OnePlus, an upstart Chinese smartphone maker that caters to hardcore, savvy Android consumers, has spent years building up its credibility in the US. A year and a half ago, it planted its flag here through a partnership with T-Mobile. But on Tuesday, the company solidifies its position here by bringing the 5G UW, its fastest 5G phone ever, to Verizon Wireless, the nation's largest carrier.
But with aand most Verizon Wireless stores temporarily closed in an effort to halt the spread of the novel , this launch comes at an awkward time.
While the main benefit of a partnership with a big carrier is a spot in retail stores, where a majority of Americans still purchase their phones, Verizon will instead be relying on OnePlus' community of dedicated fans, most of whom are comfortable buying their phones online sight unseen.
It's a twist on the usual handset-carrier relationship, underscoring the surreal times we live in. Verizon gets a digitally savvy partner with a loyal base of customers, as well as the opportunity to pad out its 5G portfolio with a phone that costs $800. OnePlus, meanwhile, taps a much larger base of US consumers than ever before and sets itself up for the next few years with a major partner. Verizon, alongside a new retail partnership with Amazon, boosts its prospects of going mainstream.
"Our users have been hoping for this for a long time, so we're very happy that OnePlus is finally coming to the Verizon network," Pete Lau, the phone maker's CEO, said in an email interview ahead of the launch. "This is one of the most important developments in the history of OnePlus."
True to Lau's previous boast to CNET that the company will be "all in on 5G" going forward, the OnePlus 8 5G UW will support Verizon's ultra-fast variant of 5G, which it calls Ultra Wideband. (Confused by the 5G names? Here's a breakdown of all the different monikers.) The phone will also support the slower, but broader-covering variant of 5G when it launches in the second half. But Verizon gets to boast that it'll have the fastest version of the OnePlus 8 in terms of network speeds.
Verizon's 5G network is live in parts of over 30 cities around the US as well as in over a dozen stadiums. While offering significantly faster speeds compared to the lower band 5G networks from AT&T and T-Mobile, the high frequency nature of millimeter-wave means it only works outdoors and coverage is often limited to just a few blocks.
"Even though it's a slightly higher price for the device, given the technology and how you're future-proofing yourself for new capabilities that are coming out on our network, specifically for 5G, I still think it ends up being a good value proposition for the customer," Brian Higgins, head of device and consumer products at Verizon Wireless, said in an exclusive interview ahead of the launch.
More affordable 5G
When Lau hinted to CNET in an interview at CES 2018 that he would be talking to US carriers, he undersold just how quickly that would happen. Lau and Higgins met at that show and began a courtship that culminated in Tuesday's launch.
"What I walked away from was, here was someone very design and product focused," Higgins said of his initial meeting with Lau. "He wanted to build a beautiful device.
Lau said that OnePlus' "slow and steady growth plan for creating only high-quality, high-performing products for tech-savvy users" has been both a key to its success and why its partners value the company.
There were hints that a deal was coming. Previous OnePlus phones like the OnePlus 6T, 7 Pro and 7T supported Verizon but those looking to use the phones needed to buy them unlocked from OnePlus' website. The Chinese smartphone maker has previously sold phones at T-Mobile and Sprint (which are now combined).
But Lau said that as the company was deciding where to put its resources, Verizon made a lot of sense because of its ambitious plans for 5G.
As for why Verizon opted to just sell the $800 OnePlus 8 5G UW rather than the higher-end, it came down to cost.
"The version we are carrying offers a great balance of flagship features at a more affordable price point," Higgins said.
"OnePlus has an advantage of being high-end with aggressive pricing that could bridge mid-tier and high-end offerings," said Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi.
Launching in a pandemic
Holding the launch of a pricey new flagship smartphone during a pandemic risks the perception that your company is tone deaf or insensitive to the harsh situation, one in which millions of people around the world are confined to their homes, and millions more are losing their jobs ahead of an expected global recession. Covering one of these launches can be a surreal experience, as CNET reporter Katie Collins has noted.
Last month, Lau attempted to address the concerns with a series of tweets, noting that the company delayed the launch three times, but ultimately needed to proceed with business.
"Now, we must move forward," he tweeted. "Soon we'll bring you the products we've worked so hard to develop."
Lau followed up in the email interview. "It is important to us to continue delivering a seamless OnePlus experience to our users while never compromising the health and wellbeing of our team or our customers," he said, noting that the company's product road map remains unchanged.
But the timing raises questions over whether anyone will show up to buy the phone, and whether Verizon's backing will actually give it the same boost that T-Mobile provided in 2018.
OnePlus already has a rabid following. Hundreds of eager fans descended on T-Mobile's flagship Times Square store in 2018 following the launch of the 6T, the first phone it released with the carrier.
"The advantage OnePlus has is that their target market is pretty comfortable buying online as they are very familiar with their value proposition," Milanesi said.
While stores are out, handset makers tend to also benefit from advertising support from their more deep-pocketed carrier partners. Higgins said not to expect a big TV campaign from Verizon, since most of their ads are focused on supporting consumers during this crisis. Instead, he hinted at a "broader approach" that included more digital and social promotion.
Lau, meanwhile, teased a "number of updated after-sales policies that we hope will keep them better connected in these difficult times," without going into specifics.
That approach will tap into the OnePlus community, which the phone maker has fostered through open and direct communication. The feedback from the community is often what shapes its devices. It's what Higgins said was one of the main reasons Verizon was attracted to OnePlus.
"That one-to-one aspect was really interesting to us," Higgins said. "It's one of the reasons why they've done so well."