OnePlus 3 is due this June and the company’s CEO Pete Lau is sure it will be the most “worthwhile” smartphone to buy this year. According to reports, some OnePlus phones have already started receiving the Android Marshmallow update, the start of more timely software updates from now on. This will be important for users as the experience with the phone gets better.
Lau got talking about the update — which he considers a milestone — and more details about the phone and his company at the SURGE conference in Bengaluru, revealing just as much about himself as OnePlus.
To begin with, he’s obsessive — to the extent that he spent over three months getting the curvature of OnePlus 3’s back just right. “It needs to feel good in the hand,” he explains.
Such is his fixation with perfection, one story goes that he smashed a logic board — when he was heading Oppo’s Blu-ray division — because he wan’t happy with the circuit design.
Lau eventually left Oppo to start OnePlus with a six-member team that built the beloved OnePlus One smartphone. Within two years, they had grown to a team of 700 and sold over one million OnePlus One smartphones worldwide. He had the foresight of sticking to an e-commerce and invite system to keep making money despite slender profit margins, and create an effective distribution system.
We caught up with the hardware engineer off-stage to discuss more about the upcoming software updates, his obsession with user experience, design, virtual reality (VR), e-commerce and more.
Q. Does OnePlus have any plans for VR devices or technologies?
A. No. [Laughs]
Q. Aren’t you interested in VR? What do you think of the current state of VR technology?
A. I think a lot of companies are jumping into the new field just to follow the trend. The core competencies of these companies isn’t VR. So, it’s unlikely they’ll get it right anytime soon. It’s like the smart watches or fitness trackers trend from three years ago. We don’t have any plans regarding VR at least for the next three years. But five years down the line, it will be an interesting space to dwell into.
Q. How did it feel on the first ever feedback on the first OnePlus phone?
A. The most apparent feeling was that of validation. If you remember, back in early 2013-14 — back when we built the first OnePlus phone, most companies were busy comparing specifications [screen size, RAM, processor speed, battery]. Not many focused on the build quality, how it felt in the hand, design, or what customers actually wanted in their phones. So, when we got feedback that said, “I really like the build quality and how it feels in the hand,” it was confirmation that people really wanted what we put on the phone.
It’s really easy for anybody to make a phone with a lot of high-end specifications, but what’s important to us is the quality of user experience. Customer should get a really solid and concrete user experience.
So, what do users really need or want isn’t just specifications, it’s experience — how it feels when you use it, right?
Q. To achieve such high quality of user experience, whether in e-commerce or in products, what is the biggest challenge?
A. When you’re making a product, the most important thing is to find a balance between all the qualities. If you ask most users about what they what they desire in a phone, the answer is two-day-battery-life and a thin phone. That is impossible. So, you have to make the best choices in order to achieve a balance and deliver the best user experience possible. Now, that’s the most difficult part.
You have to think about your target users. Consider Apple, they are always trying to make the thinnest, and lightest devices. They even sacrifice on things like the camera. The picture quality on their phones isn’t going to be as good as Samsung’s, because they [Samsung] puts a big sensor that protrudes, while Apple just puts a tiny lens in their phones. It’s just a physical limitation, but you have to assess what your target users want and make the right decision.
Q. I used the OnePlus X for a brief while. I loved the experience on that phone — the 5-inch AMOLED screen, quick apps launches — and I felt, it could have been the best phone at that time, but the battery life just wasn’t good enough. Do you think that there is a chance of alienating users by making some decisions?
A. The goals for the OnePlus X were: 1) One-hand controls. It’s a smaller form factor — smaller screen and a compact design. 2) Beautiful craftsmanship. Its target were users who wanted something really beautiful and compact. Now, you being a journalist, will use your phone a lot. It’s not the right target group. And you wouldn’t have liked the OnePlus X if it were thicker, bigger to house a larger battery. There needs to be a compromise and balance to be found.
Q. In the two days here at SURGE, there are as many iPhones as OnePlus 2. Considering that 5,000 people are attending it, how do you feel about India as a market and as a part of the OnePlus community?
A. Actually, one of our goals is to cater to tech enthusiasts. That’s what this crowd mostly is. We want to provide the best phone and best quality to these guys. It needs to be cutting edge technology. That’s a priority. As I said on the stage, I will not make a low-end device to sell volume. We’ll stick to our core values and hope that what this group of tech enthusiasts see, will be noticed by more people organically in the future.
We’ve heard similar things before though. Our finance manager went to a meeting in a bank and no one there had a clue that she worked at OnePlus. Turns out, five out of the six people [in that meeting] had a OnePlus phone.
Q. Is this commitment to deliver to techies and enthusiasts one of the reasons why you moved from Oppo and started OnePlus? To take the risk of offering something that others weren’t ready to?
A. We have confidence in our products. No one in that space was asking: “Hey, how can we make this product better or the best?” It’s always going to be target to get to a cheaper price point, or achieve more sales. So, we saw an opportunity to make the best product and combine it with e-commecre for easy delivery. It then becomes a very viable proposition.
Q. How important are software updates to you? Will we see quicker software updates from OnePlus — to delivering the latest within a few months of the launch? Is it something your working on consciously?
A. Software updates are very important to us. After Android M [Marshmallow or Android 6], updates will come very frequently. We’ve actually worked around it internally, just so that the Oxygen team gets more support and resources. It will get faster as time progresses.