Can OnePlus appeal to more than just Android fanboys?

The phone maker's growth has exploded thanks to word of mouth. But the CEO hopes to win you over to the OnePlus 5T, even if you're not a hardcore fan.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
5 min read
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Chances are, you've probably never heard of OnePlus. But ask an Android aficionado and you'll likely get a smile.

That's because  OnePlus  has spent the last three years creating a company almost exclusively catering to savvy and hardcore Android users. It's done so by packing premium features and specifications into smartphones that are significantly cheaper than traditional flagship offerings from the likes of Apple or Samsung. Its latest phone is the OnePlus 5T.


OnePlus CEO Pete Lau explains how he will eventually win you over. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

OnePlus, owned by Chinese phone giant Oppo, is a rare example of a company making headway directly with consumers, fostered in part by a thriving and active online community that offers feedback on future products. That's particularly impressive in US, where other direct-to-consumer efforts have struggled and most Americans buy phones from their wireless carriers.

"OnePlus is an enthusiast brand, and that is not a bad thing," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Global Data.

But there are signs that OnePlus wants to be more than just a niche player. The company last week held its first phone launch event, inviting media and more than 350 fans to a warehouse venue in Brooklyn -- a signal that it hungers for a larger presence in the mobile world.

Watch this: OnePlus 5T equals a few key upgrades

Co-founder Carl Pei made his ambitions known near the end of the hour-long presentation.

"One day in the future, you will hopefully see OnePlus devices all around you, maybe even used by people who have no idea about technology," he said.

OnePlus has a long a way to go before that scenario becomes plausible. Its word-of-mouth strategy has been great for cultivating a base of savvy customers, but that also means it flies under the radar for most people. Since it sells directly to customers, it gets little carrier support. The price of the OnePlus 5T has edged up to $499, or nearly twice the price of the original OnePlus One's $299 starting cost.

OnePlus isn't looking to go on a marketing blitz, and co-founder and CEO Pete Lau said he would continue to focus on word of mouth as its primary growth driver.

But the company knows it needs to build a presence, and the normally media-shy Lau sat down for an interview on Thursday to discuss how he may eventually win you over. Lau spoke in Chinese, with Pei translating his comments.

On that price

OnePlus played the expectations game leading into the unveiling of the OnePlus 5T, letting speculation of a price tag of $600 run rampant on Twitter before confirming it would start at $499 ($559 for a 128 gigabyte model).

The price of OnePlus phones has gone steadily higher as the company has added more features -- the OnePlus 5T offers a bigger display and a facial recognition system -- and the products are a long way from the original's slam-dunk price of $299. At the same time, phones from more recognizable names like LG and Motorola are starting to become more affordable.

OnePlus 5T: Bigger screen, same design

See all photos

"OnePlus still offers solid value relative to even more expensive flagships, but high prices expose it to new competition and could limit its base further," Greengart said. 

But Lau believes the OnePlus 5T offers a product that is superior to ones that are significantly more expensive and consumers will eventually smarten up about it.

"We think about it in simple terms," he said. "It's a good product at a fair price."

OnePlus comes up with the concept of the phone first, before thinking about price, Lau said. That's the opposite of most manufacturers, which target a price and build their phones accordingly.

Privacy concerns

In a bit of awkward timing, reports cropped up days before the launch that OnePlus phones contain software called "EngineerMode" that potentially allowed hackers to access the device. The company explained that the software was a diagnostic tool, and that someone needed to physically get a hold of your device to take control. But the company ended up stripping out a core part of the EngineerMode feature -- the one allowing for root access -- anyway.

The OnePlus 5T offers a few minor upgrades to the OnePlus 5. 


OnePlus executives didn't address it during the launch, but Lau discussed the controversy in the interview. He acknowledged that there was a misunderstanding in communication and the company never intended to invade its users' privacy.

Lau also chalked it up to cultural differences. In markets such as China, the notion of privacy isn't as worrisome as it is in Western markets, and the company said it didn't know it needed to disclose this kind of access to consumers.

For 2018, OnePlus plans to focus on making sure it understands the standards and demands of each region, he said.

Lau noted that when OnePlus explained the issue to the company's online community, the reaction was positive. But while the hardcore OnePlus fans may rally around the company, the concerns may linger to more casual customers just learning about the brand.

"It's enough for them to be at least a little wary," said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC.

Don't count on a Verizon OnePlus

OnePlus phones are sold unlocked, so they only work in the US on the AT&T and T-Mobile network. The company has no plans to build a version that works for Verizon or Sprint because of the resources required to build a device that would run on their CDMA standard.

Lau noted that the Verizon certification process is the most difficult one, and OnePlus doesn't have the bandwidth for the carrier. The company would have to raise its prices to support different networks, which it's reluctant to do.

OnePlus does partner with some European carriers, including Finland's Elisa, but that was largely to get its phones into a retail store. The company does plan on hosting more pop-up stores and meetups in the US, but not necessarily to promote the OnePlus 5T, Lau said.

Still, Lau understands the importance of US carriers and hopes the word-of-mouth popularity of OnePlus spurs the carriers to seek the company. He kept the door open to a partnership down the line.

"It's not out of the question," he said. 

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