I have to admit that when I watched the video of Carl Pei showing off the Nothing Phone 1 … or, whatever this was, I sort of felt like it was a fascinating hype bomb of the kind we haven’t really seen in a couple of years, at least since the Samsung Galaxy Fold.
If that hype holds up is an open question.
Nothing, if you’re not familiar, is the company launched by an original co-founder of OnePlus (before they started making questionable decisions after he left) in an effort to shake up the smartphone industry … again. So far, we don’t know what that shakeup is going to look like in the long run, but it kind of feels like a strange mixture of retro and ultra futuristic. Certainly feels like a better direction than whatever OnePlus is doing right now, that’s for sure.
But this post isn’t really about Nothing … yes, of course it’s about something, but it’s not about Pei’s unusual company. Rather, it’s arguably about whatever the opposite of the Phone 1 is going to be.
As The New York Times published this week, landline phones are seeing a hype comeback among collectors, with a particular lean on unusual phones that have strong novelty shapes to them. (Think the hamburger phone from Juno.)
It comes at a time when landlines have basically reached an uptake nadir. For example, I haven’t owned a landline since college, when one was located in my dorm room. And the numbers are falling significantly—in an 18 year period, from 2003 to 2021, landline usage fell from more than 90 percent to just above 30 percent, per survey data from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention. Now we do this all with cell phones.
However, the visual appeal of old landlines is strong—telephones with novelty shapes and novelty colors have made a comeback among collectors, even if the landlines themselves have not. (Instead, many use bluetooth adapters to bridge the gap between modern phone and vintage device.)
And honestly, you know what? It makes sense. There was a time when novelty phones could make or break your advertising campaign. Sort of the famous one is the sneaker phone, a gadget that Sports Illustrated offered as a perk for those who subscribed to the magazine.
As The Retroist pointed out, it came at a time when the phone was particularly boring—touch tone was no longer new, Caller ID wasn’t yet on the horizon, and we were a long way from smartphones. It was a genuinely creative phone at a time when phones were not seen as particularly innovative.
But so many of the elements that made for creative or attractive phones in the 1980s simply don’t exist today. Our phones are designed to be stared at for hours, not held for minutes and intended to sit somewhere and look interesting. We simply have not had a lot of room for novelty with smartphones because, as time has gone on, we’ve required more from them, and they’ve been required to work in more settings.
So, I guess, thinking back to the Nothing Phone 1, all signs are that the device is going to probably be the most experimental “candy bar” smartphone in quite some time, by a brand that’s looking to stand out. But is it going to be as out there as a hamburger or sneaker phone?
Unless Carl Pei’s mood board is looking particularly strange these days, probably not.
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