Carl Pei thinks there’s something wrong with the smartphone industry. That’s not to say the handsets on sale today are bad. Across the board, modern mobiles are faster, more sophisticated and take better photos than previous generations. But like a growing number of tech enthusiasts, Pei has started feeling like new phones just aren’t as special as the devices that came out five or 10 years ago. So ahead of the launch of the Phone 1 on July 12th, I sat down with the founder and CEO of Nothing to learn how the mobile startup is trying to bring some innovation, quirkiness, and maybe even a bit of fun back to the smartphone market.
Now there’s a very logical explanation for why recent phones don’t possess the same kind of wow factor. Back when the iPhone made its debut, it felt like a revelation. “I used to watch all the launches. I was in Sweden, so I stayed up until midnight or 4AM to see what was coming out,” said Pei. But in recent years, that excitement has waned, with Pei often skipping big keynotes and relying on condensed recaps to stay informed. And it’s not just Pei that feels this way.
“When I talk to consumers, they are also quite indifferent,” says Pei. “When doing focus groups, some consumers said they believe smartphone brands are holding features back intentionally just so they have something to launch for the next iteration, which is not the truth. But if consumers feel that way, it’s a sign that they’re kind of bored.”
The big issue for Pei is one of stagnation. With major players like LG and HTC having exited the market or becoming irrelevant, the smartphone industry is dominated by a handful of huge corporations like Apple, Samsung, and Google. “You have a few big companies and the way they work is more structured and systematic,” said Pei. “They have technology roadmaps from partners like Qualcomm, Sony or Samsung Display, so they know what’s coming. They do a lot of consumer research, they get their feedback and they look at their competitors and the overall market landscape.”
However, Pei feels that approach leads to a lot of sameness. “So they have this information, they analyze it, and then they create a very rational product that is going to do well on paper because they used all this great data,” said Pei. “But the problem is everybody’s using the same data and everybody’s using the same analysis. So if the input is the same and the method is the same, the output is more or less the…