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OnePlus: Here's why the notch isn't going away anytime soon

In an exclusive interview, co-founder Carl Pei talks about the new OnePlus 6, the future of the company and controversies like its credit card breach.

Josh Miller/CNET

With sunlight pouring in from a giant sliding door in a suite at Palo Alto, Calif.'s luxury Nobu hotel, Carl Pei sits on a firm grey couch. It's early April and he has a lot on his plate. The company he helped co-found is a month away from announcing the new OnePlus 6 in London. On top of that, nearly a week ago, he caught flak on -- where else? -- Twitter for a tweet.

In an attempt to pre-empt the criticism OnePlus would catch for adding an iPhone X-style notch on its new flagship, Pei wrote, "Learn to love the notch" with a winking emoji. Soon after, he received backlash for its perceived dismissive and condescending tone.

"People didn't understand what I meant and they were quite upset," he said. "That's why I deleted it."

Because the notch can be turned off with a software update, OnePlus fans won't have to gripe too much about it. But his comments are noteworthy because the notch is the most obvious change in the latest flagship phone from a company that breaks the tradition of working with retail distributors and wireless carriers.

OnePlus instead excels at building up its own hype with an active presence on social media and Reddit. It also collaborates with famous French designers, releases limited-edition colors at low inventory and sets up pop-ups with trendy retailers such as Hypebeast and Colette, the iconic streetwear store in Paris. Oftentimes, it's as if each new OnePlus phone launch has the same buildup as the next big underground sneaker drop.

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Carl Pei holding the OnePlus 6

Josh Miller/CNET

Founded in 2013 when Pei was 24, OnePlus is known for high-end phones packed with the latest hardware and priced more affordably than top-tier alternatives like the Apple iPhone, Samsung Galaxy and Google Pixel phones. Alongside Oppo and Vivo, it's one of three phone makers owned by the Chinese corporation, BKK Electronics.

With no US carrier distribution for now and a US market share of only 0.4 percent of phones shipped according to the industry analysis company IDC, OnePlus is mostly known among Android enthusiasts. In its early years, word-of-mouth, super low prices (the first One started at $299, or about £180 and AU$320), and controversial promo campaigns helped the company garner a grassroots fanbase made up of passionate loyalists.

But this "cool" factor OnePlus gained in a short amount of time isn't immune to judgement. Bad tweets notwithstanding, its phones have been accused of looking too uncannily similar to its fellow BKK subsidiary Oppo (compare the OnePlus 5 and Oppo R11, for instance).

In June 2017, XDA Developers reported that the OnePlus 5 skewed benchmark scores -- a practice not entirely unusual among phone companies. Later that October, the company was found to be collecting an inordinate amount of user data. That was all topped off in January 2018, when the company confirmed that up to 40,000 OnePlus customers had their credit card information exposed due to a November hack.

But these setbacks don't deter Pei. And with the launch set for May 16, the only thing left to do is hope that the risks the company took with the OnePlus 6 will work in its favor instead of against it.

Like it or not, the notch is here

Engraved on the back of the OnePlus 6 is something that hasn't been seen since the first OnePlus One phone in 2014. It's a simple, short descriptor that reads "Designed by OnePlus." But it shows how proud Pei and the design team is, with Pei even proclaiming the OnePlus 6 as the company's "boldest design."

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That's not exactly surprising for a co-founder of a company to say. But the OnePlus 6 does look different than past years because of the black notch that sits above the phone's display. A point of contention among phone users, the notch was first implemented by The Essential Phone and the Sharp Aquos S2, but it was the Apple iPhone X popularized the feature. Other Android phones like the Asus Zenfone 5, Huawei P20 and LG G7 have it too.

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The notch on the OnePlus 6.

Josh Miller/CNET

For Pei, the notch was a practical choice -- one that may be interim but benefits the user nonetheless. It's a kind of compromise that gives a smidge more screen real estate without increasing the overall size of the phone. And if you can't stand the notch, a software update will let you can black out the rest of the top of the screen for a more traditional look.

Until a more elegant solution presents itself, Pei believes this is where the industry is heading, with or without user approval.

"My intention was just to tell them that this is the overall trend," he said. "It's going to happen… but I guess people didn't really understand it that way."

OnePlus 6's design: Not so black and white

To consumers, especially those who aren't privy to the design process of phones, most devices can't help but look the same. This is particularly true for the front of phones, and it's a reason why companies concentrate on the backside to differentiate themselves. 

For instance, OnePlus is introducing a white and rose gold OnePlus 6 variant that has crushed pearls mixed into one of its five glass layers. And its two black models each have a subtle design detail in addition to their different finishes.

