Why OnePlus is Still Succeeding with Developers and Enthusiasts
We all know OnePlus to be a brand that began its journey through controversy. The OnePlus One remained in the limelight not only for its hardware and price tag, but also for all the claims and tactics employed by OnePlus to ensure that the device became one of the most talked about smartphones in enthusiast circles. It was an exercise in viral online marketing, and they arguably succeeded.
With the OnePlus 2, they tried to adopt a slightly different approach than what worked with the OnePlus One. While the company doubled down on hyperbole with the “2016 Flagship Killer” moniker, OnePlus did tone down their once socially-controversial marketing tactics, foregoing practices such as “Ladies First” and the thoroughly-hated Invite system. What they also toned down was the developer friendliness of the device, as a few key resources (like sources for the fingerprint sensor and laser autofocus for the camera, and VoLTE support) were not delivered to the community at the times requested. As such, the development scene of the phone could not reach the levels of its predecessor.
The OnePlus X, although a capable product targeting an increasingly forgotten niche (small-screen smartphones), was rather awkwardly placed in market for a fair few reasons: some related to its smaller screen size and hence subsequent demand, and some related to the average-at-best hardware… ultimately the phone could never take off.
And then came the OnePlus 3. The actual 2016 flagship (pre-3T) fixed a lot of wrongs with the OnePlus 2. Combined with the best SoC from Qualcomm in the form of the Snapdragon 820, the OnePlus 3 was better suited for the flagship killer moniker based on its commendable performance. The phone could stand up against several flagships in terms of overall hardware, some hovering at twice the price, and still come out ahead. There were a few drawbacks with the device, like an average camera experience, but such issues could be overlooked when considering the phone’s price and rest of the hardware and software experience, as well as genuinely useful features like Dash Charge or the alert slider.
Something OnePlus also improved on the OnePlus 3 was its developer responsiveness, communication and strategy. The company was perhaps fearing repeating the mistakes they had made with the OnePlus 2, and seeing how the community collectively hated OnePlus’s attitude towards the device, they turned over a new leaf. The company started off on the right foot by dismantling the criticized invite-system for the device for good. This was followed up by a very quick release of the kernel sources and device tree for the device — mere hours after the launch of the phone. We even saw one of the quickest CyanogenMod (unofficial) releases ever. Developers did note that one key feature and major selling point was missing from the sources: Dash Charging. OnePlus promised that this would reach developers eventually, and followed up on the promise by releasing the Dash Charging kernel code and proprietary binaries in about six weeks of the phone’s release. We still have not achieved resolution when it comes to the issue related to camera quality on custom ROMs, though that’s not really the fault of OnePlus due to the fact that open sourcing the camera HAL is not be as easy as Carl Pei originally thought. Either way, OnePlus did go out of its way to help developers by setting up communication channels with them, and in some cases handing out units to them as well.
Roughly a year ago, OnePlus also announced a key change with how it handled software and updates. OnePlus was looking at merging its Chinese software UX, HydrogenOS with its global software UX, OxygenOS. The primary purpose of this merger was to combine both the teams onto the same roadmap and provide quicker software updates to all users, irrespective of region. Originally, people questioned how this change would shape up the new OxygenOS experience, as HydrogenOS tended to lean towards a brighter and more customized UX, one that was likely appreciated by users in China but was not liked as much in the global market given it was quite removed from Stock Android. However, as we have witnessed so far, a lot of the changes in OxygenOS over the year have been unanimously accepted by the users. Some changes, like the Alert Slider changes do continue to infuriate some users. But for the most part, the response to OxygenOS has been positive as it balances itself between customizations and a close to stock Android feel (as opposed to HydrogenOS, a direction that could have been taken by OnePlus).
The major highlight of OxygenOS from an enthusiast’s perspective is the division of updates between the Stable branch and the Open Beta branch (previously known as Community builds). Such a division clearly divided the needs of the enthusiast community from that of the average consumer, allowing OnePlus to serve the needs of both without alienating the other. An average consumer is a lot less accommodating towards bugs and would gladly wait for a polished product instead of something that could break during daily use. An enthusiast on the other hand, often trades that expectation of stability for a chance to try out the latest developmental and experimental features right now and provides feedback to help shape the future of such features.
The Open Beta essentially serves as a very long soak test. Most other OEMs resort to private soak testing before beginning staged rollouts, and then sometimes end up pausing such rollouts when unforeseen bugs appear. Adopting the Open Beta approach allows OnePlus to secure a wider tester audience, a wider timeframe and wider use cases to test and polish updates before beginning their rollouts in the stable channel. And, unlike traditional soak tests, they actually make it an effort to continuously add new features.
The Open Betas themselves have become very popular within the enthusiast community. Despite not being considered as stable themselves, the builds are usually fine for general usage and are good candidates for daily drivers for people who do not mind an occasional bug. Over the year, and as far as the OnePlus 3 and OnePlus 3T are concerned, OxygenOS Open Betas have played testing ground to features like expanded screenshots, data firewall and data saver, gaming do not disturb mode, automatic night mode, EIS and camera quality improvements, ambient display and lift up display, app locker, parallel apps and much, much more. As a consequence though, there is a significant time lag in these features appearing in Open Betas to them appearing in the Stable release, even after they have been seemingly perfected.
