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OnePlus CEO: We're going to start talking to US carriers

Scoop: Pete Lau also confirms that the next OnePlus phone will come out toward the end of the second quarter.


The OnePlus 5T in white is a new color variant. 

Juan Garzón / CNET

OnePlus could be inching closer to breaking into the mainstream. 

Pete Lau, chief executive of the niche Chinese phone manufacturer, said the company would begin talks with US carriers this year. 

"If the right opportunity and right timing come along, we'll be very happy to experiment," he said in an interview at the Bellagio outside of CES on Wednesday. He declined to give any specific time frame for when a deal might be struck. (Lau spoke Chinese, and Carl Pei, co-founder and global director, served as the translator.)

While OnePlus is well known among hardcore Android enthusiasts and the technologically savvy, the company has been flying under the radar in the US. A potential deal with a carrier would bring the company a higher-profile distribution partner and potentially supercharge its brand.

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"The big issue is becoming known," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst with Lopez Research.

Still small, OnePlus is riding a lot of momentum. The company saw its OnePlus 5T become its fastest- and best-selling product after its launch in November, according to Pei. The previous best seller? The OnePlus 5, which launched in June.

Lau confirmed that the next OnePlus phone could come late in the second quarter, in line with the OnePlus 5's arrival last year.

The issue of US carrier support was a hot theme at CES this year after China's Huawei failed to announce a widely anticipated deal with AT&T to carry its Mate10 Pro flagship phone. Instead, Huawei will sell it at retailers like Amazon and through its own site. 

That's a problem in the US, with analysts estimating that roughly 85 percent to 90 percent of consumers buy their phones through their carrier.

Lau declined to comment on Huawei.

OnePlus is one company that has succeeded in its digital strategy, largely selling through its website. It only recently began partnering with carriers in Europe and is opening itself to the possibility of a US partner.

Lau said he wasn't 100 percent sure if OnePlus would sell a second phone in 2018, although it has done so in the past two years.

A speedier phone

While Lau wouldn't divulge many details of the upcoming OnePlus phone -- including its name -- he confirmed it would run on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845 processor, the mobile chip unveiled just in December.

"Of course, there's no other choice," Lau said.

The company will follow the expected arrival of Samsung's Galaxy S9, which will likely be the first to use the new processor. 

OnePlus wins praise not just for its ability to look ahead, but also to support older devices. Pei said that the OnePlus 3 and 3T would soon get a beta version of the company's Face Unlock feature, which was introduced in the 5T.

"There's no reason to withhold features we can easily implement," Pei said.

Lau acknowledged the challenge of raising awareness of the brand, although said he hoped to win new business through its reputation. He's also trying to find a way to show consumers about the detail and attention paid to each product.

"A lot of our users don't know about the time and resources spent on a phone," he said.

The latest buzzword

You won't see OnePlus executives touting artificial intelligence -- a tech topic that's dominated CES this year.

"It's become a buzzword," Lau said.

That's not to say OnePlus hasn't already crammed some smarts into its products. It's just that Lau or Pei likely won't hawk AI in any big way. Likewise, the company is experimenting with ways to help its fans spread the word.

"The only thing we can do now is to keep a humble approach," Lau said.

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