OnePlus is among the few direct-sale smartphones from China with a big US fan base. As the company launches its seventh phone, the OnePlus 5T, its founder and CEO Pete Lau sat down with us to talk about regaining trust in the company after its recent "backdoor" controversy, and what it would take to have a bigger presence in the states.
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Reports emerged this week that OnePlus left an "engineering mode" app in its phones that could expose vulnerabilities. A month ago, separate stories said it didn't fully disclose how much personal data its phones collect and where that information goes.
OnePlus is a global company, and it's had a global face in its urbane, multilingual co-founder, Carl Pei. (Pei was translating for Lau, who spoke in Chinese.) Sometimes Lau's perspective seemed to come very much out of his experiences in the China market, which don't necessarily map to the US.
Regarding the data collection, which has been shifted from opt-out to opt-in, "it comes from a lack of understanding of the nuances in each market," Lau said. "Over here in Western markets, privacy is very important. The intention was not to take the data and do something malicious with it."
Or take OnePlus's word-of-mouth marketing approach. Lau said he patterned it after Apple, which had "zero advertising in China" for early iPhones and whose "products speak for themselves." That won't ring true for Americans, who have been blanketed with huge, expensive iPhone marketing campaigns from the very first day it launched in 2007.
"As a proportion of revenue, Apple spends very little on marketing," he argued.
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The company is learning from the backdoor and privacy stories, Lau said, and it has made "trust" a focus area for 2018. That means "understanding each region because we operate in a lot of regions, understanding the cultural nuances, and implementing that insight into each product."
"We would never intentionally invade our users' privacy," he said. "There's been a couple of mistakes recently, and the source of these mistakes wasn't ill intent but rather a lack of understanding."
Hitting $500 With the Right Features
We also asked Lau and Pei about some of the key features in the OnePlus 5T . The company didn't plan to make a second phone this year, Lau said, but when new displays became available, OnePlus felt it had to bring that tech to its consumers. That means the company isn't on a two-a-year cycle, but it'll make phones when it feels the components are ready.
The 6-inch, 1080p screen has a lower resolution than competitors like the Galaxy S8, but people who aren't looking at the spec sheet probably won't be able to guess, Pei said. To illustrate, he told a story about some OnePlus fans who looked at the new screen and were convinced it was 2K resolution.
"If these guys are tech enthusiasts, and they can't tell the difference, why would we add a higher-density display that consumes more power and makes Oxygen OS less fluid?" he said. The main use for super-high-density displays is VR, and VR isn't very useful yet, he said.
The 5T also switched from a 2x zoom secondary camera to a "low light" one. The phone needed two cameras to enable bokeh "portrait" mode, and the higher-resolution sensor on the low-light camera will produce high-resolution images even with 4:1 pixel binning, Lau said.
How Does It Feel In the Hand?
Getting more OnePlus phones into consumers' hands is a priority for Lau, but it doesn't sound like he's treating the US market as a priority. The OnePlus 5T launched in Brooklyn, and OnePlus sold $40 tickets to fans to let "our users see and feel the device in person immediately after the launch," Lau said.
But unlike in Europe, OnePlus doesn't work with carriers here, and it isn't making the phone available in retail stores—only online. Lau acknowledged that consumers need to be able to handle OnePlus phones to spread them beyond their current tech-centric fan base. But for now, the company isn't pursuing carrier certification or doing pop-ups and meet-ups here in the US.
"We intend to do more pop-up events here in the US—not for the 5T, in the US, but in the future," he said.
As for our carriers, OnePlus will partner "if we can find the right fit," according to Lau, who suggested that OnePlus fans on Verizon reach out to their carrier to get Verizon "to come to us."
"If we can keep creating good products and getting a lot of positive word of mouth from our users, and have the users push Verizon to come to us, that will make things a lot easier," he said.