Interview with Carl Pei from OnePlus pt2: OxygenOS, Software Updates, User Feedback, UX Criticism & More!
OnePlus entered the Android market by providing good-value devices that enthusiasts end up enjoying and tinkering with — so much so that their latest smartphone’s sub-forum at XDA has become one of the most active ones in an impressively short time.
XDA Editor-in-Chief Mario Serrafero had a lengthy talk with Carl Pei, co-founder of OnePlus, about the direction of the company and its place in the market, its new smartphones and their take on software, software updates and the developer community. This is Part 2, where Carl answers questions regarding the future of OxygenOS, OnePlus’ development process, the potential advantages (and issues) of physical sales, the hardware choices that they make, how OnePlus builds a brand, and more.
Mario Serrafero: Going back to software, OxygenOS of course. You guys have had quite a rocky history with software. The OnePlus One came with CyanogenMod 11s, right? The KitKat CyanogenMod. And then that changed and so in total you would have CyanogenMod, OxygenOS, HydrogenOS, and now this new unified platform, which of course will still be Oxygen and Hydrogen. So, you guys have had a lot of software changes, and before we go into that, I just wanted to touch on the topic of the merger of the teams. It also comes at the time where you guys are experimenting community builds and you have detailed the beta program. Is it safe to say that OnePlus is taking updates very seriously now?
Carl Pei: I think we’ve always taken updates very seriously. If you look at all the android brands on the market, we are probably the one with the most vocal users. And that is not lost upon us. And it’s just, if you look at the OnePlus One, it wasn’t our own software. OnePlus 2 was the first time we started shipping our own software. So going from 0 to 1 is kinda hard. Bringing a lot of different people from different backgrounds, different companies, it takes time for them to find common processes and ways of working. So it took a little bit of time I think. Right now the software team is getting into pretty good shape. From the cadence of our updates, from the cadence of how fast we can implement feedback. I’m pretty positive about what’s going on.
We’re actually really grateful towards Cyanogen, because back in the day, no one knew about us
But yeah, The OnePlus One came with Cyanogen. We’re actually really grateful towards Cyanogen, because back in the day, no one knew about us and Cyanogen had a really strong following in the early adopter community, and the fact that they even considered working with us. I think looking back at least the first year was mutually beneficial. Like, we got our software, a pretty good OS for our first product, and they got pretty good hardware for when they just came out as a company. So it kinda benefited both companies.
M: I definitely understand what you’re saying — that going from having someone else handle the software to just setting up a team. I know that you guys hired some of the Paranoid Android people. But going back to this, we constantly see that a lot of people felt burned with the OnePlus 2 and OnePlus X in terms of updates. And I think that’s no secret. I mean you regret it as well. But with the OnePlus 3, on the positive side, OnePlus have had over… I think nine or ten firmware packages so far, counting the community builds of course. And all of those have iterated and added features. So we definitely feel that there is more of a focus towards software that also correlates with the merger of teams. But I wanted to talk about Nougat. How is that coming?
C: We’re working on it for all our… sorry, so we didn’t release Oxygen officially for the OnePlus One, so for the OnePlus 2 and the OnePlus 3 we’re working on it. It’s going to come. But I feel like I understand when users see that the OnePlus 3 is getting a lot of updates, that users of the OnePlus 2 might feel a little bit disappointed. However, I feel like we’ve never actually promised any… we haven’t promised a support time window. We never promised the same cadence for the OnePlus 2, and it will get Nougat. It will get Nougat, and I think that’s kind of delivering on what they originally bought into. Now, with the OnePlus 3, we’re announcing this new beta program with a weekly and biweekly and a one to two month cadence, the internal beta and open beta. I think that as long as you don’t promise something, then it’s okay. But if you promise something you have to do your absolute best to try and reach it.
C: And you’ve called us out in the past, so we’ve learnt.
M: Yeah it’s true. And again, the OnePlus X I think is the one where people felt the worst. With the whole deal with the Snapdragon 800 and 801. Not being able to get those certified Android 7.0 Nougat updates. But on the plus side, the OnePlus One and the OnePlus 2 had developer communities, the OnePlus One more so than the OnePlus 2. So yeah, OxygenOS. So, you had talked about CyanogenMod and I feel like that’s actually really interesting. I hadn’t thought of that — if the device hadn’t launched with CyanogenMod, the whole development could have been entirely different. That early adopter community as you called it perhaps wouldn’t have noticed the phone to the same extent. But something that people loved then and they love now is OxygenOS being a very lean and stock-Android approach. The early community builds kind of changed that, but you guys have rectified that you are planning on keeping this trend. How do you see OxygenOS evolving as it has to add more features and entice a broader consumer base?
