Note: The article was first published on TechNode China written by Evan Huang.
On Dec. 5, 2023, Pete Lau, the founder of OnePlus (now Senior Vice President at Oppo), held a press conference to mark the Chinese mobile phone brand’s tenth anniversary where he answered a series of screened questions from netizens, posted on the social media platform Weibo. These questions led Lau to offer a retrospective on OnePlus’s entrepreneurial history, discuss its brand positioning, and evaluate some of its classic products from the last decade.
OnePlus was founded on Dec. 17, 2013, and released its first product, the OnePlus One, in Beijing five months later. Time magazine later praised the phone as a “Phone of Dreams” in an article that made OnePlus the first Chinese smartphone brand to be reviewed by the outlet. Yet in recent years the brand has struggled to differentiate itself from Oppo, with whom it shares a large amount of investment, leading to several restructurings in the relationship between the two firms.
Understandably, the tenth anniversary milestone found Lau in a reflective mood, but he also laid out some of his ambitions for the brand’s future and repeatedly emphasized that OnePlus’ has its place in a crowded mobile phone market.
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One area in which Lau feels the brand has excelled – and differentiated itself – in the last ten years is in the materials it has used.
As early as 2014, with the OnePlus One, OnePlus introduced two innovative materials: “baby skin” and bamboo. The baby skin white variant, featured a three-layer evenly brushed back cover, with a delicate and smooth texture due to its spray-on material extracted from natural cashew nuts that didn’t retain sweat stains. The bamboo version, using the grass as its back cover material, provided a warm and smooth feel.
With the OnePlus 3 series protective cases, OnePlus introduced another new material: ebony wood. This is a scarce wood with a tight structure, hardness, and corrosion resistance, showcasing distinct wood grains.
With the OnePlus 5T, OnePlus once again challenged traditional material usage and craftsmanship modes, using a new spray-on material and process on the white back cover. Through four new high-precision spray processes, sandstone white and metal materials were organically fused to provide outstanding tactility.
AG glass, widely used in current phones, gained its popularity from OnePlus. On the OnePlus 6T, AG etching was used to create AG glass, providing an impressive matte feel. Today, OnePlus has adopted the fifth-generation AG glass technology, achieving a haze of the glass surface to 72%, and delivering a matte texture resistant to fingerprints and sweat stains.
OnePlus’ pursuit of material innovation extends beyond this. In the spring of this year, OnePlus launched the OnePlus 11 Jupiter Rock Limited Edition, using 3D microcrystalline rock, a material that has never been used before in the industry.
OS issues: From independence to adoption
OnePlus phones were originally equipped with an in-house developed operating system, HydrogenOS. HydrogenOS was known for its simplicity. The “smoothness” of HydrogenOS was highly praised by many early users and was considered a competitive advantage for OnePlus.
As other domestic smartphone systems became more localized, however, HydrogenOS, which leant more towards Android systems, began to see that competitive advantage significantly reduced.
ColorOS, developed by Oppo, is a more comprehensive operating system compared to HydrogenOS, offering rich and stable functionality. Therefore, with the OnePlus 9 series in 2021, OnePlus directly adopted ColorOS, aiming to gradually replace its HydrogenOS with a higher caliber system. On Nov. 13, Oppo announced that ColorOS’s global monthly active users exceeded 600 million.
The recently released OnePlus 12 comes equipped with ColorOS 14, debuting the all-new AndesGPT model and integrating deeply with the PANTANAL system to break down barriers between data and services.
OnePlus and Oppo integration
Due to Pete Lau’s connections with Oppo, OnePlus has always had a close relationship with the mobile phone giant. In 2021, OnePlus and Oppo fully integrated, with the former becoming an independent sub-brand under Oppo.
Lau has always been keen to emphasize that OnePlus and Oppo are two completely independent companies, with overlapping relationships only in terms of investment. However, OnePlus has benefited from the support and resources provided by Oppo in areas such as product development, technology, supply chain, and channels. To seize new opportunities and promote the healthy and long-term growth of OnePlus, collaboration with Oppo is needed to enhance the former company’s brand strength, while also bringing positive synergies to both sides, Lau said.
In recent years, OnePlus has opened up a new Ace series product line, as part of an attempt to differentiate its brand from Oppo. The Ace series is intended to enable more people to gain access to what Lau terms “premium flagship” products but with lower price points.
After the release of the Ace series, OnePlus achieved a year-on-year growth of 9.6% in total domestic sales in the third quarter of last year, with a month-on-month growth of 44.3%. In the first half of 2023, OnePlus’ smartphone sales increased by 335% year-on-year, making it the fastest-growing mobile phone brand in the industry during the same period. Therefore, Lau jokingly remarked that competitors should be grateful that OnePlus has yet to venture into products priced below RMB 2,000.
At the OnePlus tenth anniversary event, Lau repeatedly emphasized the mantra of “making good products”. Yet he also stressed that for OnePlus, this philosophy doesn’t mean that they excessively emphasize the differences between countries. Whether in design style or product experience, there is no deliberate effort to create different products based on regional distinctions. He believes that “internationalization is a false proposition.” Truly good products are universal and have no borders, he said – as long as the product is good enough, it will be accepted by users both domestically and internationally.
Looking back over the past decade, Lau admitted that OnePlus has many dreams yet to be realized. In the future, Lau said, the company will continue to persist in making good products, continually pursue higher performance, and bring users more quality products and experiences.