1500 days of OxygenOS: Talking to OnePlus about custom ROMs, Open Ears, Android 10, and more
OnePlus recently celebrated 1500 days of OxygenOS, its own Android UX “skin” that is shipped on all of its current devices, including the current-gen OnePlus 7 and OnePlus 7 Pro. To commemorate the occasion, OnePlus partnered with WWF India and their Adopt a Tree campaign, promising to plant a tree for every tweet with #OxygenOS hashtag. At the final count, this initiative managed to garner 27,322 tweets, which means that OnePlus will be planting as many trees in a phased manner if they plan to keep up their end of the bargain. We also had the opportunity to sit down for a conversation with Szymon Kopec, Product Manager, OnePlus India, and talk about a lot of different topics — ranging from custom ROMs and development efforts, to Android 10, to delayed notifications, Always-On display, and RAM management on OnePlus devices.
Aamir Siddiqui: Do you have any statistics about how many OxygenOS users you have?
Szymon Kopec: Pretty much as many users of our phones so. When it comes to custom ROMs, the percentage has been dropping over the last years. We see this for most of the alternatives for OnePlus products, as we try to hear from the community. For example, a couple of years ago, a lot of users, like 30% would install Nova Launcher or other launchers. And now, this percentage is below 1%. The situation is similar to custom ROMs, with a different ratio. The number is lower for custom ROMs because custom ROMs are not as easy to switch as launchers. In terms of numbers, they still figure into our audience but their popularity is declining. OnePlus has evolved over the years, so the amount of geeky users who would flash a custom ROM has declined in terms of percentage, but it’s strong and steady in terms of numbers.
Aamir: So we can say that OxygenOS is co-existing alongside custom ROMs, but people are now finding less and less need of installing a custom ROM?
Szymon: Yeah, we can say that I guess. But I cannot really tell that these people who were installing custom ROMs, don’t want to do it anymore. It’s just that we got a lot of newer audience that is not tech-savvy enough to be interested in this topic. But from our side, we support custom ROM developers as good as we can. I’ve seen you guys from XDA have also posted articles after our last open ears and our commitments.
Aamir: Yes, we just covered that.
Szymon: Exactly. Our commitments to promote custom ROMs especially for devices that we are not supporting with Android updates, this is a great area for custom ROMs, getting the latest Android [version] for OnePlus devices. That’s amazing. That is something we want to promote. And help out developers in terms of kernel sources and in other ways. That is definitely something that has been at the core of OnePlus product development and still is, and a lot of great ideas come from these developers.
Aamir: The Open Ears session that was held in Goa, as far as I could see, was a good success as it gave a lot of developers direct contact points within OnePlus. So if they have some issue, they could directly reach out to you guys, instead of trying to draw your attention from social media channels. So having that in place is a very good step in the right direction.
Szymon: Thank you, I am glad you think so. We met up with Franco and other custom ROM developers and kernel developers, but it is different to chat on instant messengers and exchange emails, as against gathering so many developers in one place and having two days of direct discussion. The effect is different, our staff can deeply understand what are the needs of developers and the developer community. I think that works out very well and I think these guys are also satisfied with the commitments. But now is where the tough work starts, we have to act upon those commitments.
Aamir: One of the initial complaints that I had heard from some of the attending developers was that the results of that program were never made public, so there was barely any accountability. You could have said “We’ll do this thing, we’ll do that thing”, but in the end, you could have backtracked on those promises. So actually having a forum post going up, saying “We have promised these things”, we as media outlets can now hold you accountable. As you promised something in the past, so where are the results on this now. So I think this is a good step, and I really appreciate that the forum post actually came up for this.
Szymon: Yeah. The key points of commitments from our side at every Open Ears, we are also updating all those forum posts about the previous Open Ears, how we have acted upon all those commitments, which ones we have fulfilled and in what way. We already had Open Ears on software before, Open Ears about the camera. So I can say that already we have fulfilled the vast majority of commitments from the previous Open Ears. For this one, it will probably take some time. But it is something we are hoping you guys will keep us accountable for.
Aamir: Definitely. Moving on, Google released the Android 10 update last week. With that, OnePlus also released Android 10 for the OnePlus 7 Pro. What surprised a lot of people was the fact that you not only get Android 10, but also OxygenOS on top of it, which adds onto the experience. For instance, the Android 10 Navigation Gestures, I did not particularly find the right and left edge swipe very convenient, as opposed to swiping from a corner — this came more naturally to me. So I am a little biased towards OnePlus’s gesture implementation. I was a little surprised to see a Day 1 release of Android 10 from OnePlus. Some of us were expecting something closer to AOSP in terms of what we would see in the initial days and weeks. So actually seeing OxygenOS, and having those smaller features in, right alongside the Day 1 launch — that was something surprising.
Szymon: For this, we have to credit Google as well for working with us on that one and sharing with us the Android code very early so that we had time to work on that so that we could release the full OxygenOS experience rather than just the Android 10 experience. We were testing out Android 10 with OxygenOS in the betas, so we could get quick updates.
Aamir: Would you also credit some of this success to Project Treble? How important was it in your development process?
Szymon: Project Treble definitely reduces some of our work in upgrading, especially from Pie to Q [Android 10], that was quite relevant. It is difficult to estimate by how much percent, or how many man hours we saved because of Project Treble. But definitely, it is a very good move from Google’s side and I hope it will reduce the fragmentation within Android, not just on OnePlus devices, but overall.
