On an unusually rainy afternoon in Delhi, I reach on time to meet Carl Pei, the co-founder of OnePlus, at a fancy cafe in a five star hotel right in the heart of the city. He is in India on a short trip filled with a calendar full of commitments that is a bit much even for a 27-year-old. He is visibly tired as I amble to greet him.
A half-eaten bowl of rabdi (a popular Indian milk-based sweet), sits on the table, which reminds me that he has a sweet tooth. It should be evident from the fact that his infrequently updated personal blog has only one tag line: I like chocolate ice cream.
I had to ask him if he liked the rabdi.
“It was good. I just got to watch my weight eating Indian sweets. It is very easy to over eat in India. Everything is so tasty and heavy. It is a lot of carbs, sugar, and oil,” he replies. He is also a bit of a fitness freak. “I’m trying to first achieve, and then, maintain a six pack. So it is not very easy but I have to resist the temptation.”
After meeting me, he is scheduled to go eat ice cream with a few fans in Noida. This makes me wonder about the dichotomy of OnePlus’ current marketing strategy where the company effortlessly straddles the thin line between meeting fans and hiring Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan to promote the phone, all at the same time!
" rel="nofollow">June 10, 2017
“Most of our awareness, and most of our user acquisition as a result, happens through word of mouth. So, friends and family are still the number one driver for sales in India. Even when we use celebrities to promote a product, we still rely a lot on word of mouth. So, when we did the campaign with Amitabh Bachchan, it was based on Amazon customer reviews - which is essentially word of mouth at its core,” Pei breaks it down for me.
“We wanted to tell everyone that - hey look, this is the highest rated smartphone. Not by us, but by real consumers,” he adds. That clarity of thought is important for someone like Pei, who is at the helm of a company that’s garnering as much attention as behemoths like Apple and Samsung.
He tells me that the OnePlus 5 global launch live video had close to 3,00,000 concurrent viewers and in comparison the Samsung Galaxy S8 had 4,16,000. “This is only one of the metrics that goes to show that outside of Samsung and Apple, OnePlus is the only other smartphone brand that has the most attention.”
However, even Pei acknowledges that the attention is both good and bad for the company. “It is flattering to have all this attention but it is also extremely hard. Because some of the issues that have become big issues - or seem to be big issues - the other brands also face the same. But, they don't become news because no one is paying attention. I think it is a good problem and also forces us to improve. Our users are tech enthusiasts and are always online. If an offline brand had these problems, it wouldn’t even be news.”
I decide to probe him further on these issues. I start with the jelly scrolling issue that has been highlighted on the OnePlus 5 by many users and media alike. He replies with measured and well-constructed words, “Most displays refresh from top to bottom. Our display refreshes from bottom to up. And, we are used to seeing the former, therefore our eyes are not used to it. It is a matter of getting used to how the OnePlus 5’s screen refreshes. So, for us it is a product choice and not really an issue per se. And, for the vast majority of our users this is a non-issue. Just that people who don’t have the phone, they get worried.”
I think I have heard this same explanation before somewhere.
He goes on to defend, “I think the main thing with the jelly scrolling issue is that there is a video online that showcases it. When you video tape computer screens, weird things can happen. So, you can have the screen size flickering but it is not really flickering. You can see a rainbow effect, but the screen doesn’t really display rainbow colours. It has something to do with how the screen refreshes. The effect on the screen and how the video is captured, makes the whole jelly scrolling effect a lot pronounced.” I am not entirely convinced with that answer because it feels a little vague to me.
Moving on, Pei does honestly acknowledge that customer service has been the achilles heel for the brand. This is precisely why OnePlus made a video explaining how it is working towards improving the customer service. You can check it below.
Pei also accepts that globally people have faced bad customer service from OnePlus. In fact, he says that the perception of OnePlus in North America is that the company’s customer service is worse than industry standard. Trying to give us some assurance, he says, “I know that making a video about our service, is not going to make a customer who has had a bad experience with our service happy. But maybe if we keep improving and keep telling you about it, two years down the line you might realise that we are trying hard. Which is why we will keep improving and we will get better than standard. We are going to keep communicating even if it pisses off some people at first.”
This year, OnePlus’ focus has evidently been on the OnePlus 5's dual camera setup. As a matter of fact, the retail box has a tagline that reads: dual cameras, clearer photos. Before the launch, the brand spoke about its association with DxOMark for making a great camera. I wanted to know what that association actually meant. “They’re (DxOMark) are our consultants. I think a lot of brands hire them as consultants. They will give you suggestions like you should tune the white balance in a certain way or use this type of new camera hardware coming out in the market. However, the tests and the consulting business are two separate entities. In fact, DxOMark is very adamant about doing the tests in a fair way.”
Interestingly, he states that as consultants DxOMark was given a phone by OnePlus before launch so as to help the brand tweak the white balance and the different camera attributes. But, DxOMark insisted on buying a retail OnePlus 5 unit from the company’s website - just like any regular consumer would - for the overall camera review.