With the launch of the OnePlus 3T, some were concerned that OnePlus would be ignoring the OnePlus 3 to favor the newer device. These were fueled by OnePlus’ decision to entirely discontinue the sales of the OnePlus 3 after existing stock depletion despite the device being just about half a year old. But as they promised, software support for the OnePlus 3 continued alongside the OnePlus 3T. With the merging of OxygenOS for both the devices into a single unified build, both devices have essentially become the same phone as far as software is concerned. The unified build approach was also adopted by the custom ROM development community and most major works present in our forums provide a single set of modifications to be applied irrespective of the specific phone (3 or 3T), with certain packages discerning how to apply specific changes upon flashing. So while many people would still consider a half yearly upgrade controversial and largely unnecessary, myself included, it did have an impact in how the developer community shaped around these two devices. A refresh may have just prolonged the scope of the OnePlus 3 by convincing more people to purchase a OnePlus 3T, in turn increasing the combined user base.
OnePlus’s rediscovered willingness to aid developers thankfully did not stop at the OnePlus 3/3T, even though they had a few setbacks as they haven’t always complied with the GPLv2 in time. When the OnePlus 5 arrived, it came along with the device tree and kernel sources needed to kickstart development activities right at the get-go. The phone followed it up with several OxygenOS updates that added in missing features like EIS capabilities on 4K video as well as several bugfixes. The OnePlus 5 does not have an Open Beta program just yet, but this will change once the OnePlus 3/3T are updated to Android Oreo.
What happens to the OnePlus 3 and 3T after Oreo?
Sadly, it is too early to say what happens when OnePlus brings over Oreo to the 3/3T. Android 8.0 will be the final major version update for this set of devices from OnePlus, so the phones will very likely need to rely on the community to help it tide over the rest of its years. That is not to say that the OnePlus 3/3T will not receive any updates beyond Oreo as OnePlus’s statement does leave open the possibility of smaller, minor updates.
And the Oreo update just seems to be right around the corner. The OnePlus 3 Closed Beta group has already received its first taste of Android Oreo, and the company aims to deliver an Oreo build to the Open Beta channels by the end of September for the OnePlus 3/3T as well as the OnePlus 5. For a change, OnePlus is not mentioning any deadlines for delivering Oreo in the stable channels, preferring to just act quick and hopefully let their actions speak for themselves.
What we would like to point out with this article is that OnePlus as a company does appear to have evolved into a more mature entity, one that realizes that fulfilling promises matters, and that actions can speak louder than words. The OnePlus 2 was criticized heavily for being a classic case of overpromising, compromising and under delivering, but the past year with the OnePlus 3, OnePlus 3T and now with the OnePlus 5, the situation does appear changed.
That is not to say that OnePlus is without faults, nor is it to say that their current products are free from any issues. In fact, we at XDA-Developers have been the first ones to break controversial articles highlighting several shortcomings. We criticized the OnePlus 3 and its aggressive RAM management and inaccurate display calibration in the Reviewer software builds; to which OnePlus had to respond with a Reviewer OTA that fixed these issues. We revealed upon the OnePlus 5 launch how OnePlus was manipulating benchmarks to maximize scores; to which OnePlus responded with statements that mentioned that these were intended to showcase the peak potential of the device, and that such performance is “natural” (we disagree) as well as sustainable and does no harm to the device as there is no overclocking involved. The OnePlus 5 inverted display issue which caused jelly scrolling was also documented and confirmed by us; to which OnePlus responded that the visual effect is “natural” and there exists no variance in screens between devices. We’ve also covered the 911-reboot bug on the OnePlus 5; OnePlus responded with a quick hotfix OTA update as well as followed it up by explaining the cause of the bug and mentioning that they worked with Qualcomm directly to fix the issue (which was reportedly present on phones from other OEMs as well).
The frequency and timeliness of the responses to these “controversies” is what differentiates the OnePlus of 2015 from the company post-OnePlus 2; even if the responses may not be what we would have liked them to be. Overall, their public relations team has seemingly done a good job at responding to the hiccups the company has had, even if they lost a few fans along the way. The community still has a few complaints carried over from the OnePlus 2 and OnePlus X as well, like how the Marshmallow update for the X was delayed for far too long; and how OnePlus backtracked on their own promise to deliver Nougat to their 2016 flagship killer after keeping owners in the dark for several months.
But beyond that, it’s fair to say that the OnePlus 3 marked the company’s coming of age as an OEM. And as members of a website that focuses on software modifications, it’s refreshing to see that their flagships have at least partially filled in the void left behind by the demise of the Nexus program. All of OnePlus’ devices have already received unofficial Android 8.0 Oreo builds:
- OnePlus One: [ROM][8.0.0_r4] AOSP Oreo for OnePlus One [Experimental]
- OnePlus X: Lineage 15.0
- OnePlus 2: [ROM][8.0.0_r3]LineageOS-15.0 [OP2][Alpha][UNOFFICIAL]
- OnePlus 3/3T: [ROM+Kernel][Unofficial][Unified]LineageOS 15.0[8.0.0]
- OnePlus 5: [EXPERIMENTAL][AOSP][O] Homemade Oreo for OnePlus 5
So it’s not too difficult to see why OnePlus continues to remain a popular choice in our forums, and why it’s becoming increasingly popular among mainstream consumers in several markets as well (for different reasons). Their ability to respond to their vocal community definitely had a hand in their recent successes, or at the very least, minimizing their recent missteps (and there have been many).