Producing a smartphone is really hard, which is why two startup companies promising to do just that — OSOM and ‘Nothing’ — have garnered plenty of attention with their Android phone announcements. Unfortunately, the hype trains came to a sudden stop this week.
The New Players
OSOM, short for “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (and a homophone for “awesome”), is a startup company that formed in late 2020 with the goal of producing a privacy-focused Android smartphone. OSOM quickly gained attention (and investor money) because most of the staff came from Essential, another startup company that released the Essential Phone in 2017. The Essential Phone was far from perfect, but the unique ceramic-based design and fast software updates earned it a small-but-dedicated following. Essential struggled to release a follow-up, and the company officially shut down in early 2020.
OSOM hasn’t released any products yet, but up until this week, its first smartphone looked promising. The OSOM OV1 was revealed with a stainless-steel frame, zirconia back casing (a material commonly used in ceramics), a Snapdragon 8 series chipset, and two cameras. OSOM was aiming for 4-5 years of security updates, and the phone would even ship with a USB cable that could shut off a data connection — perfect for charging your phone at public charging stations.
Nothing, another startup company, is also working on an Android smartphone with a focus on privacy. However, it has a much different origin story — it was founded by Carl Pei, one of the co-founders of OnePlus. Pei helped grow OnePlus into a major smartphone brand worldwide, so it’s not too surprising that his new venture quickly gained a following.
Nothing released a pair of wireless earbuds in July, the ‘Ear (1),’ but the company still hasn’t revealed much about its coming smartphone. There have been plenty of teasers and announcements, with a (supposedly) full reveal scheduled for July 12.
Nothing hasn’t talked about the internal hardware, cameras, or most of the other features most people care about on smartphones, but we do know it has a translucent back plate with backlighting. Who doesn’t love fun lights on electronics?
Depending on who you ask, both the OSOM OV1 and Nothing Phone (1) were promising new entries in a market dominated by Samsung and Apple in the United States. I was personally less excited for the Nothing Phone, given OnePlus tended to over-hype and under-deliver under Pei’s leadership. Still, more options are always a good thing in a market, and we could always use more smartphone options in the US.
Unfortunately, months into the hype cycle, Nothing revealed to PCMag on June 22 that the phone would not arrive in North America. The company said in a statement, “we’re focusing on home markets, including the UK and Europe, where we have strong partnerships with leading local carriers. It takes a lot to launch a smartphone as you know, from ensuring the handset is supported by the country’s cellular technologies to carrier partnerships and local regulation, and as we’re still a young brand we need to be strategic about it.”
It’s true that the United States is a notoriously difficult place to launch a new smartphone company… but that’s exactly what Pei’s OnePlus managed to do only a few years ago. Nothing has also received over $140 million in venture capital funding, so it’s not short on resources. Either way, many of the people who might have bought the Nothing Phone will have to wait for a future model.
OSOM also took a surprise turn just a day later, when it announced a partnership with Solana Labs — the company behind the Solana blockchain platform. The OV1 is being reworked into the ‘Solana Saga,’ which appears to have the same hardware design, but with “features tightly integrated with the Solana blockchain making it easy and secure to transact in web3 and manage digital assets, such as tokens and NFTs.”
The sudden shift also comes with another delay — it was supposed to ship in summer 2022, then the fourth quarter of 2022, and now it’s estimated to arrive in “early Q1 2023.” There’s now a waitlist that requires a (refundable) deposit of 100 USD Coin, a stablecoin pegged to the United States Dollar. USDC hasn’t plummeted in value like other stablecoins have recently, but the requirement to reserve an order with cryptocurrency is frustrating for anyone not already in the crypto ecosystem.
This is a bummer Jason. I thought you were doing a privacy centered phone. I have no interest in crypto or nfts and you can't even order this phone unless you have a crypto wallet.
— A path forward requires a few side steps (@AlpacaAlpacaAl1) June 23, 2022
This also isn’t the first time we’ve seen a phone embracing blockchain technologies. HTC tried it with the ‘Exodus’ phone in 2018, and followed it up with a cheaper model in 2019. The main selling point was that you could run an entire Bitcoin node (at least on the later model), if you added a large SD card. The Bitcoin ledger is currently around 360 GB, and grows by around 50 GB each year.
Waiting for Gen 2
The Nothing Phone and OSOM OV1 Solana Saga might be decent smartphones when they are released, and they could give both companies a launch pad to create better second-generation products in the future. Nothing told PCMag it will eventually release a product in the United States. Still, it’s sad to see both companies’ first products suddenly limited in scope — the Nothing Phone will only be sold in a handful of countries, while the Solana Saga is now directly targeting crypto enthusiasts.
Larger companies have had difficulty gaining traction in the smartphone market, too. Most of Google’s Pixel phones haven’t sold all that well, though the Pixel 6 series is finally changing that. LG as was one of the top manufacturers for budget phones in the United States, but the company officially gave up on phones last year.
Nothing and OSOM might have more promising devices in the pipeline, but as of this week, there’s nothing (pun not intended) for most people to get excited about quite yet.