Nothing, the new brand of Carl Pei, the ex-manager of OnePlus, is a bit like the new NFT trend on the tech market. But behind the hype business, the imperative to meet very high expectations and keep crazy promises are starting to be felt. Come on Carl, stop blowing smoke here.
I've been back from vacation for less than a week and here I am already scribbling yet another rant. This time, I'm going to vent a bit about Nothing and the non presentation of the Nothing phone (1). It's undeniable that Carl Pei has succeeded - brilliantly - in turning the brains of many people in the tech industry. He matrixed us, as the young people would say (of which I'm still part for at least the next two years).
Building on his past successes with OnePlus while making a lot of money, but really a lot of money, in terms of marketing, Nothing knows perfectly how to maintain his cool factor. It's a bit like the new kid on the block who pretends to be too stylish without even trying. But this hype business, essentially fed by the confidence of fans who "invest" in this brand image, is not a sustainable model.
Nothing needs to stop talking and start showing something concrete. That 20-minute keynote to tell us that they are going to announce something in a few months and that it's going to be super cool, I mean, c'mon!
Come on Carl, show me Something, Anything
We come back to my parallel with NFT in the intro, although it's a bit crude and partially inaccurate. Nothing, at the moment, has only one product in its catalog: a pair of true wireless headphones. When you hear Carl Pei say in the quietest of terms that his company aims to be "the most compelling alternative to Apple in regards to ecosystem", you rub your ears (yes, your ears).
People who, like me, I admit, are hyped about Nothing, are hyped because of the concept of ambient, organic technology that integrates seamlessly into our environment and daily lives is fascinating. But we're talking about a potential, not something concrete. Everything depends on the confidence of investors and their faith in Nothing's ability to deliver.
And I'm not talking about the big money that injected 70 million dollars into Nothing during its last fundraising round earlier this month. No, I'm talking about you and me, the consumers who believe in the concept or at least hope it will come to fruition. As with NFTs, this projected value, this confidence, is extremely fluctuating and as soon as Nothing starts to be a bit more boring, a bit less cool, the hype might fade.
During MWC 2022, before Nothing "announced" its phone (1), I had a conversation with Akis Evangelidis, Nothing's co-founder and marketing director. And I found a lot of the language used during this interview in Carl Pei's keynote this week.
"It's a little frustrating for us because we had to wait a year until we could say what Nothing really is. It was a matter of finding the right balance. For us, the vision of Nothing is much broader than just an audio brand." Carl Pei came out with almost exactly the same thing. But the fact is, we still don't know what Nothing really is.
We really don't need a new OnePlus please
However, the comparison with NFT stops pretty quickly since I don't think Nothing is a pump and dump, absolutely not. In that case, we would talk about manipulating a market by artificially inflating the value of an asset (here the Nothing brand) with false statements.
This is a very common practice with NFTs or altcoins that are hyped by influencers and lose all their value after their creators sell all their shares and make a "rug pull" aka, they spin-off to the UK (well Nothing is based in the UK but that doesn't mean anything).
No, we know that Nothing will indeed present its smartphone this summer. The manufacturer made a whole keynote to announce it. And the Nothing Ear (1) sold like hotcakes (400,000 units). They didn't really reflect the revolutionary concept that the brand wants to carry, in my opinion, but it was a product with an excellent quality/price ratio and that worked very well.
In fact, the brand borrows many elements of its product strategy from OnePlus at its peak. The first phones of both brands have very similar names, OnePlus One and Nothing phone (1). Nothing offers competitive prices like OnePlus, which practically invented the concept of flagship-killer. We can also note a work on the design to make it iconic and very calculated marketing, mainly based on earned media (basically indirect advertising, the more people are hyped, the more they talk about the brand and give it free advertising, like me with this article).
However, I think, or at least I hope, that Carl Pei has learned from his experience at OnePlus. Nothing has clearly more ambitions than OnePlus, and above all, the brand is independent, unlike OnePlus, which is more and more involved in Oppo's catalog.
But like OnePlus, Nothing has a vocation to become mainstream. How to remain the cool niche brand when you become a big player? Here again, Akis Evangelidis was a bit on the fence when I asked him the question at MWC. "There is no conscious decision to be niche, we want to make a product that we are passionate about. From there, what happens if we sell millions or billions of them, only the market will tell and judge us."
A transparent design is not enough
My biggest fear is that so far, Nothing still hasn't managed to explain how the concept of ambient technology will translate into products, concretely. Because transparent headphones or smartphones are fine for five minutes, but not enough. What is going to make Nothing's ecosystem more organic and ambient than others? If it's a slightly faster Bluetooth pairing between the earbuds (1) and the phone (1), I'm going to seriously bitch about it.
I know I'm bitching before I've even seen the phone (1). But it's been a year that we've been hearing about ambient computing, I want to see more. Aki Evangelidis made me dream by telling me the starting idea of Nothing. "The idea is that you get up in the morning, you have your coffee and you have some aggregated content on the table that you can look at. Then you go into the bathroom to brush your teeth and that content follows you, you can see a sleep report with the info measured by your connected bed and it's all done like nothing [got it?] happened."
But all of this is a very long-term vision, as the executive told me. For now, the focus is on design and user experience. The Nothing phone (1) should also inaugurate Nothing OS, the Android overlay of the manufacturer supposed to lay the foundation stone of this ecosystem more open and interoperable. "We already have the ecosystem, we just need the right UX to connect us to that ecosystem in a more intuitive way."
Regardless, Nothing still has everything to work with. The concept has a lot of promise and the company seems to want to do things right by starting out on a solid foundation, both financially and "philosophically." I can't wait to see what the Nothing phone (1) will do, but I'm convinced that this hype strategy is far too ephemeral and volatile to be viable in the long term.
I wish Nothing to succeed in consolidating its brand image by offering us quality products at fair prices. I don't care if they are transparent or not, sold in limited series and payable in BTC. So this is what it means to be a boomer?