OnePlus: What's next for the company that made this year's most interesting Android phone?

With its tasty specs, its use of Cyanogen, and its marketing, OnePlus has been making waves in mobile. What's next for the company?
Written by Jo Best, Contributor
Image: OnePlus

For a mobile newcomer with a company motto as dull as it is straightforward – "we make smartphones" – OnePlus is something of an enigma.

At less than a year old, the Chinese smartphone manufacturer has already managed to create a sizeable amount of buzz around itself, both because of its software and its marketing missteps.

So far, company has announced just one phone, the One. The device was launched with an invite-only system earlier this year - apparently as a way of keeping orders low enough that the fledgling company could be sure of meeting them. 

Getting one of the OnePlus invites is something of a Holy Grail quest for tech enthusiasts, and like those quests, involved no shortage of endeavour. In April, would-be OnePlus owners were offered a chance to land one of the elusive invites through a competition called Smash the Past, where they were asked to film themselves destroying their current mobile in return for a chance to win a One. The campaign copped flak over the waste it involved, not to mention the disappointment: reportedly, over 100,000 people mashed their mobiles, despite only one hundred invites being on offer. A subsequent promotion aimed purely at women, named Ladies First, asked those with two X chromosomes to post pictures of themselves with a OnePlus logo. Many did so, often accompanied by a middle finger, and the campaign was dropped shortly afterwards.

But among those that have secured an early version of the phone, reviews have been largely positive.

Those getting hands-on with the device have approved of its use of Cyanogen, the popular Android custom ROM, as well as its high-end feel and mid-range price tag.

The OnePlus comes with a pleasing list of specs: 2.5Ghz quad-core Snapdragon 801 chipset, 3GB of RAM, 13 megapixel rear-facing and five-megapixel front-facing cameras, and a 3100 mAh battery – and all that for either £229 or £269, depending on storage size. It's no wonder tech watchers are paying attention.

In recent weeks the company  has begun to dangle the device in front of the smartphone-buying public at large, opening up preorders last week for a few hours. According to the company's Twitter feed, over 20,000 orders were placed. According to buyers' Twitter feeds, the OnePlus servers struggled with the weight of interest.

We're reviewing and analyzing how to avoid these issues for next time. We'll post a report and more details on the next pre-order tomorrow.

— OnePlus (@oneplus) October 27, 2014

"We are also fully aware that the execution and experience for many of our fans was unacceptable. Despite a dedicated hardware platform set up for the event, our servers still had difficulty with the surge of traffic received when the pre-orders opened," the company added on its blog. Another preorder window will open later this month.

Despite its early wobbles, the signs for the young company are promising: it's already confirmed it's working on the OnePlus Two.

ZDNet caught up with Carl Pei, head of OnePlus Global - its business focusing on markets outside of China - to find out what's next on the agenda for the company.

ZDNet: Can you tell me a bit about how the company got started – what was the rationale for bringing an Android smartphone company into a very crowded market? Why did Peter [Lau, OnePlus' CEO] decide it was a good time?

Pei: Before OnePlus was founded, a group of us were sitting in a café and noticed that all the phones on the table were iPhones. It was apparent that none of us were satisfied with any of the available Android hardware options and asked ourselves what they were missing. Poor design, poor build quality, and overbearing bloatware all came up.

We knew that with our expertise and vision, we could build the phone we really wanted to use. The smartphone market is mature and saturated, but there's always room for something new to come along if it is better than the status quo.

ZDNet: How many employees does the company have, and how has that grown since the company's inception?

Pei: When we started, the company was just a handful of people. I remember the four people who formed the early Global team sitting in a tiny meeting room last December, wondering how we were going to take on the giants of the smartphone industry.

Since then, we've grown quite a bit with close to 40 people from 10 different countries on the global side. We've got some very talented additions joining this month and hope to continue growing quickly to keep up with the demand of our users and create a better experience for them.

Why has the OnePlus One been available through the invite system? The suggestion is supply constraints were behind that – is that the case? What elements of the device caused the constraints, and has that been addressed now the One is going on sale more broadly?

Before we launched, we had no idea what kind of reception we would receive or how many people might want to buy our phone. We had to conservatively estimate our inventory; if we hadn't been able to move it, we would have gone bankrupt. With the hindsight and experience gained since our launch, we're better prepared for the future. But the invite system also helped us control how many devices were sold so that we could try and scale our customer support team along with that.

How many devices were sold through the invite system?

As a company policy, we don't release our sales figures but the figure is already ten times what we were expecting for this year.

Why did OnePlus choose to use CyanogenMod? Do you foresee using the OS for the next generation of devices?

Pete [Lau] and the OnePlus team's background is largely in hardware while the Cyanogen team has been incredibly successful building a great ROM and community.

