.