OnePlus Interview: Startup Aims to Make Perfect Smartphone

Over the past few weeks Chinese smartphone startup OnePlus has made a number of announcements about its upcoming One phone, which will run CyanogenMod. It started by saying that it will cost less than $400, then told us which SoC it will run, the Snapdragon 800, then its battery size, 3,100 mAh, then most recently on Tuesday it announced that the OnePlus One will have a 5.5-inch 1080p display.

One of the other aspects of the One that OnePlus has been talking a lot about is its design, and OnePlus are so confident in the build quality and materials of the phone, that it announced a pretty awesome contest today! OnePlus will fly one of its lucky fans to Hong Kong to be the first to “touch and feel” the back of the phone. However, it’s not clear yet whether that’s all they'll be able to see of the phone, or if they’ll be able to experience the OnePlus One in full.

We also got the chance to talk to Carl Pei, Director of OnePlus Global, in-depth about how OnePlus came to be, the state of the mobile industry and the OnePlus One itself. You can read part one of the interview below, and stay tuned to Tom’s for the second and third parts.

Introduction to OnePlus

Tom's Hardware: My first question is if you can go into a little of the history of OnePlus, I know that both you and Pete formerly worked for Oppo. Can you elaborate on what you did at Oppo and why you decided to break away from them to found OnePlus?

Carl Pei: Back in 2005, Oppo opened an office in Mountain View, and the company was called Oppo digital, dealing with Blu-ray players and DVD players, and Pete was the director. So when the Oppo CEO needed help with the mobile division, Pete became the VP of Oppo mobile where he worked for over a year, and then he started OnePlus. Oppo’s Blu-ray players are well known amongst Hi-Fi enthusiasts in the US and Europe, and what they focused on was both quality hardware and quality service, while listening to their consumers. For instance for the Blu-ray players there is a big online community called the AVS forums, and Oppo would pay close attention to the comments on their forums, and design their products in accordance to the feedback from the forums. It wasn’t only hardware iterations, but also the software – Oppo was the first company that allowed users to upgrade the firmware on Blu-ray players, and it’s interesting, because to do that you first had to download and ISO file, burn it to a DVD and then put the DVD into the player to start the upgrading process – a lot of mobile companies today now iterate on the software based on user feedback, but this is a model that Oppo already pioneered in 2005.

TH: What did you do at Oppo before you came to OnePlus?

CP: At Oppo, I was head of their Global Marketing and e-Commerce. The reason we [Carl & Pete Lau] started OnePlus was because we saw a big opportunity in e-commerce as a new way to distribute mobile phones. By using this new model we can be very disruptive because we are saving a lot of money on channel costs and marketing costs, and we think the market is moving towards consolidation in 2014, so if you don’t act quickly, there might not be many chances left and the final reason is also when you start something from scratch, you have the opportunity to put your fingerprints on everything you do.

TH: Many of our readers are in North America and they might be hesitant, not matter how good the reviews, to order a phone online from a Chinese start-up, so how would address those people, to let them know that they can be confident that OnePlus will deliver. I also wanted to ask about Google – they have been selling their Nexus phones to users for some time, and you can order a Nexus 5 from the Play store and have it delivered to you in a week – do you think that OnePlus is going to be able to offer the same level of service to North American enthusiasts?

CP: I think that Google has actually helped us with their Nexus line, because Google has taught North American consumers that it is OK to buy a high-end device online, and with regards to the level of service OnePlus can provide, since we won’t have any physical stores, the online experience will be the only experience, so it becomes more important for us to deliver on that, in that regard. If we’re are not confident enough that we can provide a better service than Google does with their Nexus line, then there is no reason for in even trying because we are a company that’s only has one avenue to reach out to consumers – online – so that’s our only chance to prove ourselves.

TH: You have said you are building the ‘perfect phone,’ and that’s a lofty goal. Do you think maybe that you’ve set the bar a little too high for your first product?