Pete and Steve Kondik, Cyanogen's founder and CTO, worked together previously and realized they shared the same vision for the kind of device they wanted to see on the market. When looking for a software solution for the OnePlus One, Cyanogen seemed a natural fit. They have been a fantastic partner for this device and have guaranteed users a full two years of support. We're very open to continuing our relationship but it is still too early in the development of the [OnePlus] Two to confirm anything.

There have been reports that OnePlus is developing a separate OS to replace Color OS, the ROM it uses on its phone in China. Is this the case, and if so, why? How far along is development? Why was the decision taken to use a separate OS in China, and what can we expect to see from the new OS?

We have formed a team in Taiwan to build an OS for the Chinese market. Chinese users require unique aspects for the user experience such as a custom keyboard. Our own OS will also better fit what users expect from a OnePlus experience. Finally, it adds a platform on which to build new revenue streams, which is something we have to consider as we sell our hardware at cost.

In terms of geographies, where are the priorities for the OnePlus? Where do you expect the device to sell best? What can you tell us about an Indian launch?

We started very ambitiously, launching online in sixteen different countries around the world. Moving forward, we will likely focus on establishing a presence in less tapped markets.

We have invested a lot of resources into exploring the Indian market and hope to enter by the end of the year. Given the complexity of the market, we will have to set up a physical presence with multiple service centers. It will be a great test but allow us to expand smartly and effectively while we build our company.

OnePlus has had some difficult moments with promotion launch campaigns (Smash the Past and, in particular, Ladies First). What was the thinking behind both, and was OnePlus surprised by the reaction to them?

Creating a better user experience has been our aim from the very beginning. Selling the One at cost and ultimately lessening the cost to the user contributes to that goal, but to do that we have to rely almost solely on social media and digital campaigns to spread awareness of our brand.  As we're going up against competitors who have marketing budgets of billions of dollars a year, we have to be exceptionally creative and original in creating buzz just to stand a chance.

Our good intentions have sometimes been communicated very poorly and we take ownership of those mistakes. 'Ladies First,' for example, was an effort to reach out to our small but active female community that was not executed well. We know that we can always learn and be better and we will, especially in how we convey our messages. But we'll continue to find new and exciting ways to spread the word about the One and OnePlus because we are proud of our product and want as many as possible to try it out.

What with the links between Oppo and OnePlus through its investors and use of Cyanogen, a lot of people associate the two companies. How would you describe your relationship with Oppo, and how do you seek to differentiate from them?

Pete, our CEO, left his previous position on great terms but started OnePlus as an entirely new and separate company. We do share common investors and use their factory to make our device much as Apple uses FoxConn.

We understand the confusion about the relationship of the two companies but the difference between the two companies will become increasingly clear as time goes on.

There have been reports of problems with customer service, and with reception on a limited number of devices - how is the company dealing with those problems?

With regards to the support team, we are aware that the slow response time and sometimes lengthy troubleshooting processes are not what our users expect. We are actively ramping up our team to more quickly address user issues. We've also revamped our Support page to provide an easy way for users to find answers to common questions.

It's a tough balance because if we don't sell enough devices, we disappoint users. If we sell too many, it is hard for our Support team to scale up quickly enough. It's a classic case of growing pains and we are still finding the right balance but we're actively working on these problems.

For many mobile related companies, hardware is seen as a commodity, and services sold on top are seen as the more interesting and lucrative play. OnePlus appears to be concentrating more on making great hardware - would you say that's a fair assessment? Are you interested in developing the services side of the business more?

We launched our company very quickly and had to focus on our expertise, which is certainly hardware. Our CEO has 15 years experience in this industry and has always specialized on the hardware side. But we sell our hardware at cost and view it as more of a user acquisition channel. In the future, we will look into developing our own software and services to generate revenue.

The One gets complimented a lot on its battery life - how much of a focus was that in development? How did you develop the phone to achieve better battery life?

Optimized battery life is crucial to the user experience and much of the phone was designed around just that. We chose to use a 3100 mAh non-removable battery that was powerful enough to sustain for a full day of heavy use and also lessen the bulk of the device. In fact, each device varies slightly and the battery in any given device will range from 3100 to 3250 mAh. So it's providing a lot of power, perhaps more than some people realize. We also have to give kudos to the CM team for optimizing the software so well.

Are you working on the OnePlus Two already? What direction do you see the device going in?

We are in the early stages of thinking about the OnePlus Two. As with the One, we will consult our fans before deciding exactly what features and design elements it will include.

We can say that the Two will feature top specs and craftsmanship as will all of OnePlus' flagship devices in the future.

And, a general question to finish - what's next for the company?

Our first priority is improving the user experience. Right now this means strengthening our customer support team. We are hiring more people for the Support team and refining our internal policies to ease the burden on the customers with a much faster response time.

Beyond that, we're working on becoming a more fluid and efficient company. We're transitioning from a small group of good friends working right next to each other to a bigger, better structured company. We're also excited about exploring new product and service categories.

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