If there was one word that kept popping up in our interview with OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei, it would be "focus". Usually followed by the phrase "user experience".
Whether it was discussing the company's unique invite-only purchase system, wearables, or its latest flagship device, the OnePlus 2, these words kept finding their way back into the conversation.
Not even two years old, this young company clearly believes in its idealistic tagline "Never Settle," and talking to Pei it's equally clear that OnePlus is resolutely focused on making the very best phones possible, regardless of the consequences.
Building the company’s second flagship phone certainly wasn’t easy. The success of the OnePlus One meant there were obviously new expectations to live up to, especially when the OnePlus tagline is the very loaded Never Settle.
“As with everything related to taste, it’s very easy to be a one-hit wonder and have your second album flop," Pei admits. "We were very anxious about the performance of the OnePlus 2.”
This is clear from the sheer effort that has gone into its development. In the 15 months - or 261 days to be precise - that the phone took to be created, it has gone through over a hundred different iterations and plenty of U-turns to get right. Every aspect of the phone was fiercely debated - from the type of USB to the CPU used.
For example, the OnePlus 2’s camera utilises a relatively large 13MP sensor which, in turn, makes the phone thicker. How some manufacturers accommodate this without increasing the phone's heft is to have the camera protrude like the iPhone 6’s.
“We spent a lot of time debating whether we should have the camera stick out from the body or keep it as flush as possible," recalls Pei. "In the end, we went with the latter. This made the phone a little thicker but it did also allow us to put in a bigger battery.”
Picking their battles
Not all the decisions had such a positive outcome and the company isn't willing to jump on every bandwagon - even if that means attracting criticism.
The choice to forgo Near Field Communication (NFC), a one-tap system allowing devices to connect and transfer data, caused quite a ruckus within the community, with many users claiming that OnePlus had in fact "settled" because the omission sure looked a lot like compromise.
“I had someone on Twitter tell me the day after the launch “Hey, you didn’t put NFC in, that’s so stupid, I’m going to buy another phone.”
But Pei firmly believes the decision to not include NFC was simply a case of responsible product management.
“When I ask users how many times they’ve actually used NFC on their phones, the answer is usually just once or twice to test out the functionality. Of course there are users who have set up NFC tags around their home but that’s a very niche kind of need.
We'll never sacrifice our product for the majority of users to satisfy a very slim niche.”
The User Experience
“I think there’s an unhealthy obsession with specs currently,” states Pei. “Something like the alert slider isn’t even detailed on the spec sheet. We don’t want people to care too much about the specs.
"Is your smartphone beautiful? Does it feel nice in your hand? Does the camera take good photos? I think users care much more about these things than how many cores it has, how many megahertz or gigahertz, how many megapixels. In the end you've got to look at what’s important for a user.”
As such, NFC might find its way back into a future OnePlus phone when newly-announced products such as Android Pay become a part of mainstream society.
“For this generation of the phone, we just don't think it’s a value-add for our users,” explains Pei.
If you need further evidence that OnePlus is all about the user experience, just look at its invite-only purchase system.
"In its essence, the invite system is just a way for a user to recommend a product to another user," Pei says, "the other option would be to put very limited quantities up on our site for sale and it will sell out in three seconds. But that would only take away from the user experience."
The only bad thing about this is that Pei ends up getting mail like this:
— Carl Pei (@getpeid) August 13, 2015
Product not Profit
Forgoing certain features wasn't the only difficult decision OnePlus had to make. Smartphone companies usually release a phone every 12 months, so it didn’t make the most obvious business sense to take 15 months to launch the OnePlus 2.
”We’re still small, we can still spend a disproportionate amount of time getting the product right," argues Pei, "We’d rather focus on getting the product as good as possible."
The company also demonstrated a ruthless focus by scrapping two other close-to-completion products, a wearable and a Bluetooth speaker, so it could concentrate on its core product, the OnePlus 2.
“It makes our product managers unhappy in the sense that a lot of their work goes to waste," Pei admits. "But, I think it’s good to have a very sharp focus.”
That other phone
It might seem strange that a company that’s trying to narrow its focus is introducing another phone into its lineup later this year.
While Pei remained suitably tight-lipped on the subject, he did admit it won't be replacing the OnePlus 2: “I just want to highlight that it’s not a flagship phone. I know some people are worried if they should buy the OnePlus 2, but they’re not going to have any issues; it’s going to be quite different”
The only thing that he was willing to reveal about the future is that the company's software team does possess an experimental arm. Called the performance lab, they are busy filing new patents and trying out new ideas. It's this team that is responsible for the few cool OxygenOS-related things users can expect in the coming months.
In the meantime we’ll have to wait and see if the company has found the right focus. But given that the number of people signed up to the reservation list for the OnePlus 2 has already passed four million, it seems that it's definitely on the right track.
Further evidence that OnePlus is doing something right comes from that unhappy user that buttonholed Pei on Twitter.
“He came back five minutes later and said okay, I’m going to buy the OnePlus 2.”