Carl Pei on Nothing, ecosystems and those smartphone rumours - MrLiambi's blog


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Wednesday, 2 March 2022

Carl Pei on Nothing, ecosystems and those smartphone rumours

"It feels great to be back," says Carl Pei. "I've been quite quiet for the past one and a half years, so happy to be back, happy to start telling the world what we're building over here."

Carl Pei is a familiar face on the tech scene, although that's now partially shrouded by the mandated face mask at Mobile World Congress. His eyes scan the room, flickering in recognition as he takes in his small audience.

Having been one of the founders of OnePlus, his departure from the Oppo sub-brand surprised a lot of people as he set off on a new venture, amusingly called Nothing.

Of course, sitting in a meeting room on the Qualcomm stand at MWC 2022 - along with Enrico Salvatori, president of Qualcomm Europe - and the anticipation is that we're going to hear something about the Nothing phone.

We're not.

When asked whether Nothing would be releasing a smartphone, Pei quickly replies: "We're not commenting on future categories."

That neither confirms nor denies a smartphone from Nothing, leaving us with little more than rumour. While the speculation on the show floor is that Nothing is developing a phone, Carl Pei has done this too many times before to give anything away. We're left knowing that Nothing owns the old Essential brand, but little more.

But Nothing is already telling us what it's trying to achieve. The company outlines on its website that it is "crafting intuitive, flawlessly connected products that improve our lives without getting in the way." For many, the smartphone is the centre of connected products.

"I was the first kid in my school to have the iPod and also the first with the iPhone," explains Pei, filling us in on the context of why he's on a mission with Nothing: "Also the first kid that bought the Android phone … the G1, I was really excited about that."

"But lately all that has changed. On the hardware side - at least - I'm not that excited about new products anymore. I feel like society has a more and more negative view of technology. It's not inspirational anymore and that's the founding purpose of Nothing."

Nothing has said before that it's about blending into the background, the products literally become nothing when they're doing what they're supposed to do. Launching a set of earbuds with transparent materials was a literal manifestation of this, but what Carl Pei really seems to be looking for is ecosystem efficiency.

"We're building an ecosystem of products that connect seamlessly, if that ecosystem becomes successfully built, then we're kind of in the background. You don't feel us anymore because everything just works the way you think it will."

"I think the opportunity we have in front of us is that there's no alternative to Apple … their ecosystem - all their products work well with each other. But if you leave the Apple ecosystem and look at a Windows PC and a pair of Sonos speakers etc, you don't have that same integration."

"That's what we're trying to build, that product system and connectivity layer."

It's often been said that Apple has a huge advantage here, designing both its hardware and software to ensure compatibility within the system, while other products tend to stand in isolation. Currently it's perhaps only Samsung and Huawei that seem to be gunning for something bigger in ecosystem terms. Taking on Samsung would be a Goliath challenge.

We get the sense from Pei that the ecosystem experience is going to drive all the choices that Nothing makes. Referring to smartphone design, Pei says: "all these companies, when they talk to people, it's all about specs and features - nobody's communicating on a higher level."

"Personally, I think that what makes Apple really strong is their hardware and software integration."

It's clear then that while many speculate about a phone from Nothing, that's not going to be a defining product for the company. If Nothing was to launch a phone, it would just be a piece of a bigger picture, aiming to provide a better connected experience than its rivals. Sitting as we are with the head of Qualcomm Europe, it's hard to imagine that Qualcomm won't have huge part to play in this process.

As for the rest of us, it seems we'll have to wait a little longer before we see what's coming next from Nothing.

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