As OnePlus prepared to launch the OnePlus 7 and OnePlus 7 Pro, two devices in a first, I get into a quick chat with company co-founder Carl Pei. Between him and Pete Lau, they steer the company in terms of brand and product, respectively. Since launching close to five years ago, the journey has been nothing short of remarkable. In a pretty elaborate conversation with Carl Pei, I was able to discuss a whole range of topics, including the journey of the company at large, and decision making. I started with the experience at OnePlus since the beginning of its growth story.
The history, the mistakes, the learnings
Since the OnePlus One was launched in late 2014, the company has come a long way. Pei shares an anecdote during the early days, “I think it’s been a lot of learning and improvement. In the beginning, we started because we saw we can do better. We wanted to challenge others out there. The idea is still the same, but we’ve grown more mature. Although the intentions never changed.”
While I wondered what he meant by mature, he illustrated it through one of his blunders early on at OnePlus. He adds, “You know how phones used to have a CE logo on the back. We had the CE logo on the OnePlus One, our first phone. It just looked so ugly and big. It had to be a certain size. It was bigger than all the other icons. There was also an electronics waste icon, which looked really bad. I asked the designer to just redesign it. Make it smaller, thinner and beautiful. That’s what we did. Well, it looked really good. And then it got blocked by customs when we tried to import it into Europe.”
Turns out that obsession with beauty over function costed OnePlus quite a bit. But the intention as Pei puts it, always stayed the same. The intention to ‘never settle’, which is also the motto of the company. In his words, “Our intentions were always to improve something we saw. But in the early days due to our inexperience we made a lot of mistakes. Today, we’re a lot more mature, our team is bigger. We now have a few years of experience in the mobile industry. Although we might not make brash decisions, the intention is still the same and we keep improving in a step by step and steady way.”
The India market and the obsession with price
India is a difficult market to operate in. Understandably so, whether it’s automobiles or smartphones, or even groceries – we are obsessed with price. And when I express this thought, Pei is quick to respond, “We very seldom think about the market. I think we’re very internally focused. Because the way we see it, you can’t really control what other people do. You can only control what you do. So instead of paying a lot of time and effort thinking about those things, you focus on what you can actually do. What you can do is build a better product and try and improve yourself, the team, and the company to come out stronger.”
Well, he was obviously referring to OnePlus, but it sounded like prophetic life’s advice to me! He added, “And if you do that your competitors will have an even harder time competing with you. Especially here in India, we are already a leader in the space that we’re in, and so it’s more about how we fortify and make ourselves stronger, so it becomes more impenetrable.”
OnePlus 7 and OnePlus 7 Pro: The move to two launch devices
This is a turning point in the OnePlus story. After recently moving to a launch cycle of six months, the company has for the first time decided to launch two devices simultaneously. With the OnePlus 7 and the OnePlus 7 Pro, the company has made a clear call. “For the OnePlus 7 Pro, we just wanted everything to be the state of the art. If you look at the trajectory of the how smartphones have changed since the original iPhone, you notice a clear trend of the bezels becoming smaller and smaller. A couple years ago it faded to just a notch. We wanted to take the final step and make it fully immersive,” he said.
Emphasizing on the display on the two OnePlus devices, he added, “The display on the OnePlus 7 still uses the same screen as our previous device. We wanted to put the latest and greatest in the OnePlus 7 Pro, while the OnePlus 7 is a great product for the same consumer as our previous phones.”
What about waterproof devices?
Several manufacturers offer devices that are IP rated to survive time in water. I asked Pei about the strategy by OnePlus, to which he responds, “It’s quite important, so we design our products to be able to withstand water in daily use. So when you drop it in water and pick it up, it’s fine. It’s just that we haven’t gone through the IP process yet.” That’s where most of us wonder why not market it if it’s waterproof. Well, in reality, that certification costs money. And taking on that increased cost would mean an increment in the device cost, which also increases the selling price of the device.
However, that doesn’t mean that OnePlus doesn’t build its devices to handle water. He explains, “The website iFixit disassembles phones and tell consumers how to fix their own phones when their warranty is no longer intact. And there’s an assembly of the OnePlus 6T I think already, where the rubber between gaps to prevent water damage is clearly visible. I think there has been a bunch of Youtubers who attempted to test how water resistant our products are. The conclusion has always been the same, it’s fine.”
