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OnePlus launched a flagship phone in a pandemic. Here's how it did it, and why

OnePlus felt it needed to follow through with the launch because technology -- and staying connected -- are more important than ever.

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Ryan Fenwick, head of PR for OnePlus, handled the presentation of the OnePlus 8 series. 

Screenshot by Roger Cheng/CNET

With nearly 2.6 million cases and 180,000 deaths stemming from the novel coronavirus; millions of people around the world locked down in homes; mass gatherings canceled; and a global recession almost certain to happen, it feels like an awkward time to launch a new consumer electronics product. But for upstart smartphone maker OnePlus, it felt more important than ever to go ahead with the launch of its flagship OnePlus 8 series.

In normal times, the $699 OnePlus 8 and $899 OnePlus 8 Pro, which debuted last week, would've capped off the transformation of the 7-year-old Chinese company. What began as a startup beloved by hard-core Android fanboys has matured into a player ready to appeal to mainstream consumers, thanks to its first-ever backing by two major US carriers, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile. OnePlus had planned a massive physical keynote event in New York, complete with one of its trademark after-parties in the evening.

But of course, these aren't normal times. Instead, OnePlus held a livestreamed virtual launch, piecing together the hour-long event with elements from different parts of the world. The main keynote presentation was produced out of the company's hometown of Shenzhen, China, and Hong Kong, with other elements coming out of Europe and interviews with partners in the US. 

The scramble to put on the show and the decision to launch the product in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the fine line companies need to walk as they attempt to operate with a semblance of normalcy without seeming insensitive to the situation. Contrast OnePlus' virtual launch with the announcement of Apple's iPhone SE just a day later, which came via a press release and a small media briefing. But both launches have embraced the theme that in these socially distant times, staying connected is more important than ever. 

"The one thing we've heard from our users is they're still interested in new technology," OnePlus Chief Marketing Officer Kyle Kiang said in an interview Monday. "We've heard an outpouring of support and interest in terms of the new products."  

OnePlus' launch comes after a similar virtual presentation last month by Huawei for its P40 series of smartphones, and an earlier lower key announcement by HMD Global, which makes Nokia-branded smartphones. Samsung, the world's largest smartphone maker, launched its Galaxy S20 line in February, ahead of the global outbreak of the coronavirus

OnePlus didn't consider scrapping or significantly delaying the launch. Ahead of the reveal, CEO Pete Lau tweeted that the company had already delayed the launch of the OnePlus 8 three times. OnePlus, which according to Counterpoint Research ranked No. 8 in the US market, with a 0.6% share, is best known for cramming high-end components into affordable phones, though the $699 starting price of the newest phone represents its highest price yet. 

Still, that hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of its most loyal fans. 

"Now we must move forward," Lau tweeted. "Soon we'll bring you the products we've worked so hard to develop."

Scaled down launch

OnePlus initially hoped to stage a massive event in Manhattan, hosting up to 3,000 attendees including media, analysts and members of the OnePlus community -- committed fans who regularly communicate with the company about the direction of future products. OnePlus also planned an evening party following the event, tentatively set for Brooklyn. As of late February, those plans were still on the books. 

But a lot's changed since those plans were being made, especially in New York. The city has become the epicenter of the coronavirus in the US and as of Tuesday has reported nearly 135,000 infections and seen more than 10,000 deaths

As a result, Kiang said the company opted for a much smaller-scale event. OnePlus modified the beginning of the presentation to address the pandemic. It featured guests like Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon and T-Mobile devices executive Chris Belter, who participated remotely over video from their respective homes.  

Though the presentation kept the same slick quality and visuals, it was clear something was different. There was just one main speaker, Ryan Fenwick, head of global corporate public relations, with Lau popping up in a remotely shot video segment. There was, of course, no audience, so there was no need for the usual pause for applause.

In terms of whether OnePlus could even have a supply of its phones available for customers, the company had been keeping  a close eye on the coronavirus when the outbreak was still largely just a problem in China, since OnePlus has most of its manufacturing capabilities in that part of the world. But Kiang said the company, which is part of a larger conglomerate called BKK Electronics that also owns fellow phone makers Vivo and Oppo, had worked to diversify its manufacturing elsewhere, including in India. 

"We've obviously been looking at it," Kiang said. "We were able to make adjustments and we'll be able to launch the product in the current time frame despite that."

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OnePlus, which normally holds two big phone launches a year, hasn't made a decision about plans for the second half, Kiang added. 

Kiang also declined to predict how the pandemic and lockdown would affect sales of the OnePlus 8 and OnePlus 8 Pro. But it's clear there'll be an impact. One of the reasons you align yourself with a carrier partner, particularly with a first-time alliance with Verizon, the largest carrier in the US, is to get into physical retail stores, where many Americans still shop for phones. But OnePlus loses out on any benefits from the arrangement at a time when consumers are staying home and stores are shut down. 

Verizon's head of devices, Brian Higgins, said in an interview ahead of the launch that he's counting on OnePlus' online community of fans to drive sales. Verizon would support the OnePlus 8 with a digital marketing campaign. 

Kiang said more people are interested in learning about devices online, and he hopes more customers will look to purchase a phone online rather than rely on the traditional physical retail route. Especially since we're now living in a radically different world. 

"But I think the appetite for new technology hasn't changed," Kiang said. 

That price

OnePlus tore onto the smartphone scene five years ago with the original OnePlus One, which retailed for $299 and offered the same specs as many top-tier flagship phones. Throw in the relatively clean Android interface, and a lot of fanboys jumped at the chance to own the phone. 

Now it's 2020, and the OnePlus 8 starts at $699, more than double the price of the original and the same price as an iPhone 11. It's a long way from that budget phone with amazing specs. 

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The OnePlus 8 features a new color called Interstellar Glow. But is the phone worth the extra money?

Angela Lang/CNET

"OnePlus customers have very fond memories of the early products, and they were disruptive from a pricing standpoint, definitely," Kiang said. "That hasn't actually changed. When you kind of step back and look, our goal all along was to make the best devices with the best user experience and best performance."

The big jump in pricing for its phones comes with new value, the company said. OnePlus added new features, including 5G on all models and a faster form of wireless charging (in the even pricier $899 OnePlus 8 Pro).

"You look at what it's competing against, and it's still pretty strong," Kiang said. "It still represents a disrupter price point compared to everything else that's out there."