Inside Pete Lau’s audacious plan to rule India’s Android market with the OnePlus 3

Pranav Dixit June 14, 2016 15 min

It’s 10 am on a Monday morning in May and Pete Lau, the 41-year-old CEO of OnePlus, is huddled with his core team in a conference room at the company’s Shenzhen headquarters, chalking out the day’s plan.

Eight hundred kilometres away in the company’s research and development centre in Taipei, software head Derek Lin is anchoring a standup meeting with a dozen people from the OnePlus engineering team.

At the OnePlus India office in Bengaluru, general manager Vikas Agarwal is dividing up the week’s tasks at a midday meeting among a young team of 20-somethings.

It’s less than a month to go before the OnePlus 3, the company’s third flagship smartphone, launches in more than 30 countries, and it’s crunch time. Lau is pulling 14-hour work days, breathing down the necks of dozens of product managers, and occasionally popping into marketing meetings. Lin shuttles between the company’s 200 software engineers fielding queries, writing code, and sitting through endless review meetings. Agarwal spends all day working the phone and blasting out emails, alternating between talking to Amazon, OnePlus’ official e-commerce partner in India, and Ameya Khullar, the company’s community manager who is charting out several dozen OnePlus fan meet-ups across the country over the next few months.

It’s a gruelling schedule. A OnePlus India employee evokes Rihanna and posts “work work work work #killer #neverending” on her Facebook wall. Someone complains of exhaustion after sending 250 emails in a single day.

In India, a country where dozens of smartphone makers pump out hundreds of models each year to claw a share of the massive market, OnePlus does the opposite: it only releases one flagship smartphone a year. Nothing more. Nothing less.

A OnePlus India employee evokes Rihanna and posts “work work work work #killer #neverending” on her Facebook wall. Someone complains of exhaustion after sending 250 emails in a single day.

Its first phone, the goofily-named OnePlus One, was 2014’s surprise hit, and the company, co-founded by Pete Lau and Carl Pei, both former employees of Chinese electronics manufacturer Oppo, rode the wave to launch the OnePlus 2 a year later. The reason why OnePlus shot to fame was simple: the company offered premium hardware – the latest processor, multiple gigabytes of RAM, 64 GB storage, and the kitchen sink – for less than half the price of Apple’s and Samsung’s flagships. The fact that you needed a hard-to-come-by invitation for the privilege of handing over your money only added to the exclusivity factor.

OnePlus CEO Pete Lau says he wasn't born a product designer, but learnt to love it slowly over time until it consumed him entirely.
OnePlus CEO Pete Lau says he wasn’t born a product designer, but learnt to love it slowly over time until it consumed him entirely.

The result is that OnePlus now has a frenzied following, which most two and a half-year-old startups would kill to have. Months before the marketing machine for the OnePlus 3 kicked in, the Indian tech press was flooded with “leaks” that were nearly Apple-like in their breathlessness. OnePlus confirmed nothing, but neither did it deny it. When your marketing budgets are a fraction of Samsung’s and Micromax’s, you use all the free publicity you get.

All that ends today. The OnePlus 3, in all its glitzy glory, is finally available on Amazon for Rs. 27,999, and, if you like, you can head over right now and add it to your cart, no invitation necessary.

The OnePlus One sold over 1.5 million units around the world. That’s an incredible achievement for a company that came out of nowhere. It launched in India in December 2014 after someone at OnePlus realised that smartphone enthusiasts in the country were raving about it without ever having seen it, and now counts India in its top three markets alongside the US and Europe.

“I’m not nervous,” says Agarwal. “Although I am a little anxious.”

Each year, OnePlus gets one shot to prove itself. Now, the future of the company rides on the OnePlus 3, a slab of glass and metal that Agarwal and Lau are counting on you to fall in love with.

Work on the OnePlus 3 started over 10 months ago, right after the launch of the OnePlus 2. “When we are thinking about a new product, we don’t really think of a list of specific things to improve upon from the previous product,” says Lau. He’s speaking over Skype from the OnePlus office in Shenzhen, flanked on both sides by OnePlus PR and marketing people. A translator in the Bengaluru office somehow transforms Lau’s lengthy Mandarin monologues into pithy English sentences.  “Instead, we concentrate on broad focus points we want to work on for the next release.”

Lau says that for the OnePlus 3, those focus points for the hardware were the design, the camera, and how fast the battery charged.

Software head Derek Lin said that his focus points for the software were the stability of the operating system, performance, and fixing how warm the phone got.

Neetika Sinha, an engineering student in Delhi who bought both the OnePlus One and the OnePlus 2, says that the focus points for the OnePlus 3 better be all those things – and more – if OnePlus wants her to buy its latest device.

“The OnePlus One was a fantastic phone for its price,” she says. “It’s why I bought the OnePlus 2.” Months later, Sinha’s OnePlus 2 was heating up, lagging, and draining battery faster than a leaky faucet. A cursory glance through the OnePlus forums shows that hers wasn’t an isolated case. Unlike the sturdy OnePlus One, the OnePlus 2 had too many niggling issues to truly hold its own against flagship devices from other companies.