For the glossy Mirror Black version, there's a barely-there, almost imperceptible drop shadow on the OnePlus logo. As for the Midnight Black matte phone, Pei says that "this design has a secret."

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The white and rose gold OnePlus 6.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

This "secret" is the way the light reflects on the phone in a distinct S-shape. It's no earth shaker, but it's eye-catching when you notice it. Throwing in aesthetic Easter eggs isn't completely unusual with phones. In the original Pixel, the glass shade of the silver and blue color variants are tinted yellow for a multicolored sheen known as a dichroic effect. There was no practical reason for it, as there is no practical reason for this S-shape, but it's the small details industrial designers like to put in.

It's such details in the matte variant that draws Pei in, and it's why he chose that version as his personal phone.

"I'm not the flashy type of person," he said, musing over the Midnight Black model. "But it also has a little bit of attitude in strong light."

OnePlus hack: 'I can never promise that it's not going to happen again'

If you focus on the US, you might think that OnePlus is still a small fry. It's ranked twelfth in phone shipments in the US according to IDC data, which is far behind Apple and Samsung.

But being a high-volume phone maker isn't the company's modus operandi to begin with, and OnePlus considers itself to be doing well in the global sense. Revenue doubled in the last year to 1.4 billion. In the last quarter of 2017, 48 percent of premium Android phones in India (as in, phones that cost more than $400) were OnePlus phones. 

That growth, however, comes with its fair share of problems. 

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Josh Miller/CNET

In November, OnePlus was targeted by "a malicious script" that sniffed out its customers' credit card info, according to OnePlus' statement. A cursory poll initiated by a OnePlus forum user later reported 375 cases of fraudulent charges made after a recent OnePlus transaction.

It took until January for the issue to be brought to OnePlus' attention, and by that time the credit card information of 40,000 customers were already exposed.

Offering its apologies, OnePlus assured users that it moved its payments to a third-party site, conducted an in-depth security audit, set up an advisory panel of outside experts and offered one year of credit monitoring. But Pei acknowledges this can only cover so much.

"We were actually targeted by hackers for the credit card breach," said Pei. "I can never promise that it's not going to happen again."

Months before the hack in October, OnePlus was also caught mining the personal data of its users. Pei defended OnePlus' actions, stating it was to "better understand general phone behavior" and optimize the phone's OS.

But after more user criticism, OnePlus said it would pull back its data collection, allow users to opt out of usage analytics and delete all the data the company had collected before implementing the opt-out feature.

Fast forward to today and Pei assured that user privacy is still a priority, perhaps even more so now that the General Data Protection Regulation will take effect soon. GDPR is a European Union-wide piece of legislation that will be enforced on May 25. It sets stricter security requirements on companies when it comes to data collection and privacy.

"We lost a little bit of trust," said Pei about OnePlus' reputation following the incidents last year. 

No interest in VR or AR

In addition to facing these challenges in one of the most competitive industries, OnePlus has to futureproof its own relevance at the same time. That means parsing through what's real and what's hype.

For instance, Pei believes the phone industry's interest in augmented reality, VR and artificial intelligence technology is overhyped -- at least for now. It also isn't ready to leave the headphone jack behind just yet, though OnePlus launched its first pair of wireless earbuds so the option is available if people want it.

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There are, however, things worth investing in. Pei confirmed OnePlus is setting down roots for 5G technology, for example, and the OnePlus 6 is its first Gigabit LTE capable phone. Qualcomm also included OnePlus as one of its partners to produce some of the first 5G flagship phones for 2019. 

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"Our business model has never changed," said Pei. "We wanted to create the best Android flagship smartphone and sell it at a fair price."

Josh Miller/CNET

In the US, OnePlus is continuing to develop carrier partnerships. Although Pei didn't get into much specifics on that either, he did say "progress is going well."

To break through the phone industry is an arduous task. But to break through and survive five years later is especially impressive. Though it's hard to predict what will happen down the line for any phone company, OnePlus' one-track goal of making one to two affordable but high-performing phones is working in its favor -- much to the surprise of nearly everybody.

Being the top phone company would be the ideal, of course. But neither OnePlus nor Pei is in any rush to try. And just like the hypebeast cool it tries to mirror, the kind of appeal that's effortless, it's not even on Pei's mind to be number one, two or three.

"Being number three is not something we're actually focused on," said Pei. "The reasons why we're able to be successful is because we're so focused on only having one product...OnePlus equals flagships, the best flagships."