It was the morning of October 23, 2013 when I first learned about a new, yet to be announced, smartphone company. Oppo’s Marketing Director, Carl Pei, was sitting in the front seat of my van with my wife and I as we drove to a post-BigAndroidBBQ tradition. This tradition involved introducing him and a few other friends from outside the US to the excitement of shooting high-caliber weaponry in Texas.
In that short trip to the shenanigans which would follow, which I was unfortunately unable to stay for, Carl related to me what his plans were for the future. (I will pause here to make it clear that I am not repeating things in verbatim, but will be expressing statements made as closely as I can to the original). He explained how Oppo was a solid brand in China, but struggled at times to compete with “hip” brands like Xiaomi, and as a result Oppo was going to be sponsoring a competitor to the space. He didn’t speak of the name at this time, but informed me that he would be part of the new company, which would look like a subsidiary of sorts in that it would be started with support from Oppo, and have some Oppo employees move over, but it would be its own company. With the help of Oppo’s manufacturing they would be able to go to market with a product which could be a solid option in both technology and cost.
His reply was “We’re going to be like Apple!”
I told him it sounded like an exciting endeavor, and wondered how they planned to differentiate themselves in the market, and his reply was, in essence, “We’re going to be like Apple!” I laughed, and then realized he was serious. I told him that was a tall order, and asked how were they going to achieve it. His response would speak volumes as to how the next 3 years would go: “We’re going to create a rabid fan-base which will buy whatever we sell, and we will do so with viral marketing! We will do an invite list which will create the desire for the devices and it’ll be great!”
At the time I expressed my concern that an invite list would make it exclusive, and likely drive away many of the impulse buyers which are essential for a young brand, and would also reduce itself to people begging for, and selling off, invites. I suggested that they instead do what every other company does: set up a preorder, money in hand and know exactly how many to produce… but he was sold on the invite idea, and so I wished him luck and said that I was excited for him.
Fast forward to Spring 2014, when details about the company and the OnePlus One started to emerge and the invites started. What I anticipated happening did, with early-adopters (who are essential for a new brand) declining to go the invite route as they had money to spend and couldn’t spend it. The community being formed around the product was a “rabid group” who were excited but often would slip into begging and invites started getting sold on eBay. When the One was released, many began to realize that it was a reworked Oppo Find 7 – which in and of itself was fine, since that device was a solid one. The denial and skepticisim around the product, though, were difficult to get around, and those of us who were “in the know” had a hard time with what we were seeing. Add to that the over-the-top marketing campaigns – smash-your-phone, hottest girl gets an invite, flagship-killer, and so on – and many people, myself included, began to sour on the brand and idea.
I had the One and the 2, but skipped the X. My impressions were really that their devices were decent, but made compromises in key areas that degraded their effectiveness. Take for instance the notification slider, copied from Apple but given some more functionality. On the surface it seems great – no more fumbling around in the OS to turn off your volume, set it to vibrate, etc. Just slide to what you need (Do Not Disturb, Vibrate, Normal). The problem, and one echoed by many users, is that the OS already has built-in Do Not Disturb so you could set your time automatically to not be bothered, like at bedtime. With the slider, that no longer would work (not to mention endless headaches with Android Wear), thus taking away functionality from the OS – and that remains the case as the slider has stuck around. And let’s not even go into the bizarre decision to remove NFC in some models, or in their repeated shipping and customer service gaffes.
Fast forward again, this time to the OnePlus 3. From the moment I first got my hands on one, I was genuinely surprised – I was actually impressed with a device from OnePlus. Even though the design of the device resembled others – the back looks like an HTC One and the front is eerily Apple-esque – it was a solid device nonetheless. The software, while really just vanilla Android with a few minor things, was very functional and consistent. Couple that with concerted efforts being made to resolve and improve customer service and shipping, and I could sense my feelings towards the company changing.
Even with all I was seeing changing, not all of it was good. XDA has been a huge proponent of Open Source since really our inception. We have consistently called out companies for not fulfilling their requirements around one of the biggest areas in Android, the kernel. Without waxing poetic around this area, in summary companies are required to release the source code for the kernel they use in each released software version for a device. No ifs, ands, or buts – it’s a legal requirement, and one which some are good at (Sony for instance), some which aren’t (e.g. Motorola), and many others which are abysmal (Oppo and Xiaomi to name a few). OnePlus started out being pretty consistent here, and it matched their desire to be developer-friendly. Then over the last year or so they’ve slacked off with that developer-friendliness and it’s been a source of contention in the Community. We take this moment to call on OnePlus to tighten up this area and become a shining example of what an OEM should be.
With the impending release of the 5, I can say for the first time since 2014 I am eagerly awaiting something from OnePlus. They’ve been teasing the device, in their typical hype-creating way, for the last few weeks and it seems to be working. They’ve fully embraced their desire to be like Apple, with the back of the 5 looking almost identical to an iPhone 7, which is disappointing but not wholly unexpected (Carl Pei’s well-documented admiration for Steve Jobs and many of their device features should make it clear OnePlus is unafraid to imitate). The specs for the device though are solid, and assuming the construction of the device is as well, it will likely to be the closest thing to a “flagship” that OnePlus has ever done – though again it seems to be a reworked Oppo device, this time the Oppo R11. Sources have also told me most of the past compromises have been addressed, and that it wraps up many of the loose ends the company has struggled with in past releases.