The OnePlus camera needs to improve, a common complaint
As flagship pricing goes higher with each new launch, the role of the camera in capturing consumer interest has taken center stage. However, an area of development for OnePlus has consistently been its camera. I posed this question to Pei and he agreed that the camera performance of its products have been part of common feedback. Over the years, the company has won several product awards for its phones, yet, the one constant feedback for development has always been the camera.
Watch: OnePlus 7 Pro First Look
He’s optimistic of having solved the common user concern over the years, adding, “With the OnePlus 7 Pro, I think we finally took that final leap. DxO gave us a score of 111, which puts us higher than the iPhone XS Max and Pixel 3. Of course, it’s just a score, and consumers must get it into their hands and try it out for themselves to see. But I am confident you now have triple cameras and each camera plays a unique role this time. You got a zoom lens, optical zoom 3X regular as well as the telephoto lens for when you want to take a wider scene. So we’re confident but the final test is whether the consumers like it.”
Besides cameras, the other fancy feature is wireless charging
Pei doesn’t seem to be a huge fan of wireless charging. He says, “Wireless charging today offers no added convenience. You need a charging pad with you. It’s the same as having a charger, which now with Warp charges quickly. (With wireless), you don’t even get that. I think in the future when wireless becomes more ubiquitous, where meeting rooms, conference tables, coffee shops, restaurants, airplanes all have them in-built, then you will need it. That’s when it actually provides value to the consumer. We won’t implement features just for the sake of it or just to check off a check mark.”
Having explained the thought behind not focusing on wireless charging as a feature, Pei also expressed disappointment at how the lack of such a feature is still regarded a limitation by reviewers.
Pop-up selfie camera or in-display fingerprint scanner?
When asked about the point of having an in-display fingerprint scanner, considering that the the pop-up selfie camera on the OnePlus 7 Pro also unlocks the phone, Pei said, “It’s still very convenient. In fact, on the OnePlus 7 Pro, it feels very instantaneous. So I wouldn’t write it off just yet. I think people are used to having something on the front of their screen, where they can put their thumbs and authenticate themselves.” He agrees that a more accurate authentication feature such as 3D scanning is far more secure as well, and could very well be seen in the future.
How about the Pixel 3A, its price, and focus on the camera?
Pei said he hadn’t used the device yet. But added that he liked what he read about the camera. He believes Google has “done a great job in terms of the camera, their engineers are quite good.”
Aren’t devices getting too large? What about more compact smartphones?
With devices such as Samsung’s Galaxy S10e, manufacturers seem to be exploring the possibility of a new compact segment. He observes a “trend where more media consumption is being done on the phone by consumers holding their phones horizontally. This indicates frequent consumption of games and video content. Given these scenarios, I don’t think the market is moving towards smaller phone factors. It’s only going to get bigger up to a certain point of comfort. I think ultra-compacts, around the 4-inch mark is going to be a very niche market.”
Coming back to pricing, isn’t it getting beyond the reach of many?
Pei says, “What we’re seeing in the US market, is that upgrade cycles are getting longer. Consumers no longer see an immediate need to purchase a new smartphone. Having said that, the smartphone market is the biggest market on the planet. Everyone on earth needs a smartphone. So even if growth slows down, it’s still one of the best markets to be in. So it doesn’t really concern us. As long as we do a good job with our products, I think we’re going to be able to find that group of consumers who really appreciate what we do.”
The progress on OnePlus’ offline strategy
Pei believes that it’s important to focus on the offline channel to get OnePlus phones into the hands of more consumers. I asked him about the company’s strategy and what he felt about the strides the company was making in that area. He said, “I think its been going well. We have to be quite strategic about it because we only create a flagship phone, we don’t cater to everyone.”
He added, “So when we conduct our offline expansion, it has to be in locations that have these type of consumers. Our first store was in Bangalore, and we’re expanding that experience to our program this year with a new one in Mumbai, Pune, and Hyderabad. In fact, Hyderabad is really going to be a big one for us. For us, those stores are more for experience, you’re not buying into a specific product but you’re coming here to try it out physically. There’s a saying that for some people their keynotes look better than their products. For us our products look better than our keynotes. We need to fulfill some touch points offline where people can really touch and feel our devices. To really understand the amount of work and craftsmanship that goes behind it. At the same time, we’re trying to improve our keynotes and renders.”