“They don’t get it, do they?”
OnePlus’ general manager, India, Vikas Agarwal, is rather soft-spoken by nature, but his voice had just an edge to it when he spoke of the reception accorded by some sections of the media to the OnePlus X.
“It was not about the processor, or the RAM. It was about a premium experience in terms of UI and design,” he went on, sipping his coffee quietly (he had been passing through and braved the risk of high boredom by opting to meet Yours Truly). “It was about coming out with a more compact form factor in a design that would turn heads and would feel wonderful to hold. But then it is easier to talk about specs. Easier to compare…”
He left the sentence hanging in the air, and with a wry grin, moved on to other subjects. But the brief moment when he betrayed sentiment stayed with me. Not least because OnePlus’ co-founder Carl Pei had told us something similar when we had asked him about his favourite non-OnePlus device. “My new 12-inch Retina MacBook. People who complain about the specs just don’t get products,” Pei had said.
And indeed if there is a company that has been gently moving the focus from hardware to design in the Android phone family, it is perhaps the company from China. Yes, we know that Xiaomi is known as China’s Apple in some quarters, but the company has been releasing a number of devices across segments over the past year, and this has led to a slight dilution of that particular term.
OnePlus on the other hand, has been sticking to a relatively straight and narrow path. And interestingly, all its devices can be recognized by their trademark design – something that no other company can claim at the moment. From the sandstone finish on the OnePlus One to the glass (or ceramic) encased OnePlus X, there seems to be a conscious attempt to stand out in design terms rather than blend in. Even the brand’s Silver Bullet headphones, with their piano key insignia, and power banks (with Sandstone finish) are designed differently, and seem to follow a clear design ethic, something that cannot be said of its competitors, most of whom have a design-centric flagship flanked by relatively routine-looking devices. In fact, almost every OnePlus product is accompanied by a promotional video that spends a significant amount of time dwelling on design and materials used, moving on to the spec side later.
And the release of a OnePlus case (complete with OnePlus branding) for the iPhone 6/6s was the ultimate reminder to people that this was a company that was developing a very distinct “look” of its own. Some consider the case to be a bit of a flippant jab at Apple, but for a few others, it was significant because it reflected the OnePlus design ethos – the Sandstone finish in particular. Mind you, those group of people are still waiting for a glass or ceramic finish case for the iPhone, inspired by the OnePlus X. Methinks they might end up waiting for a long time.
Of course, as the reviews of the OnePlus X proved, this strategy of standing out in terms of design can have its pitfalls, especially when one considers that a large section of the tech media still tend to evaluate Android devices on their spec sheets. But what cannot be denied is that it is giving the brand a very different status in the market. “The processor, the display, the RAM, all these can be replicated. They are just numbers at the end of the day,” Carl Pei had told me last year, prior to the launch of the OnePlus 2. “A person does not want to buy a bunch of numbers – they want to buy something more significant. Design provides part of that answer, and so does software.”
And the company certainly has been waging war on those two key fronts in the market. At a time when most companies seem to be looking for spec warriors, OnePlus has got one eye on the design side. It also is managing to retain its “different” look identity by not spreading itself too thin across too many devices. “One thing about a OnePlus device – it will not look like any other device,” Carl Pei told me. And so far, the company has managed to stand out in the Android phone market, where several segments that look like the Clone side of the Star Wars saga. Indeed, at a time when most people find it difficult to tell even the iPhone 6 and 6s apart, no such problem is encountered by those confronted by the OnePlus One, OnePlus 2 and OnePlus X.
And this distinct form is likely to be married to distinct functionality too, which is being achieved through its own OS, Oxygen. After all, a wise man had once said:
Design is not just how it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.
The folks at OnePlus seem to be heeding his advice. It is not an easy path to follow but the man who uttered those words proved that it was perhaps the best one of them all. Better than walking the road well-travelled.