Tech

OnePlus CEO Pete Lau confirms smartwatch and opens up on its Facebook mistake

We chatted with the top dog at OnePlus to pick his thoughts on a wide range of topics including Carl Pei's departure, the upcoming smartwatch, foldables, and more.

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OnePlus was off to a terrific start even with the pandemic raging on. After years of coming up short with its "flagship killers" the ever popular Chinese brand released the OnePlus 8 Pro with a camera system that put even Samsung's best Androids to shame.

Then everything came crashing down.

OnePlus inked a deal with Facebook to preinstall apps including Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger on new OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro phones. These were at least removable. The more egregious pre-installs were for Facebook services, which could only be disabled, not removed. This miscalculation rubbed OnePlus loyalists the wrong way.

I, and many in the community, who’ve watched OnePlus grow, wondered whether the OnePlus had “sold out.” I wrote in an essay:

Even if you can uninstall some of the apps and “disable” the non-removable “Facebook services,” this move is the ultimate betrayal and backstab to the OnePlus community. For a company that genuinely listens to user feedback and engages with vocal fans, it reeks of greed. Growing up always comes at a cost.

My essay clearly struck a chord within OnePlus. A company spokesperson confirmed the essay had made its “way to the top.” Following widespread criticism, OnePlus stopped sneaking Facebook apps on new phones beginning with the OnePlus 8T.

And then things got worse: OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei, who was the face of the brand in the early days, and arguably its strongest visionary, announced his departure after almost seven years. His sudden goodbye after leading the launch of the Nord a few months earlier set off an alarm and added to a list of longtime employees that left the company within the past year. We can confirm two top communication managers for the North American region who’d been with the company since the early days left prior to Pei. Last December, Szymon Kopeć, who helped lead product in India left the company for Spotify after five years.

What the hell is going on at OnePlus?

OnePlus is changing. Tomorrow, the company celebrates its seventh birthday. The honeymoon phase is over.

For the past seven years, the Chinese brand has grown to global prominence by being the anti-Samsung and LG of the Android phone world. Too small and new to compete directly with the incumbents, OnePlus pitched itself as a brand that operated differently.

OnePlus used its forums to collect feedback on what features to include in its version of Android, Oxygen OS. It asked its loyal and vocal community what it valued most in hardware. The company eschewed expensive traditional marketing and press and instead turned to YouTubers and influencers to generate buzz for its new products.

It all worked. But the company’s no longer the small underdog it once was and as users and journalists we need to hold it accountable to higher expectations. OnePlus can no longer get a free pass because it's less experienced. It now sits at the big kids' table.

On December 14, OnePlus co-founder and CEO Pete Lau invited me and a small group of U.S. journalists for an intimate roundtable conducted over video call. Fielding questions in Mandarin Chinese translated into English via Eric Gass, OnePlus’s director of global brand partnerships, Lau opened up on a wide range of topics including the Facebook partnership that sparked universal outrage, his thoughts on foldables, the impact Pei’s departure has on the products in development, what we can expect from a OnePlus smartwatch (it’s real and it’s happening!), and more. I also asked him if we’ll ever see the Cyberpunk 2077 8T Limited Edition release outside of China, because I had to.

(Editor’s note: Some of Lau’s responses have been lightly edited for clarity.)

Carl Pei's leave

OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei who's no longer with the company left OnePlus in September 2020.MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images

Carl Pei's departure in October has left many people wondering what really happened and whether the hole he's left behind will impact new products. Lau declined to expand too much on Pei's leave — Pei, who's already working on a new audio venture backed by big names like Tony Fadell and Casey Neistat said the breakup was amicable — and shot down its impact on future products.

"There's no change in our focus on delivering the best possible products going forward," Lau said. "There are times when people leave companies, but it hasn't changed the focus and the direction that we've set out for ourselves and will continue carrying forward."

I didn't expect Lau to dish on details and we'll have to wait to see how future products shake out without Pei.

The Facebook mistake

NurPhoto/NurPhoto/Getty Images

It turns out "made its way to the top" meant to Lau himself. When asked about whether OnePlus anticipated the Facebook pre-install partnership would anger users, Lau said the outcome created a "very significant and very heated debate internally in our company."

"With the initial discussions and partnership with Facebook, we learned that there were possibilities for collaboration, meaning optimizations for the experience of the apps on devices, and that's where our focus was and looking at partnership," Lau said. "At the time we very carefully considered the potential response from particularly the early adopters and the core users of our devices in the community and how they would respond to such a preload approach, considering many of them expect that the OnePlus OxygenOS experience will remain very clean. Our consideration was that with the overall experience improvements and optimizations possible, as well as many users already using these apps on a very regular basis, this would overall be something that was seen as a benefit and offering or an improvement for users."