C: So it’s different for every kind of stage that it’s in. So for the OnePlus 3 we said “Hey, what are the top things we can fix to make sure it’s a good experience?” And some people might think “Hey Oxygen is just very similar to AOSP, therefore it’s very easy to update!” Whereas there’s actually a lot of work in ways that people don’t necessarily see. Because it’s not in the UX or in the framework or a deeper layer than a UX layer. So with the OnePlus 3 we focused on battery life, stability, and speed. So even like if you look at the… so now I’m running the community builds, so its maybe changed a little bit, but if look at the dialer and you close the dialer, the animation is actually different.
M: Yeah, it fades.
C: So there’s a lot of small things we tweaked to either make it feel smoother or make it feel faster. The menu scrolling is a lot smoother than a lot of other stock Android products. So those are the three things we focused on, and our doze is a little bit more aggressive than the stock implementation, and in the recent update our auto brightness is a lot better than the stock implementation. So going forward what we’re going to focus on with OxygenOS is to make it a more refined version of Android. So Android still has some areas that are a little bit rough around the edges compared to iOS, and that’s the direction for OxygenOS going forward. Not necessarily in changing colours. We did some experiments on the community builds where colour schemes changed, and we got some pretty strong feedback. So we didn’t try to push that onto our users. It was more “Hey can we do this? Let’s see what people say about this.” But overall it shouldn’t be changing the UI. It should be adding a feature that people want. For instance, wait, when is this going out? When is this going out this one going out, because we’re…
M: Sometime next week.
C: So yeah, we can talk about this. So we had a lot of requests for instance that people wanted to be able to lock their apps with their fingerprint.
M: Right, that’s what you teased on twitter.
C: So that’s gonna come on Monday or Tuesday. And we have other requests… but don’t mention the other things because they are in the works, like REDACTED (but safe to say, we are really excited about what was discussed). Also features that make the experience better like our long screenshots. I don’t know if you’ve tried it, but it lets you screenshot an entire page.
M: Yeah, those are actually becoming more popular, and I love it. It’s like you can’t go back to having those regular screenshots after you get used to the long screenshots.
C: Also, we’re in touch with Snapchat, some people have said our Snapchat experience is not the best, so we’re working with their team. Basically saying, “Hey, how can we make the best Snapchat experience on any Android device?” But these two examples that we can’t mention right now because they’re still in the works, but that’s our kind of philosophy. “How can we refine android?” not “How can we change the UX for no reason just for the sake of if?” Everything we do has to have thought behind it.
M: Just to wrap up the software section, what are some software features or a decisions, perhaps about the course you’ve taken with the operating system, that you feel is underappreciated or doesn’t have as much exposure.
C: The tweaks that people don’t see, like the animation. So Pete, our CEO, he actually basically sat and tapped… Oh yes, we’ve worked a lot on the app launch speeds, and even the app launch animations.
M: Yeah, I measured them with DiscoMark, and they’re excellent, so we definitely noticed that.
C: Pete, our CEO, has been sitting, just measuring different apps and telling the team “Hey, you must get it within this range”, and they have to find like different ways of getting it under it. So these kind of hidden stories are some of the things that people don’t know about and I think are the underappreciated things. But the way we look at it is you don’t have to have people know about every little detail. And sometimes when a user uses a product, they just feel like it’s an overall solid product. They can’t pinpoint exactly what it is, but if it from a brand they trust, they know that a lot of work has been going on kind of behind the scenes. Just like, an example I had, when I bought my first iPad. On the iPad you have this like brightness slider you can pull out, and if you tilted your iPad, the light reflection on the dial of the slider would use your gyroscope to recalibrate and like, reflect that. When I saw that I was like “Okay, so if Apple, if they pay attention to even this, then I’m sure I’m covered for the hardware, for the software, for the cloud service, all that.” That’s the kind of feeling that we want to deliver.
M: I wanted to go into a couple things before we go into the hardware, and this is kind of related to hardware anyway. So, there have been AMOLED display shortages. I think you have confirmed that. And they’re reportedly slowing down OnePlus 3 shipping times. In fact, just a couple weeks ago I checked, and mine would have taken a month. But at the same time, this is also a sign that there is a lot of demand that you guys couldn’t account for, and I know that you produce as you see demand, and that unexpected demand kind of ultimately created this shortage in conjunction with the AMOLED shortage. So, at the very least the invite system is gone, and I know that you guys have gotten tons of flak over that before. How can how can you see OnePlus making the purchasing experience even easier and smoother for its customers? Because now you have DHL and it still takes a while… It’s not as easy as going to a carrier store for example.
