These days, it's hard to imagine a smartphone that feels radically different from others. Sure, we've had foldable phones that have rekindled the interest of many tech enthusiasts who grew bored with modern smartphone design, but what about just making regular phones exciting again?
From what I can tell, that seems to be the aim of Carl Pei's Nothing, a company that is filled to the brim with loaded investors, hype men, and top-notch designers (opens in new tab), all working toward the vision of building "a radical reinterpretation of mobile tech."
But while Pei has worked to build a brand new company with a fresh vision of the future of smartphones (opens in new tab), a lot of the strategies behind the building of the brand feel like they come from the same playbook from his OnePlus days. That's certainly not a bad thing — OnePlus rose from nothing to something meteorically fast — but it also has me feeling tentative about the actual announcement of the Nothing Phone (1) (opens in new tab) in a few weeks.
What are we in for?
This past week, Wallpaper (opens in new tab) published an interview with Nothing's Carl Pei that featured a rather juicy headline. While I went in with high hopes — and I assume many other tech enthusiasts did, as well — the details were rather perfunctory. I came away with the idea that Nothing was chasing the 1990s dream of transparent electronics everywhere, but little else.
As has been the case for months now, Nothing has been teasing everything from the Nothing OS launcher (opens in new tab) to the transparent design that will be present in all of the company's products — a style that began with last year's excellent Nothing Ear (1) (opens in new tab) earbuds. But transparent electronics are certainly not enough to claim that the company's products are a "radical reinterpretation" of anything, much less exciting enough to build a brand from nothing at all.
In fact, we've seen this sort of design hype from one of Pei's companies in the past: OnePlus. When the OnePlus 5 was being teased, we saw sites like The Verge (opens in new tab) pumping up the hype for the phone. The article talked about how OnePlus was focused on finally making an excellent camera, complete with a photo of several design prototypes that could have been the final phone.
Many of those look similar to the final product that was delivered, but several of them showcase designs that are much more unique. A month prior, in May, we even saw several leaks that delivered sketches of a potential OnePlus 5, all of which looked very much like a favorite HTC phone that most enthusiasts adored.
This all built up a lot of hype for a phone that ended up looking nearly identical to the iPhone 7 from all angles — even including the giant bezels on the front — and left a lot to be desired in terms of design. It was boring, mundane, and continued the trend of hype without delivery that OnePlus suffered from for a period of time.
So, will history end up repeating itself with the Nothing Phone (1) and its design language? The last major company that tried to create a transparent phone abandoned the idea after just two generations — that was the Xiaomi Mi 9 (opens in new tab) and Mi 10 (opens in new tab), to be specific — and I have a feeling I know why: users typically slap a case on their phones.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm a child of the 90s. I loved the clear electronics craze, and I absolutely would choose to buy such a device if it were to come to market. Heck, I'm one of the suckers that buy Dbrand's "transparent" series skins for phones just to make them look different.
But if everyone's just going to cover their phones up with a case, what's the point of having a cool-looking phone? At the very least, it's certainly not going to be a differentiating factor for consumers looking to pick up a device from a completely unknown brand.
Furthermore, a tiny tidbit of fascinating info was left at the tail-end of the interview, thrown away almost as readily as the material it referenced. It turns out that the Phone (1)'s frame will be made from recycled aluminum, but we don't know any more than this. To me, that seems like a big design expo that should have been highlighted, yet, Nothing didn't seem to deliver much in the way of details at all. Curious.
Seeing the possibilities
Above is a map of a subway system Nothing provided Wallpaper with for the aforementioned interview on the Nothing Phone (1)'s design. Nothing's head of design, Tom Howard, told Wallpaper it liked this type of map because of its ability to organize "a very, very complex system and (figure) out how to illustrate that in a beautiful way."
While discussing these design concepts with my colleagues on the latest Android Central podcast, we talked about the possibility of Nothing including a specialized case for each Nothing Phone (1) in the box. Such a case could utilize the subway map design seen above in conjunction with (the assumed) transparent design of the phone itself to create a wholly unique — and, most importantly for this topic, enviable — look that would turn heads.
Nothing also looks to be trying to offer consumers a full ecosystem instead of just one product, but not everyone is convinced they can pull that vision off.
Will Nothing's phone turn out to be something?
I imagine Nothing has plenty of tricks up its sleeve for the phone itself when it is officially announced in the near future, but, for now, what we've been able to actually get our hands on — that's the Nothing launcher — wasn't exactly mind-blowing. That could be alright, though, especially if the final product delivers on the promises of being revolutionary.