Clearly, he thought wrong.

"So when the article that you wrote (among many other pieces of feedback) came back, we reconvened and evaluated all the user feedback and made the decision to remove the apps from future devices. I had a look at your report personally. It was shared around internally… and was something that got a lot of attention and focus and evaluating — this entire process, and what decisions were made, and the overall impact of this."

When I pressed Lau whether any lessons he and OnePlus have learned from the mistake, he called for more transparency. He didn't confirm that future phones wouldn't come with pre-installed apps. But stressed communication with users would be key for any new partnerships.

"I think this is a very good reminder of how closely sensitive and how still significantly sensitive many of the user community are to any impacts and the experience on the user end," Lau said. In the future, restating and re-emphasizing the importance of communication with users in advance, even when the intentions and the changes in the user experience are with an eye towards optimization, that communication in advance is super important."

Importance of Smart TV

OnePlus

In 2019, OnePlus expanded beyond smartphones with its first smart TV. The fittingly named OnePlus TV launched exclusively in India, and despite several additional models since then, still hasn’t made its way outside of the world’s most populated country.

Lau says the company remains committed to the smart TV and sees its role as smart display hub for connected IoT devices only growing. “Our focus is on how to connect these smart displays in a way that they're seamlessly connected to your other devices. This includes your smartphone or smartwatch products of which we have future plans for our own.”

“So with your phone or with your watch, how can this experience be made to be further seamless,” Lau said. “For example, detecting your behavior based on what you're doing and being able to react to that. For your smartwatch, in terms of notifications being able to seamlessly appear on the TV or using your smartwatch to also control the smart display or your smartwatch detecting that you've fallen asleep and then also eventually putting your smart display to sleep.”

As to whether anyone outside of India will ever be able to get a OnePlus smart TV, Lau said he has nothing to announce yet, except that there’s “a lot of interest from partners and from carriers.”

Smartwatch confirmed

About that smartwatch Lau officially confirmed is being worked on. A OnePlus smartwatch was in development as far back as 2015, but it was canceled a year later. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Lau said “We had completed the design but we still decided to scrap it. We have to be focused.”

To early OnePlus believers, scrapping the smartwatch was a major disappointment. The Apple Watch had launched in 2015 and Google’s Wear OS (née Android Wear) needed a formidable smartwatch to compete against it. In hindsight, putting the smartwatch on ice was probably the right move. The thermal issues with the OnePlus 2 (caused almost entirely by the poorly designed Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 chip) and the diversion with the budget OnePlus X left the company cratering. Carl Pei has told me in multiple conversations that the subsequent years humbled him and the company. Developing too many products too quickly distracted the company from designing “flagship killer” phones with the best hardware and best software experience.

Also, looking back, it’s now clear that a OnePlus smartwatch probably would have failed. The Wear OS platform was underdeveloped and has basically been left for dead by Google and OEMs. The Apple Watch won and it’s unlikely Google can catch up even with its acquisition and likely integration of Fitbit. So why is OnePlus getting into the smartwatch game especially when Wear OS — to put it bluntly — sucks? Your guess is as good as mine.

While Lau wouldn’t say why the company’s smartwatch is back on again — maybe it has to do with the connectivity with OnePlus smart TVs — he did share insight that the company is working with Google to improve the value of a smartwatch.

“Wear OS definitely has room to improve,” Lau said. “What we're trying to do is work with Google to try to improve the connectivity between the Wear OS ecosystem, Android TV, and Android smartphones to create this ability for better device interoperability across the ecosystems. This has been something looked at very positively from Google's side as well, so this is the direction that we're trying to develop, but we don't have more than we can share on that right now.”

Take that for what you will. I think it’s interesting that Lau comments about smartwatches didn’t once involve fitness, which is now the Apple Watch’s main selling point. Of course, it’s entirely possible that fitness is core to the OnePlus smartwatch and Lau’s just holding any information close to his chest. Regardless, a OnePlus smartwatch is coming and probably in 2021. If not, you can bet good money OnePlus fans don’t appreciate the teasing.

Betters cameras in more phones

The OnePlus 8 Pro had one of the best camera systems on any 2020 Android phone. Evan Rodgers / Input

OnePlus knocked the 8 Pro out of the park. Not only is it one of the nicest Android phones in terms of build quality and performance, but the triple-camera system is finally flagship-level. For a phone that starts at $800, anything less would have been insulting.

All OnePlus phones deserve a camera system that’s at least as good. But for some reason, the cameras on OnePlus’s more affordable phones like the 8T and the Nord are noticeably worse when it comes to image quality. I grilled Lau on whether we can expect future OnePlus phones to have cameras that are as good as the 8 Pros. I’m not totally satisfied with his response.

