I thought I’d never met Carl Pei before, but he told me we met years ago when he and Pete Lau were launching OnePlus, the company he left to found Nothing Tech. To be honest, I don’t remember, although I do remember how intrigued we all were by this Android newbie.
Now, years later, he is the CEO of this still new and closely watched mobile tech startup.
After the lightning-fast launch of the Nothing Phone 1 with glyphs, everyone is eagerly waiting for the small company’s second act: Nothing Phone 2, which will be the first major smartphone launch in the US. Most expect it to arrive mid-year. No one outside of Nothing knows what it will look like or what tech will be inside, other than promises of more premium components (I see you Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 1).
I’ve been critical of the company, but I’m also curious. So when I got an invitation to a casual Nothing meeting at a trendy bar in Brooklyn with the promise that Pei would be there, I jumped at the opportunity.
Pei appeared without fanfare, wearing a large, puffy black puffer jacket that somehow made him look younger than his 33 years.
Someone introduced me to Pei, and after he reminded me that we knew each other, we quickly got into a deep and long discussion about the phone market.
I wasn’t expected to be doing an official interview, which meant I didn’t take notes and wouldn’t quote Pei at length. However, after finishing it, I noted down some memories and observations that I can share here.
Of course, I asked Pei if he had a Nothing Phone 2 with him. He did, but he wouldn’t show it to me.
When I asked if it would repeat the previous project or go in a new direction, Pei didn’t say.
However, he told me that Nothing had any plans or illusions about dominating the US phone market. Pei said Apple has it all but closed (much more so now than when he started at OnePlus).
Pei talked a lot about the need to innovate, but always within the practical constraints of his small business.
Nothing is based in the UK but has small teams in China, Taiwan and Europe. Produces in India. Nothing is well differentiated this way. It’s also partly backed by Google, which probably appreciates the way Nothing pushes the boundaries of Android phone design.
We talked about the Nic Phone glyph, and while I complimented that it could use light to show you the status of your charge, Pei clearly didn’t think the transparent back was useful enough, at least not yet.
We delved into the most important smartphone features, such as fast charging, fast chips and powerful cameras. But Pei said everyone does it all, and trying to match your rivals’ beat-by-hit is not a way to survive. He described his company as more or less a small fish in the ocean.
I mentioned how I love 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 a really long game. Sell boutique phones for a while and build a tech brand around them. Not one that pushes the boundaries of feasibility and credibility like Humane wearables, but one that hints at the next phase of computing, whatever that is.
Pei’s Nothing will carefully walk the tightrope between innovation and profitability. It will swing hard, but never too far.
There is no doubt that the Nothing Phone 2 will have something interesting and unique, but not something that will make it impractical.
To support this slow, steady rise in innovation, Nothing will thrive in the markets where it has the best chance of growing, if not winning. India is such a market. However, other emerging markets like Africa may not be such a good choice as they are looking for really cheap phones and don’t care about features like a transparent back.
Pei is optimistic about the Nothing Phone 2 and has told me that development is going well. What it develops into, well, we’ll just have to wait and see.