There’s also been some outrage about the fact that the OnePlus 2 will not get the Android Nougat update. I asked him, what gives? He explains, “At one point in time, because of how our infrastructure was built, we decided to either update the OnePlus 2, or the OnePlus 3 and 3T. And, that was kind of a no brainer for us. However, I think we pissed off a lot of people with that decision. And, that’s gonna haunt us for a very long time. They might never trust us again. Only thing we can do right now is talk less and do more.”
Pei realises that in hindsight it would’ve been better to under promise and over deliver instead.
Another major talking point around the OnePlus 5 has been its design itself. The moment the first images of the phone were put up online, people started immediately comparing it to the OPPO R11. Interestingly, OPPO and OnePlus share the same investors. Pei chimes in about this association or the lack thereof. “We are related to OPPO. We share some of the same investors. But, OPPO and OnePlus are run separately. We do also share some of the supply chain stuff. We manufacture together as well. That is how it is. There is no master conspiracy theory behind it. I used to work at OPPO before and so did Pete. So, we do have friends who are still there but it is pretty normal I think.”
Talking about the design similarities between the two phones he assures me that it is by accident. “It is a little bit unfortunate for us. I think in the long run it doesn’t really matter.”
At this point, we change lanes and start talking about the improvements on the OnePlus 5 and the overall reception of the phone. And, just as I begin asking questions about the OnePlus 5’s sales, Vikas Agarwal, General Manager - India, OnePlus steps in. Pei says, "The OnePlus 5 is already our best selling phone. When people get the device, they are really happy with it. People who get the phone are like - it is the best phone I’ve had. They tell me, I don’t know what the fuss was all about."
Vikas Agarwal interjects, “The Amazon rating for the OnePlus 5 is already at 4.6 out of 5. It is 4.4 for the OnePlus 3T.” However, Pei gets a little cautious at this point and adds, “To be fair once we get a lot of feedback, it might go down a little bit.”
After this, Agarwal becomes a quiet spectator for the rest of my conversation with Pei.
Pei and I start talking about the negative reviews of the OnePlus 5 in the global media. “I think it is fair that as a journalist you should put more scrutiny to the things that people otherwise don’t pay attention to. So, we just got to improve ourselves to match the expectations. There’s nothing to be upset about and it is probably a good thing as well. Actually a lot of users are sending me support emails, like personal encouragement emails, saying - I am reading all of these negative news but I really like the phone. Don’t really get you down. Keep doing what you do best.”
I think to myself that it this is quite a level-headed answer coming from the co-founder of a fairly well-known smartphone brand. This is definitely not something I’ve experienced before.
Coming back to the improvements, he talks about how the company has improved the touch latency on the phone. The geek in me immediately sits up and takes notice. Pei explains, “When the Google Pixel launched, people felt that the touch latency on the Google Pixel was better than that on the OnePlus 3. So we started investigating the problem. We looked at a lot of feedback, and brought these really high speed cameras and started doing tests. We had robots do the scrolling to ensure that all the scrolling happens at a one-to-one parity. Turns out it was worse than the Pixel, ever so slightly but most people don’t see it. So we kept working on the optimisation and we improved it this time around with the OnePlus 5.”
Then, he starts lamenting about the Samsung Galaxy S8’s latency issues. "The sad part is the Galaxy S8 - according to a French professional tech media - has the same latency as the OnePlus 3 and no one is complaining about that."
Reviews across the globe are definitely united on one aspect - the OnePlus 5 is a fluid and fast device. Pei believes it is not by accident. “We customised the software in a way that upon launching an app it opens up all the cores on the CPU. Therefore, for those few seconds that you launch the app, everything happens very quickly. There are a lot of similar smaller tweaks under the hood that people don’t even need to worry about but it definitely improves the user experience. It is easier to market a feature than the under-the-hood optimisations that improve the user experience by a little.”
Now that the OnePlus 5 is here, will the price of the OnePlus 3 and 3T drop? Well, don’t hold your horses. "We don’t make any commitments but overall it is our philosophy to be conservative with our price reductions. It is better for the second-hand value and the long term value of the products. We don’t frequently discount our products, because it is better for the brand health."
Finally, I can’t help but wonder why OnePlus can’t make a more affordable smartphone for markets like India. Hopeful, I ask him about this. “The OnePlus X was a good product. I think. But, not for our brand. Our fans want to buy flagships. I think people in India. And, as they become more sophisticated they will learn to distinguish a good smartphone from the bad. They will maybe buy a cheap one this year but in a few years from now they will upgrade, as they become more proficient in their smartphone usage. This kind of wait and watch strategy requires more patience. It is not going to be immediate, explosive growth. But, we believe it is the right strategy in the long run.”
Little does Pei realise that he is breaking my heart along with that of a million other Indians with that response. But don’t despair, he doesn’t entirely stomp on the notion that OnePlus will never make more affordable smartphones like the OnePlus X. He says, "One day when our brand is huge and we have a mixture of categories, then we can do other products."
Is that one day close or far? Only time will tell.