“We've always had a focus on driving more and more investment and resources into photography and computational photography, and in the future, this will only be further increased,” Lau said. “We're looking at improving camera photography with a bigger focus on software and hardware, and this not only improving the offering on the flagship series but also on the Nord series in the future.”

Lau didn’t outright say it, but it sounds to me like we’re going to continue to see a gap in image quality across OnePlus phones.

“If we look at the flagships, for example, this year you have a larger sensor. On the 8 Pro in particular, you have a custom sensor that was developed for the device, and that helps enable these results to be particularly good from this device. That's a direction that we want to continue going forward in our offerings, so we will continue to focus on pushing the limits of what's possible.”

Not ready for foldables

OnePlus thinks the software for foldables needs to get way better before it makes a foldable device.Raymond Wong / Input

Even with the pandemic raging and consumers tightening on spending, OEMs carried on with new foldable launches. Samsung gave us the Galaxy Z Flip and the much-improved Z Fold 2. Both still cost way too much money for experimental technology. Motorola pushed out two forgettable Razrs, both of which had janky and fragile foldable displays. And Microsoft took a different approach with dual screens and a buttery smooth hinge with the Surface Duo.

Is OnePlus going to jump on the foldables wagon? Don’t count on it. Following CES 2020 (it’s crazy that we’re coming up on CES 2021!), Lau shared his disapproval of creases on foldable displays. "Only when the technology is able to get to the level where that fold can be really crisp and not impact the screen at where the fold happens is when it could be potentially usable or potentially applicable.”

Lau’s view on foldables hasn’t changed. This time, he slammed the software (both Android and apps) for showcasing the value of foldables. “One of the biggest issues you see now is the ability to have applications and the overall OS applied to leverage that larger screen, and have the larger screen be of really great use to users.”

He’s got a point. As improved as the hardware on the Z Fold 2 is and as sleek as the Surface Duo is, the software on both are completely mixed bag. There’s no standardization for how apps should work in split-screen or fullscreen modes and many apps aren’t optimized at all non-common aspect ratios.

“We are keeping a close eye on the status of the overall [foldables] industry and applications and the ability for the larger screen space to be leveraged and see that as a key determining factor for consideration of future foldable devices.”

Translation: Unless display creases completely disappear and more apps are optimized for foldables, OnePlus isn’t going to dive in on what may amount to be a gimmick.

Industrial design

Raymond Wong / Input

All phones now look the same. This is par for the course considering smartphones are now a mature product. But design still matters. It’s what users see first and it’s the most direct comparison between old and new. That’s why something as simple as Apple going back to flat edges for the iPhone 12s (old as it may be) is a boon for sales. And why Samsung’s reportedly planning to overhaul the backside for its upcoming Galaxy S21.

OnePlus started off with some pretty unique design elements with materials like sandstone, an Alert Slider, and distinct curves and tapers that differentiated its phones from a Samsung or iPhone. But as OnePlus grew, its phones designs became less memorable. People noticed new OnePlus phones were really more like tweaked Oppo phones. To be fair, OnePlus’s parent company is BBK Electronics, the Chinese multinational conglomerate that also owns Oppo, Vivo, and Realme, so there's bound to be shared similarities. However, OnePlus maintains that it only shares supply chains with Oppo and that its designs are wholly original creations.

OnePlus can spin it however it wants, but phones like the Nord N10 5G and N100 and 8T sure resemble Samsung phones and the zillion other Android phones that came out this year. I’m talking glass-and-metal sandwiches with hole punches and massive rectangular camera bumps positioned in the upper left corner on the rear. Where is the originality? At least with the Nord — a project lead by Pei — the oblong camera module was intentional to “really remind people of a OnePlus phone.

As a design junkie, I’m very concerned mass production has taken priority over original industrial design. When I asked Lau why the 8T looked like a very generic Android phone, he gave a technical answer.

“In the case of the 8T and it's camera module placement, this is a change that's due to internal components, updates, as well as antenna locations,” Lau said. “It being more optimized with that upper left location on the device. So that drove that decision more than anything.”

Fair. But there is a way to arrange the hardware in such a way that performance isn’t affected by design. OnePlus already did it with the unbelievably cool Cyberpunk 2077 8T edition. That phone’s got a camera bump that spreads wider, but the finish, textures, colors, and software themes and sounds combine together to make it arguably the freshest phone released this year.

U.S. Cyberpunk phone?

Raymond Wong / Input

Speaking of the Cyberpunk 2077 phone, you know I had to ask Lau if it’d ever release outside of China.

“We're continuing our discussions with the CDProjekt Red team,” Lau said. “Everybody's been super excited by the results seen so far, and the launch of the limited edition has been seen as a great start so we're looking at what might be possible going forward into next year.”

That reads to me like not a yes, but also not a no. Make it happen Lau. Make it happen. Because that phone rules.