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AI-powered cameras will take center stage in next year’s OnePlus phones, CEO Pete Lau said in a wide-ranging interview with a small group of US press.
“One area that I’m tremendously excited about is the improvement in AI capabilities … the improvement in possibilities in photography are massive,” he said. “This is an area we are putting a very big focus on.”
OnePlus had a good 2020, Lau said. With the OnePlus 8 (available at T-Mobile and Verizon), the OnePlus 8T at T-Mobile, and the unlocked OnePlus 8 Pro, the company saw 20% year-on-year growth in the US. Its lower-cost Nord lineup had “tremendous success” in Europe and India, and the company blew through the 100-million-unit mark during the third quarter in India, where OnePlus is particularly popular.
But analyst reports say OnePlus did much better at T-Mobile, where the phone maker has had a relationship since the OnePlus 6T, than at Verizon, which launched its first OnePlus phone just as the pandemic smacked into the US. Wave7 Research, which tracks sales at carrier stories, said in its most recent report that a T-Mobile store reported the 8T “doing well,” but that a Verizon rep said no one has asked about that carrier’s OnePlus 8 in a while.
In our interview, Lau notably called out “our partnership with T-Mobile” but didn’t mention Verizon.
I use the OnePlus 8 Pro as my primary phone, and if I could go back to April, I’d review it even more positively than I did. The screen is terrific, the phone is still very fast, and while I marked it down for not including millimeter-wave 5G on T-Mobile, the carrier has backed away from doing much with millimeter-wave over the past year.
Expect to see next year’s flagship phones continue with the OnePlus 8 Pro’s custom image sensor strategy, Lau said, along with “computational photography, with a bigger focus on software and hardware.”
Although he didn’t say it, this could be a hint that OnePlus will finally catch up on night mode. The most recent advances in night mode, in Apple’s and Google’s cameras, have entirely been computational rather than optical, and OnePlus’s Nightscape feels generations behind.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 888’s integrated form factor, with the modem as part of the main system-on-chip, also presages better battery life for next year’s OnePlus devices, he said.
Rumors are already out about the OnePlus 9, with one supposed leak suggesting an in-display front-facing camera, 12GB of RAM, 256GB storage, and a 120Hz QHD+ screen.
More Phones, TVs, and a Watch
OnePlus used to release one phone at a time, but this year marked a major change in the phone maker’s strategy. Along with three flagships (the OnePlus 8, 8 Pro, and 8T) the company released three similar midrange phones—the Nord, Nord N10 and Nord N100—none of which have come out in the US yet.
The Nord line has been successful in Europe and India, Lau said, and one of them will be coming to the US soon. “Very soon the N10 5G will be entering the US market and I expect it will be the best value, or among the very best value 5G phones in the US market,” he said.
Still, all of those phones, along with a widely panned misstep of preloading Facebook apps onto the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro, made some OnePlus fans wonder if the company is becoming more of an “ordinary” phone maker. OnePlus had decided to optimize the custom Facebook apps to speed them up, and given their popularity decided it was worth preloading them, Lau said. After the backlash, OnePlus decided not to install them on the 8T.
“I think this is a very good reminder of how closely sensitive many of the user community are to any impacts on the experience,” he said. “It’s reemphasizing the importance of communication with users in advance.”
Lau has broader ambitions than phones, but his dreams may be held back by Google’s software. With both the OnePlus TV and the upcoming OnePlus watch (“coming soon,” he said), he expressed some frustration that Google’s Android Wear and Android TV OSes didn’t do quite what he wanted them to do yet. Most specifically, they don’t allow for “seamless” experiences between Android phones, watches, and TVs. As examples, he envisioned notifications appearing on your TV rather than your phone while you’re watching TV, or having your watch detect when you’ve fallen asleep in front of the TV and then turn the TV off.
“From our perspective, we see Wear OS definitely has room to improve,” he said, adding that Google must “improve the connectivity between the Wear OS ecosystem, Android TV, and Android smartphones. With that interconnectivity improvement, we see a possibility of better device interoperability in the future. This is the direction we are trying to develop in.”
OnePlus doesn’t have any news to make yet about releasing the TV in countries other than India, he said. Software also seems to be holding back OnePlus’s advance towards more radical phone form factors, like foldables.
“The biggest issue I see now is the ability to have applications and the overall system apply to leverage that larger screen, and have that larger screen be of really great use,” Lau said.
Aligning With Oppo?
One sign shows that OnePlus may align more closely next year with its sibling companies, Oppo, Vivo, and Realme, under their parent BBK. In September, Lau took a formal position at Oplus, a somewhat-mysterious company with links to Oppo. Lau said OnePlus product development would remain entirely independent, but the Oplus role would help the sibling companies better align their supply chains.
“OnePlus is a completely independent company,” he said.
This was also the first time I talked to Lau since the departure of Carl Pei, OnePlus’s co-founder, who left to start his own venture this fall. The senior of the two, Lau always seemed more guarded than Pei—the intense engineer to Pei’s charming salesman—although it’s hard to unravel that from the fact that Pei speaks fluent English and Lau always works through a translator. Asked about Pei’s departure, Lau said OnePlus would be staying the course, but of course he said that.
“There’s no change in our focus on delivering the best possible products going forward,” he said.
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