CP: So, as I mentioned before, this year we are in a very competitive market, so if you do something now, you have to do your best, and do it right. Currently, we’re all working 6 days a week, 12 hours + a day – putting in our all into this project to build the perfect phone…

TH: People’s perception of what is the perfect device is going to be different from user to user. How do you address the challenge of making the phone that is perfect for everyone?

CP: It’s true that when we speak to consumers different consumers have different demands regarding things such as battery capacity or the size of the screen, but when you dig down deep into user feedback, they’re saying things for a simple reason, and this is what we call the ‘never settle’ philosophy – for instance when users say they want a phone that has a 5-inch or less screen, and the same time other users say they want a larger screen because they derive more value from consumer content on a bigger screen, so what we can do is to take into account both types of users by  making a phone that is the same size as a 5-inch smartphone, but with a much bigger display. This way we can make both groups happy. The same thing goes for the battery – some users say want a 4,000 mAh battery and at the same time other users say they want a phone that is easily pocketable and light – so sometimes we have to make the best choice for both users, and that’s what we mean by the ‘perfect phone.’ It’s not the phone with a single unbalanced high-end spec, it’s the phone that’s for day-to-day use - a phone that gives users the perfect experience. It is true that some product decisions will be more user specific than others, which is why the OnePlus One will be highly customizable, both in terms of the software and the hardware.

TH: There seems to be a quite a number of people on forums, blogs and social media who have been somewhat skeptical of OnePlus, calling the One ‘vaporware,’ and asking why OnePlus has been slowly releasing the specs instead of waiting to show the completed device in one shot. How do you address those people who don’t think you can deliver what you are promising?

CP: For the skeptics who are waiting to be impressed by our product I want to tell them that we will, and it’s coming really soon. We have no problem with people being skeptical, it’s a rational way of thinking, because many companies before us have promised a lot of things, and failed to deliver, and users are used to this, so being skeptical is their first reaction, and it’s totally understandable. However, we have a solid team with lots of experience - we’re not a Kickstarter. I believe our product will speak for itself once it gets into the hands of users.

TH: One of the questions I have seen is that because your team is fairly small, people are wondering how such a small team can deliver a modern flagship smartphone. One thing I have read is that Oppo is still involved with OnePlus on the manufacturing side of things. Is that the case?

CP: Oppo is our contract manufacturer, which means they are the ones manufacturing our products, similar to how, for instance, Apple uses Foxconn as their factory. So because we are outsourcing our production, we can keep our team small and lean.

TH: That’s good to hear, because the Oppo phones I have tested out are good quality products. If Oppo is involved on the manufacturing side of things, I’m pretty confident that the OnePlus One is going to be a well-made device.

With Oppo as your contract manufacturer, and with them announcing the Find 7 on March 19th (a phone that so far seems to have very similar specs to what has been announced for the One), is the One related to the Find 7? If so, don't you think you'll end up having to compete with your own ODM for the same customers?

CP: OnePlus One is a unique and powerful product that will compete with all flagships of 2014.

TH: Do you think you guys are being perhaps a little too aggressive in social media, for example, with some of the calling out of the competition?

CP: Basically with those posters [that were posted on the forums and social media poking fun at other vendors’ devices] we were just saying what we think is wrong currently with the industry and where we strive to be better. If we have an opinion, there will be people both for and against us, and we are fine with this. We think a lot more people will understand we mean by those posters when they see the final product.

End of part one.

Stay tuned for part two and three, to be posted over the next few days.

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    I don't think this is anywhere near reality, yet. No less than 1 year off, maybe. I'm sure by now, a lot of power users would love to ditch their Laptops/Desktops and work off their SmartPhones, but I doubt the technology is in place to do that, yet. When you start multi-tasking, your device starts slowing down. Most users won't put up with that and just use it for stupid things like Angry Birds. Show me a SmartPhone where you can have docking available (vehicle and HD Docking) and perform a myriad of other tasks and I'll change my tone. My two year old DROID RAZR MAXX does it, but sometimes I feel you can order a pizza in between the time it takes to do some things.