The general perception was that OnePlus, flush with the unexpected success of the OnePlus One, had got cocky the second time around. The company marketed the phone, which was released in 2015, as a “2016 Flagship Killer.” It was laughably far from the truth. Wired’s David Pierce, who gave it a middling 6 on 10, wrote that the OnePlus 2 “covers the basics well” but is “not at all like a flagship killer.”

Worse, four months after the OnePlus 2 launched, Benson Leung, an engineer at Google who had been reviewing USB Type-C charging cables – the kind that the OnePlus 2 used – discovered that the OnePlus cable could potentially damage devices from other manufactures by drawing too much power. Days after Benson’s revelations, OnePlus issued a public apology and offered a full refund to anyone who had bought its cables separately.

Dash Charging is better because unlike Quick Charging, it continues to charge your phone rapidly even while you’re using it.

Despite what Lau says about not focusing on specific touch points from a previous device, the OnePlus 3 tries hard to address them.

The phone swaps its previous charging system for an overhauled, proprietary charging technology called “Dash Charging”, which, claims Lau, charges 60% of the battery in 30 minutes. Most high end phones already support a similar feature called Quick Charging, but Lau claims that Dash Charging is better because unlike Quick Charging, it continues to charge your phone rapidly even while you’re using it. “You can use GPS or even play games on the phone while charging, and it would still charge fast,” he says.

The OnePlus 3 runs OxygenOS based on Android 6.0.1, which Lin and his team have been working hard at optimising. “We have definitely improved the fundamental user experience,” says Lin, his voice breaking into a high-pitched staccato over the unstable Skype connection from OnePlus’ Taiwan office.

To address performance issues, the OnePlus engineering team manually tested the top 1,000 apps in the Google Play Store in every market they sell. In India, the top five were WhatsApp, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, UC Browser, and a file-sharing utility called SHAREit. “With each app, we analysed performance bottlenecks and optimised the operating system to get around those,” says Lin. The result, he says, is a noticeable improvement in speed compared to other phones with the same hardware specifications.

The OnePlus 3 ditches plastic of the previous versions for an all-metal design that is carved out of a single block of strong, light, space-grade aluminium.
The OnePlus 3 ditches plastic of the previous versions for an all-metal design that is carved out of a single block of strong, light, space-grade aluminium.

OnePlus is hyper-conscious of competition. At the company’s Taipei labs, Lin keeps reference models flagship phones from every major brand that he benchmarks the OnePlus 3 against constantly. There’s iPhone 6S in there, of course, and a Samsung Galaxy S7. But there’s also a Mi 5, a phone from OnePlus’ arch-rival in India, Xiaomi, that happens to be in the same price bracket as the OnePlus 3.

“Look, ultimately, those phones have similar issues of performance and startup times as we do,” says Lin. “They face the same problems as us. So we make sure we benchmark our phone against the highest end phones in the market to make sure we are either on par or exceed them. That’s the quality bar we have set for our team.”

The biggest change in the OnePlus 3 is the design. It eschews the plastic that the last two generations used liberally (perhaps a little too liberally), and is, instead, carved out of a single block of strong, light, space-grade aluminium.

Gone, too, is the sandstone back, a texture that was such a hit on the OnePlus 2 that the company made an iPhone case – you know, in case you wanted to make your iPhone feel like a OnePlus. Instead, the back is smooth and metallic, with an almost imperceptible curvature that you can barely see but can definitely feel when it rests against your palm.

Achieving this balance between look and feel was perhaps the toughest thing about creating the OnePlus 3, says Lau. The production team, overseen personally by Lau, made countless adjustments to the curve on the back till Lau was satisfied, 3D printing the back of the phone hundreds of times in the last few months.

“It’s…an intangible feeling of premium,” he says.

Slight, soft-spoken Lau looks nowhere close to his 41 years. Lau grew up in Hanchuan, a small town located in the easternmost part of Central China. He was a precocious teenager who obsessed over electronics, physics, and his grades, but that’s all he’s willing to divulge about his childhood. “We are very ordinary people,” he says with a slow smile and a shake of his head.

Lau studied engineering at Zhejiang University, one of China’s oldest and most prestigious institutions that was founded in 1897, and counts Wang Jianzhou, chairman and CEO of China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile phone operator, among dozens of notable alumni.

Lau says he wasn’t born a product designer, but learnt to love it slowly over time until it consumed him entirely. “A lot of smartphones on the market aren’t perfect enough,” he once said in a Verge interview. “We just want to create the best product, no matter what.”

“The way it works here is that Pete will control the details on the product and everyone else will execute. Steve Jobs did the same thing at Apple.”

When Lau was a director at Oppo’s audio-video department, he stormed into the room of the company’s head of research and development, flung a Blu-Ray player circuit board to the ground, and stomped on it because the circuitry wasn’t laid out as neatly as it should have been. “We compared ours with Denon’s — theirs was laid out beautifully, but ours wasn’t,” he offered by way of explanation.

