I thought I had never met Carl Pei before, but he told me we did years ago when he and Pete Lau started OnePlus, the company he left to found Nothing Tech. Honestly, I can’t remember, although I do remember how intrigued we all were with this Android newcomer.
Now, years later, he’s CEO of this still new and closely watched mobile tech startup.
After a meteoric launch of the glyph-backed Nothing Phone 1, everyone is eagerly awaiting the small company’s second act: the Nothing Phone 2, which will be its first major smartphone launch in the United States. Most expect it to arrive in the middle of the year. No one outside Nothing knows what it will look like or what technology it will contain, beyond promises of more premium components (I see you Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1).
I have criticized the company, but I am also curious. So when I got the invite for a casual Nothing meet-up at a hip Brooklyn bar, with the promise that Pei would be there, I jumped at the chance.
Pei showed up unheralded, wearing a large puffy black puffer jacket that somehow made him look younger than his 33 years.
Someone introduced me to Pei and after reminding me that we knew each other, we quickly fell into a long, deep discussion about the phone market.
I wasn’t expected to conduct an official interview, which meant I didn’t take notes or quote Pei at length. Still, once we were done, I jotted down some memories and ideas that I can share here.
Naturally, I asked Pei if he had the Nothing Phone 2 on him. He did, but wouldn’t show it to me.
When I asked if this would go back to the previous design or head in a new direction, Pei didn’t say.
What he told me, however, is that Nothing has any plans or illusions about dominating the US phone market. Pei said Apple pretty much locked him in (much more so now than when he started at OnePlus).
Pei spoke a lot about the need to innovate, but always within the practical limits of his small business.
Nothing is based in the UK, but has small teams in China, Taiwan and Europe. It manufactures in India. Nothing is well diversified that way. It’s also backed, in part, by Google, which likely appreciates how Nothing pushes the boundaries of Android phone design.
We talked about the Nothing Phone glyph and while I complimented how it could, with light, show you the status of your charge, Pei clearly didn’t think the clear back was of enough use, at least not yet.
We dug into Apex smartphone features like fast charging, fast chips, and powerful cameras. But Pei said everyone is doing all of this and trying to match competitors beat for beat is no way to survive. He described his business as, more or less, a small fish in an ocean.
I mentioned how much I like the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra for its 10x optical zoom, but Pei said his team was too small to compete in camera innovation.
Instead, Pei’s plan is really for the long haul. Sell, for a while, boutique phones and build a tech brand around them. Not one that pushes the boundaries of feasibility and credibility like Humane wearables, but one that points to the next phase of computing, whatever that may be.
Pei’s Nothing will carefully walk the tightrope between innovation and sustainability. It will swing hard but never too far.
There is no doubt that there will be something interesting and special about the Nothing Phone 2, but not something that will make it impractical.
To support this slow and steady progression of innovation, Nothing will expand into markets where it has the best chance of growing, if not winning. India is such a market. However, other emerging markets, like Africa, might not be such a good bet because they’re looking for really cheap phones and don’t care about features like a transparent back.
Pei is optimistic about Nothing Phone 2 and told me development is going well. How does that develop, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.
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