Much ado about Nothing: but is Phone 1 just another smartphone?
Hype is for the birds. Nothing must match marketing with meaningful tech and features to take on Apple at its own game
Phones are boring – by design. In refining handheld devices to their purest forms and maximising utility, we’ve ended up with minimalist rounded rectangles with cameras that stick out of the back. Apple provided the template and an entire industry iterated itself into a corner, leaving phones devoid of personality and imagination.
Smartphone design is now so homogenous that people latch on to any glimmer of rebellion and scream out for something different. Suitably, Nothing has set out to shake things up, drip-feeding glimpses of its Phone 1 for months now. Tech folks have worked themselves into a frenzy and seemingly expect nothing less than a radical reinvention of the smartphone.
Nothing’s Phone 1 reveal tweet warmly warbles about a device that’s bold, full of soul, and a return to instinct. But its biggest differentiator appears to be a parrot. And I’m pretty sure you won’t get a parrot with the phone.
What you will get is a powerful chip, fast charging and a big display. So far, so normal, but there is at least an interesting design that reveals the device’s innards. This isn’t easy to make visually appealing and meets demands for a distinct identity – vital in a crowded Android handset market.
Is this radical, though? Not really. For old gits like me, a translucent case evokes the original iMac and the subsequent slew of semi-transparent imitators. Nothing adds light-up elements too, although they will be covered by cases – unless Nothing owners are keen to show off the grime that accumulates in seconds whenever your phone wears a see-through number.
Tech pundits have been similarly breathless about Phone 1 software – even though we know barely anything about it. There is a launcher beta, which to my eyes looks like my Pixel’s default with different wallpaper. Otherwise, we’ve merely been given vague hints about useful and joyful ideas beyond stock Android – although it’s a big ask to do fun and minimalism.
A bigger problem in all this is still Android. iPhones get software updates on day one; few Android devices do. Custom OS layers bring delays, and it knocks the premium feel of a device if you have to wait for months to get the latest features.
Nothing has missed an opportunity to do something meaningfully radical and useful regarding long-term OS support. It’s offering three years of updates, which lags behind what Apple gives even the cheapest iPhones. The company is at least thinking bigger in terms of an integrated ecosystem and has claimed no one beyond Apple has properly cracked that. Still, Nothing has a long way to go there too, unless the July reveal will include Tablet 1, Watch 1, Laptop 1, Desktop 1 and Seemingly Abandoned TV Black Box 1.
It’s the hope that kills you, but I’m clinging to shreds of optimism rather than repeatedly flicking a cynic switch. At a foundational level, competition is good. The considered design is good. Nothing deserves credit for entering a saturated tech space, driving enthusiasm and excitement and attempting to do something new. It also has smart marketing people and access to adorable birds.
So my hope is on 12 July, we really will get the chance to buy something fresh and radical. My fear is we’ll get a mid-range design-savvy handset with the odd gimmick, desperately attempting to complete an Apple checklist: smooth lines; minimalism; overly worthy marketing copy. Yet from the standpoint of being new and making people really think different about phones, we’ll end up with… nothing.