C: So, we have been experimenting. Like, if you look at our e-commerce experience it’s been a lot better from the early days with invites. I don’t know if you know about this, but the OnePlus One, when we just started shipping it, we didn’t even have a UK charger. So what we did was, we went out in the market to buy the U.S. to UK converter, and we shipped a converter with every phone. I mean, the experience has gotten better over time. With the OnePlus 3 we removed the invite system. It’s our first time running open sales for smartphones. We underestimated demand, and I think going forward we’ll keep learning, but as you say, it’s far more easy to just go to a store and pick it up. You can even… I would even rather probably ride the tube for 40 minutes to go pick something up than wait a week to get something shipped. So, we have been experimenting. We used Finland as a test market. So we launched with Elisa, the local largest operator, and kind of by accident, because we didn’t do any marketing, we became the… so within Elisa, we’ve been the top-selling smartphone since August, and the top-selling smartphone through online sales in September too.
But of course, we don’t want to keep it an accident. Now we’re looking at “Hey, what are some of the things we can do to make sure that we stay number one in this market?” So with these lessons, we went to the UK. We recently launched with 02 as well. O2 is the second largest in the UK, and right now I think we just finished a really high-intensity marketing push. Like, a lot of out-of-home… like Wellington Station had a big banner with the OnePlus 3. One of my friends actually shared some photos, he was in London from from the Netherlands at a conference and he just sent me some photos from a bus station with our ad on it. So it’s pretty cool, we’re trying new things. What we saw with Elisa in Finland was that, even though we started selling much larger quantities in that one market, it didn’t really benefit, or sorry it didn’t really impact the online sales. What this means is that the experience that you get offline is like, super good, right? So you get a lot of new people who probably didn’t consider you to consider you, and just buy on the spot because it is such a good experience.
M: Cool. So, now that we touched on the AMOLED part, I said I wanted to go into hardware a little bit. You’ve been pretty outspoken about your screen preferences, and you know, I completely agree with “AMOLED all the way”, but at the same time we’ve heard you talk about Optic AMOLED and how it has a lot of potential going forward. Early reviews were quick to criticize the OnePlus 3 due to its colour space choices and how it ultimately resulted in inaccurately saturated colours. You guys fixed that really quickly with the sRGB mode (to your credit) but what are these Optic AMOLED advantages that we should be looking for? How does it differ from say the AMOLED of the Google Pixel and Pixel XL? Of course, every OEM tweaks their screens to a certain degree, but why do you think it is better? Because we don’t have much information about that.
C: So, for the OnePlus 3, it’s a concept we wanted to start talking about with OnePlus 3. And for the OnePlus 3 it was mainly just tweaks and calibrations, like tuning on the screen based on what we feel a user likes. Ultimately we just think that the way a user should judge a screen is by looking at it and saying whether or not they like it. But going forward, there are a lot of things you can do with display. You can customize the hardware driver inside of it for your specifications. You can add other technologies, like other algorithms on top of it to improve it as well. So what we wanted to do was we want users to just equate “Optic AMOLED” with “better AMOLED”, and over time we will be adding more and more things to refine the display technology.
“Optic AMOLED for the OnePlus 3 was mainly just tweaks and calibrations (…) we wanted users to understand that it’s getting better and better”
M: Right. To be frank, I did find some of the criticisms were valid regarding the colours, the grayscale banding. I didn’t find them too offensive, some people are very picky with colours, but I do feel like the sRGB mode, you guys launched it quick. It was in the review builds and I tested it, and it was like “That’s it. That’s really good crisis management.” Better than certain OEMs lately.
C: It’s “listening to feedback”. And if you look at future products you’ll see that, like… even the developer community, right? It wasn’t that we try to cater to the developer community. It’s just that we listen to a whole bunch of feedback and we also happen to also implement some of the feedback from the dev community and that’s why we have things like zero-day kernel source releases; people want us to do it and we thought about it, “Okay let’s do it. It’s good feedback.” Same with AMOLED, the first thing we said was “Hey, maybe we have missed something when it comes to displays, maybe different people have different preferences when it comes to color saturation and tuning.” So this is just a matter of reacting to feedback, and that’s kind of what the beta program helps us to do in a more structured way.
M: Yeah, precisely. And again, you guys have like 9 or 10 firmware builds so far and you have been reacting to feedback. Every community build fixes a ton of stuff from before, so you’re right. Again, to your credit, it might have not launched with the screen that, in particular the super technical reviewers liked. If we are honest, it was specifically the technical crowd ourselves included. I don’t think anyone had mentioned it until [AnandTech]. And people expect saturated colours out of AMOLED anyway.
C: There’s another story behind is actually… so, you remember when we launched the OnePlus 3, lot of people were complaining about the 1080p PenTile? And back then people were saying “Hey, for VR, this is not good”, right? But now when you read forums online no one is mentioning it anymore. Like no one uses their phone for VR. Now, which completely validated our decisions not go with a higher-res display, that’d cost more battery use and cause more heat.
In part 3 we will be discussing the Virtual Reality market, cameras, the future of Android, and much more. Stay tuned!