OnePlus' co-founder reflects on the journey of the OnePlus One, and its successor's path to release.
Whether you think the OnePlus 2 is the next big thing or it's not even on your radar, there's no arguing how impactful OnePlus as a company has been over the last year and a half. As a new company, the way we talk about OnePlus and the kind of buzz they have created for themselves is significant. A lot of that is the result of decisions made by co-founder Carl Pei.
He's not exactly what you'd expect from someone running a company like OnePlus, but then again OnePlus isn't exactly a normal smartphone manufacturer. Throughout the OnePlus 2 launch event you could see him float from table to table, engaging everyone hovering over his phones and cautiously asking about initial impressions, so we took a few minutes to ask him some questions about the progress OnePlus has made over the past year.
There's obviously a lot of new things happening in the OnePlus 2, for example a metal frame instead of the rigid plastic exterior. Was there one critical part of this phone you absolutely had to have, something your team really labored over to get right?
I think we are a little bit misunderstood. I've seen a lot of users and the media say OnePlus makes really high value for money products, and that was never the goal. We just thought we could make a really good phone. Because of our motto, by selling directly to the consumer and not spending a lot on marketing, it's just a natural result. We're not trying to make the phone cheap on purpose. In fact, this phone probably costs more than a lot of others to manufacture, partly because the materials but also because our scale is very small compared to the big guys. It costs much more to procure each component.
It's still a bit away from being the best camera on the market, but if you give that team 6-8 weeks I think it'll be on par or better than everything else out there.
This phone has been in the making for 460 days, since the launch of the OnePlus One. It never takes anyone 460 days to release a new smartphone. Usually the refresh is 10 months or 12 months. I think people are making their product lifecycles shorter and shorter. The one decision that made us do a lot of revisions, in total we've done more than 100 revisions in the past 15 months, was the camera. The camera sensor we chose is the biggest pixel size for a 13MP smartphone camera, and this was really hard to fit because the unit is really big. We had to make the final design thicker, and the main reason was we didn't want the camera to protrude too much. We prefer the camera be a little recessed, and to do that we had to shape the phone around the camera.
This camera sensor will be exclusive to us for the first few months. It's a new sensor by Omnivision, which supplies Apple as well. We also added OIS and laser focus, which also makes it a little thicker. That's just on the hardware side, on the software side there's a big leap forward compared to last year. Last year we used a Sony sensor, and got the drivers from Sony and ISP from Qualcomm, and we kinda just shipped it. There was no dedicated team for this. This year we have over 200 software engineers, and 15 of them are dedicated to tuning the camera. A lot of them are ex-HTC guys, their engineering office is based in Taipei. So, the software is also taken care of on this phone. It's still a bit away from being the best camera on the market, but if you give that team 6-8 weeks I think it'll be on par or better than everything else out there.
I understand Qualcomm helped quite a bit with this phone, including the laser autofocus. Was their help a big part of this?
I was surprised that Qualcomm supported us this much, because we didn't exist a while back and they were really fast to support us. We also worked together on the internal PCB board design, and how the processor fit into it. We worked together a lot on this project, actually. We made four revisions of the PCB board.
What do you think is the biggest lesson you've learned as a company from your first launch to this one?
I think we tried to do the right thing at the right time, but this year we are a lot more confident. Last year a lot of people had a problem with the invite system, and I think the main issue wasn't the invite system it was how impossible it was to get an invite. That comes from the fact that we were not confident, we only had 1,000 devices when we launched the phone because we had no idea how many people were going to want to buy it. Because our phone used a lot of custom components and not stuff from off the shelf, our display had a three month lead time. We launched the phone in April and a lot of people had an interest in buying it, we had to then ask for more screens and it took three months. This gap is when a lot of the frustration happened, and as we got the components and started making more phones everything was ok again. I've seen a lot of people much happier after we got inventory.
Do you see a point after this launch where there's no invite system at all?
Once we are more certain of our risk it will get a lot better, but to be honest even with the OnePlus One we messed up a little when it came to inventory. We were not confident in the beginning, and we saw the insane reaction and kinda got over confident. Recently we had to sell some components on the secondary market, and actually lost $2-4 million recently. This comes with hardware, right? It is very different from software. Every unit of hardware you have to lay down your cash, and if you have to sell it at a discount you'll probably lose money because of the low margins to begin with.