Looking Beyond The OnePlus One
TH: What do you see as the defining feature or need in a flagship phone today? Is there one thing that stands above all others?
CP: I think in terms of specs, phones are becoming very fast. It’s sort of like the PC industry where specs kind of don’t really matter anymore. I think smartphones are also reaching something close to this. I remember many years ago when I was super young, and I saved a lot of money. I finally bought a MacBook Pro, and the entire experience of opening the device and turning it on for the first time was very memorable. And I remember on the first boot it would show this welcome animation with welcome in many different languages. It was such a delightful experience, and I was just smiling the entire time. I think that’s what’s important when creating a product, including a smartphone. It’s important to create a really solid day-to-day product and an experience that can kind of give your customer a smirk on their faces when they first are subject to your product. So we put a lot of effort into the box for the OnePlus One. We’ve seen a lot of users comment, ‘Wow, the box is really nice. The SIM tray ejector is really nice. The USB charging cable looks really good.’ So I think this element of surprise in a positive way, plus a really solid day-to-day product, that’s where the industry needs to be headed. It should be focused less on marketing stuff like bloatware or something that’s very new and cutting edge but doesn’t really provide any value to the user.
TH: Do you think there’s a sweet spot for screen size? Do you see any advantage in offering phones in multiple sizes?
CP: We were a bit conflicted with this for this phone, because a lot of users were telling us, ‘Hey, we don’t want a phone that’s larger than five inches because it becomes really hard to hold in your hand.’ But at the same time, we saw that the large screen smartphone market was booming. These needs were kind of non-compatible. So we thought that if we could make a phone that had a 5.5-inch screen but also felt smaller in your hand, then perhaps users would accept it. The way we tried to accomplish this was by having relatively small bezels and also having this tapered edge on the sides. We thought that this would help users accept this [size] better. We also saw that some of the 5-inch smartphones from a year ago—or one-and-a-half years ago—were actually very similar width to this phone. So we thought, ‘Ok, you said 5-inches, but if we make it 5.5-inches, that’s just a little bit wider and maybe will be good enough.’ I don’t know if you recall this, but we discussed all the specs with our users on the forums before we actually announced the product. When we announced the screen size it was really polarizing in the community. I think the majority of the voices were actually negative saying, ‘Hey, why is it so big? I don’t need a tablet in my pocket. I just want a smartphone.’ But once we started seeing the reviews, and we started seeing the users get the phone into their hands, only then did they actually start to understand and then say, ‘I got used to it after a few hours and it feels pretty good. Now I prefer this size.’ So in the end, we think that we made the right choice for the user.
TH: Can you comment on the roadmap for this year? Where do you see OnePlus going?
CP: We had very few resources in our first year. There weren’t that many people. But now that we've seen some early signs of success, we’ve decided to invest more in the company and be more ambitious in what we’re trying to do. Last year we only had one global model of the phone. If you were in the US, or if you were in Europe, or if you were in India you would have received the exact same phone. But different regions actually have slight differences in frequencies and bands. So, this time we’ll have a lot more SKUs for the global market. People in different countries will have products that actually fit them much better. For instance, in Europe there were some early complaints about the lack of band 20, which means that people in some lower frequency areas wouldn’t be able to receive LTE signals. But now we’re going to fix this for future products. There’s going to be a flagship successor to the One called the ‘2’, but the number '2' and not t-w-o that everyone is writing. It’s gonna be a product that can compete with the flagships of 2015, and I think it’s going to be the focal point for us in this year.
We’re also exploring perhaps another device. We’re still thinking of how we can differentiate this. We don’t want to make a device that’s cheap; cheap can never be a selling point. We have to find another customer need and satisfy that need, but we haven’t really figured out exactly what that would mean. We started this company and we made a smartphone, but that’s not our goal. Our goal is actually to eventually become a software ecosystem company. We just think that the smartphone is the product that everyone is interested in today. If you look at the ecommerce platforms around the world, the best selling category is smartphone. All the gadget blogs and all the gadget magazines are talking about smartphones as their main focus. So if we started this company and we released a smartwatch, we would have never received as much users or interest as we did with a smartphone; the smartphone is still the center of a digital lifestyle. We figured if we start with a smartphone, capture the interest with the smartphone, capture the users, then we can easily expand into other categories and not the other way around. If you start with a smartwatch, you cannot expand into a smartphone very easily. So, we’ve actually been experimenting with a lot of different form factors and different smart products. We have some different prototypes in our office. We still haven’t decided on which one we’re going to release. A lot of the smartwatches today are tech demos basically, because, at least for me, they provide no additional value. I’m already very busy. I get a lot of notifications—a lot of emails—on my smartphone, so I don’t need another product to tell me that I have to check something. If we’re going to make a smart device, it has to be a lot more thoughtful and useful than what’s currently available. That’s our biggest challenge as well, because the smartest people in the world are also making these, and they still haven’t figured out a great product here.
TH: I think the best use for a smartwatch I’ve seen so far is the map feature for the Apple Watch. After putting in your destination, you can walk down the street with the screen off and the watch will vibrate a certain way to let you know you need to turn left now. That’s really the only additional feature I’ve seen that a smartphone can’t already do.
CP: As this platform matures, more and more developers will invent new ways of using it. But for now, I don’t see a lot of use for it.
TH: The technology isn’t there either to give you that experience you need. All the first smartwatches were just rushed to market, and they basically tried to stuff a smartphone into a watch. Screen and battery technology needs to improve, and companies need to develop SoCs specifically for a watch.
CP: Yeah. This is a place where we really appreciate how Apple does things. They don’t rush into new technologies. They think hard about an implementation that makes sense and actually adds value for users rather than just making something to be first.
TH: Here at CES we’ve seen several devices from Chinese manufacturers that look exactly like products from other companies. For example, we saw two Apple Watch clones—one from Hyperdon and another called the Aiwatch A8.
CP: It’s a problem with Chinese companies I think. In China, as long as you can make money you will be celebrated, but actually in the rest of the world, you need original ideas and you need to contribute to the industry. So I think Chinese companies will have a very hard time being accepted and respected in global markets in the near future at least.
TH: What do you see as OnePlus’ biggest challenge this year?
CP: Our problems have been changing depending on the stage of our company. Our first biggest worry was that we’re going to make this company, but no one is going to care about us. Second worry is now that people care about us, we don’t have any phones to sell. Then after we started selling phones the third worry became, now we’ve sold this many phones but we don’t have any support infrastructure to help these people who are our users. Now that we’ve been ramping up support, and we’ve kind of caught up with the backlog of support tickets, the issue we have on hand now is that our company has become pretty big—a lot of people. How do we manage these people? Being so young and inexperienced, what kind of leaders do we need to add to the company to help us grow faster or better or become more professional? So it’s step-by-step. I think our biggest problem now is to really define a good culture and let this culture guide us in everything we do. When you’re a small company it’s easy since you’re just a few people. But as you add more people you need to make sure they fit to your culture, and they have to be able to refer to something. They can’t always come to our early staff to ask them questions. So setting everything up and getting the right people in place—the culture and operations to run smoothly—is our biggest challenge. I think I wrote in the blog that a stronger OnePlus awaits in 2015, and what I mean by that is just overall more professional, more grown-up, and eventually becoming a serious player.