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Let's talk about the 'Nothing phone'

Nothing ear (1) review
Nothing ear (1) review (Image credit: Apoorva Bhardwaj / Android Central)

Nothing, the London-based startup founded by Carl Pei, is reportedly working on a smartphone to debut sometime in the first half of the year. While nothing (small-n) has been confirmed officially, it makes sense that one of the five products it's planning for 2022 would be a phone.

Pei, a co-founder of OnePlus, is smartphone nerd royalty and undoubtedly has the connections and experience to bring such a product to fruition. Last October, Nothing inked a partnership deal with Android chip giant Qualcomm. And earlier in 2021 it gobbled up the remains of Essential, the Andy Rubin-founded brand that had planned a range of smart home products, but in the end, only released a single Android handset. In recent weeks the company brought on board Adam Bates, former head of design at Dyson, in a move that would set it up to handle more complex design challenges — such as a modern smartphone.

Most recently, Pei himself is "back on Android" and apparently enjoying it.

Nothing ear(1) black

Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

The pieces needed for a Nothing phone to materialize seem to be falling into place.

Many of the pieces needed for a Nothing phone to materialize in 2022 seem to be falling into place. That said, smartphone history is littered with ill-fated products from brands who thought they could break into this notoriously challenging industry. So why should Nothing succeed where the likes of RED, Amazon, Facebook, and BlackBerry have failed?

First and foremost, Nothing has outsized brand cachet. The company boasts an impressive list of tech-celebrity backers, with iPhone and iPod co-creator Tony Fadell, Twitter co-founder Kevin Lin, and YouTuber Casey Neistat among its investors. Then there's Carl Pei himself — a man who became the public face of OnePlus in the West during his time there and has been included on 30 Under 30 and 40 Under 40 lists.

Many of Pei's 367,000 Twitter followers will know him from the glory days of OnePlus, a brand that has pivoted with whiplash intensity over the past year. Once the darling of smartphone enthusiasts, during 2021 OnePlus merged back into parent company Oppo, and in 2022 it looks increasingly like just another big electronics brand. It's also faced software difficulties that paint a stark contrast with the early days of OxygenOS — a simple, clean software platform made to appeal to tech-savvy customers.

A Nothing phone could easily be seen as the spiritual successor to the OnePlus of old, particularly since its brand values seem to align with what OnePlus used to stand for: competitive pricing, minimalist design, and the idea that technology should just get out of the way.

HTC U11+

Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

From Nothing's track record, it's pretty clear a hypothetical Nothing phone would be differentiated through design, perhaps bringing the translucent look seen in the Ear(1) buds to such a device. This is something we've seen from the likes of HTC and Xiaomi in the past, though neither brand built its identity around it. (And, arguably, neither executed on it particularly well, with Xiaomi in particular including fake components behind its clear back panel on the Mi 9). It might also take after Essential with a unique form factor or novel approach to the display. Nothing, after all, now owns the work that went into the abandoned Gem, Essential Phone 2 and 3 concepts.

Qualcomm

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

In terms of making it a good phone you'd actually want to buy in an extremely cut-throat marketplace, the path to success is less clear. Nothing is tiny compared to the likes of Apple, Samsung, or even Google's hardware division. And while partners like Qualcomm can offer turnkey solutions in a lot of places — basically, doing the legwork to have the bare bones of a smartphone ready to go — major challenges remain around key areas like imaging. Photography and videography are among the major differentiators for a high-end smartphone, and the likes of Samsung, Apple, Google, and OnePlus have huge teams of engineers dedicated to computational photography and image tuning. Nothing presumably lacks these resources and would need to find a partner capable of bringing its camera system up to speed. In 2022, complex features like portrait mode and night mode are table stakes in everything but bargain-bin smartphones.

Nothing's phone could be differentiated through design but will face technical challenges.

Then there's the supply chain. This was challenging enough when OnePlus was producing its first couple of phones, necessitating the introduction of the invite system to balance supply and demand. But in our current post-Covid chip-shortage world, key components are likely to have been bought up by the big players years ahead of time, leaving little wiggle room for new entrants. Nothing would likely need to lean heavily on an ODM partner to turn around an Android phone anytime soon.

Like the earliest OnePlus devices, a Nothing phone wouldn't need to sell in large numbers or be one of the best Android phones to be seen as a success. And while Nothing has plenty going for it in terms of brand value and awareness —and its founder's close association with the phone industry — the technology and supply chain odds are stacked against it. Even a modestly-successful Nothing phone is far from guaranteed — but if it happens, it'll definitely be one of the year's most interesting Android devices.

Alex is global Executive Editor for Android Central, and is usually found in the UK. He has been blogging since before it was called that, and currently most of his time is spent leading video for AC, which involves pointing a camera at phones and speaking words at a microphone. He would just love to hear your thoughts at alex@androidcentral.com, or on the social things at @alexdobie.

7 Comments
  • A what?....... Oh NOTHING.....
  • I hope Nothing is more like the OnePlus of old when it comes to software for their first ever Android phone.
  • He's back...where ya been?
  • I just want it to be compatible with all carriers and have timely updates.
  • This looks so interesting!
  • Oh yeah, because smartphone ventures based solely on the pseudo-fame of their founders has always worked in the past. Nothing will never amount to anything as a smartphone manufacturer. If they ever release a phone it'll be a one off and that's it. Tech blogs might gush over it, but that will be meaningless to the real world. Otherwise OnePlus wouldn't have folded into Oppo, Essential wouldn't have closed and Google's iPixels - considering the amount of propaganda and lies spewed by tech blogs about "how great they are" - wouldn't be a commercial failure.
  • it really sucks the all the fun, innovative brands are all gone. we lost Motorola, Blackberry, Nokia, HTC, LG and our 3rd OS Windows phone...(and more) ... it's sad because here we are in 2022 and we basically have google pixel and galaxy S series phones, (and iPhone) as releases for the year. (left out china phones on purpose, would never buy one)
    nothing will do nothing and die just like the others. we did this to ourselves. we only gave our money to samsung and apple. so, all those others died. I miss my LG optimus G, the HTC One M7 .... Loved Windows phone OS; jus wish it had Apps...
    /sigh ... this nothing phone has a 0% chance of living more than 2 years