At OnePlus, Lau is receptive to the company’s vocal customers, who don’t shy away from telling him exactly what they want in the next phone when he meets them at the dozens of fan meet-ups, or post suggestions in the OnePlus forums.

But the ultimate decision-maker is Lau himself.

“Pete has OCD about the product,” says Steven Wang, Head of New Markets at OnePlus. “The way it works here is that Pete will control the details on the product and everyone else will execute. Steve Jobs did the same thing at Apple.”

For his part, Lau says that he doesn’t really know much about Jobs besides what he’s read in books, but that he is inspired by Jobs’ natural chops for product development. That doesn’t stop him from projecting his own version of Jobs’ legendary “reality distortion field”, a term that was used for the late Apple co-founder’s ability to distort both his employees’ and audience’s sense of proportion to make them think they could do something they thought they couldn’t.

When hardware engineers had trouble squeezing the antennas into the OnePlus 3’s 7.35mm chassis, Lau pushed them over and over and over for months till they actually did.

“It’s a mindset issue,” he says. “Engineers often like to come by and tell you that something is good enough. But people have potential. You just have to squeeze it out of them sometimes.”

There’s a reason why the OnePlus One became such a breakout hit when it launched in 2014: it was half the price of all major flagships from established brands like Apple and Samsung. “You paid brand tax,” says Rajat Agrawal, editor of technology news website BGR India. “If you wanted a good smartphone, you had to go to a big brand, period.”

Two years later, the story is radically different. Hardware prices have crashed, and you can now buy a really good, high-end phone for well under Rs. 20,000. There’s plenty of choice – which means that OnePlus’ entire proposition of powerful hardware at rock bottom prices doesn’t hold much water anymore.

“We think that smartphone growth will largely be dominated by premium devices rather than the entry level devices that everyone is flooding the Indian market with,” says Vikas Agarwal. “That’s because people’s aspirations keep increasing. Budgets for smartphone purchases are a little more flexible than before, and people want to buy the best possible device they can afford.”

That sounds fine, but the numbers tell another story. According to the Annual Internet Trends 2016 report by Kleiner Perkins analyst Mary Meeker, India had the lowest average smartphone cost at $158 per unit, far below the $415 premium niche that the OnePlus 3 is priced in.

“We only target the Rs. 20,000 plus segment because we don’t really have anything of value to add to the budget phone space,” says Agarwal. “Most phones that cost under Rs. 10,000 don’t have a brand pull.”

The OnePlus brand pull, says Rajat Agrawal, is something that he has doubts about. “Their target audience is the geeks, the early adopters, the tech enthusiasts,” he says. “And yet, anyone can now build a phone with great hardware and a clean Android experience like OnePlus does. I don’t think they have managed to transition beyond their core fan base in the way that a brand like Xiaomi has.”

“We can probably develop a music player that can fetch content from Gaana, Saavn, and other music services, so users don’t have to download their apps separately,”

Xiaomi, another Chinese smartphone maker whose rise in India dovetails with the popularity of OnePlus, not only offered great hardware at affordable prices, it customised the software on its phone heavily to adapt to the Indian market. Xiaomi’s devices, for instance, automatically detect One Time Passwords sent over SMS, something that is common in India, and offer a “Copy OTP” button right in the message notification.

“Our users really like stock Android,” says Lau. “So we focus only on making the most basic user experience fast and stable. We think that smartphone users in India are similar to those in Europe and North America in terms of the apps and services they use and what they need their phones to do. So our focus is on making a fast, stable operating system, that’s it.”

Still, OnePlus isn’t ruling out localising OxygenOS for India. For the first time since it entered the Indian market at the end of 2014, the company built a software team in India late last year.

Vikas Agarwal doesn’t go into detail about what OnePlus’ India-specific software tweaks might look like, but he’s happy to think aloud. “We can probably develop a music player that can fetch content from Gaana, Saavn, and other music services, so users don’t have to download their apps separately,” he says. “Or maybe an option to pay your mobile bill right from the SMS you get from your service provider.”

oneplus3-back
“We think that smartphone growth will largely be dominated by premium devices,” says OnePlus’ India head Vikas Agarwal, “rather than entry-level devices.”

The OnePlus 3 is a genuine attempt to go back to the roots by focusing on what made the original OnePlus so great — the killer balance of premium hardware and software at a great price — minus the brash overconfidence of the OnePlus 2.

Unlike last year’s chest-thumping marketing campaign, this year’s campaign has been relatively sober — there was an “auction” last week where the five highest bidders received a OnePlus 3 earlier than anyone else; there was a launch event that you could watch in virtual reality and order the phone right through your VR glasses; there was also a half-page advertisement in a Delhi newspaper, published by mistake a day before.

But other than that, OnePlus would rather let the OnePlus 3 market itself. “Because ultimately,” says Lau, “it’s all only about the product. That’s the chi.”

Visual Design: Nikhil Raj

Photos: Anand Murali, Rajesh Subramanian

Watch: OnePlus 3 first impressions: Sleek, all-metal, and totally badass


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