Aamir: Yes, we are seeing the positive effects of the move. I am very excited about the future. It definitely helps out devices that don’t see a lot of attention. We’ve seen other OEMs also come out with very heavy skins, and those devices also end up with these updates. I am excited to see how this goes along.
Szymon: True. It is very good for users, and I am happy every time more people can get the latest Android version. Everyone deserves the coolest stuff from Google.
Aamir: On the topic of Android updates, an Android 10 update for the OnePlus 6 and OnePlus 6T has been promised to be released this month, so that’s good. Can you make any commitments for the OnePlus 5 and the OnePlus 5T?
Szymon: From the product team, and especially from the software product team, our commitment is two years of software updates. We do not like ETAs — you know how it is developing software, unexpected issues always crop up. It is better not to overpromise, and then nicely surprise users if and when you can.
Aamir: Alright. Can you share anything that you have planned for OxygenOS? Future features that we could see?
Szymon: Our goals, with what we want to create here, especially in India, are features that will help OnePlus acquire new users and retain current users. So we want to work on those features that will be real shining points for the OxygenOS experience, features that will make users think “Hey, OxygenOS is really cool. Maybe I should consider buying OnePlus because that is something that I really want to have”. So I hope we can deliver on this in the upcoming years. The most immediate features that we are working on are those that we have already announced back in May: Work Life Balance, SMS app changes, changes for cricket scores, OnePlus roaming. These are the things we had in concept or demos in May and June, and we have worked with our users, especially in closed beta tests over the last three years to polish them. We have finished porting them to Q [Android 10]. Very soon, we will be releasing them to Open Beta channels and MB channels. That’s what I am most excited about, to finally ship those features that we have been working on the last 9-10 months to end users.
Aamir: Yeah, we’re excited to see what comes out. The features that you have been working out have been well received by the community and by our audience as well. Features that an OEM releases often acts as an inspiration for other developers and other smartphone OEMs as well. Things that you do right, help the Android ecosystem in a greater manner than what you can immediately see.
Szymon: Thank you for that. That’s what we hope too. We definitely hope it inspires great stuff from other OEMs and other developers because that is what ultimately works in the best interests of users. The more competition, the better, and we don’t mind anyone copying us.
Aamir: Imitation is the best form of flattery.
Szymon: That’s what I believe as well.
Aamir: With regards to OxygenOS, does OnePlus prefer a “more features are better” approach or is it a more “refined features” approach against a feature flood. What approach does OnePlus take?
Szymon: We are aiming to provide the most crucial and important experience for our users. We believe it is very simple to throw a bunch of stickers on the wall and see what sticks and what users like and what they don’t. But for us, it is very important to keep the experience familiar for all the users. So if you are switching from an AOSP device, you should feel at home when you are using a OnePlus device and not feel lost and overwhelmed by the bells and whistles, lots of buttons and icons, things that might make your experience very complex unnecessarily. Secondly, we want to keep our phones light as well — the more features you have, the more difficult it is to provide fast and smooth experience. And third, we just want to focus our resources on making things better and not making more things. So that’s why, for our India team especially, our goal is to create the most impactful feature, even if it takes us 9 months or 12 months, as it took us for features that we would soon be releasing, or it will take us 2 years and most of our efforts — that’s fine. As long as we believe that those features will improve the life of our users in significant way, or bring them something that they will be happy to use rather than introducing five or ten small features in the same time, that will not really impact anyone in any positive or negative way or really not be noticed at all.
Aamir: That makes sense. You would want user retention more than filling your ROM up with features.
Szymon: Especially, you guys from XDA who like custom ROMs or the AOSP experience, this audience understands the perspective well that that is how software is made. It doesn’t have to have multiple different features always.
Aamir: Moving on, I wanted OnePlus to acknowledge the delayed notification issue on OxygenOS. Have you guys noticed the bug? And do you have any fixes in the pipeline?
Szymon: This is something we have heard from our community and we are investigating it. It is more difficult and complicated than it seems. Obviously, we know why some of the notifications are delayed and in many ways, this is the desired experience that we have created. In some ways, we understand that users do not want to unnecessarily have their notifications delayed. For us, it is about finding good balance between good battery life and having this experience of instantly receiving notifications. We are using the Android native experience for optimizing battery life, we have also added our own experience on top of that, that users can by themselves disable or enable if they want to, and they can also pick which apps they want to optimize battery life for and which apps they do not want to. And also, it is learning according to the user’s usage, but it also requires users to use the phone for some amount of time. And like any solution, it is not perfect. So we have heard some complaints, but not that many to be honest. But like I said, it is about balance. Also, we have to balance the number of complaints about delayed notifications and weigh it against how great battery life is for end-users; we hear about the experience and analyze the data. So to conclude, we will constantly be working to improve this experience of optimizing battery life.
Aamir: Okay so you would like to take a balanced approach rather than go aggressive on any of those points?
Szymon: Yeah, because it is very easy to totally disable all those software optimizations, but then your battery life will all of a sudden become terrible. Or also it is very easy to just focus only on battery life and then probably you will not recieve half of your app notifications and the other half of the apps will be killed in the background. So it is all about finding balance. We think we are very close to this sweet spot, but obviously, further optimizations are always welcome.
Aamir: We’ll hold you to that. With regards to the camera, the camera team had actually promised that we are going to see a lot more feature parity for the OnePlus 7 Pro specifically. Do you have it in your pipeline? Can we expect feature parity for the camera for current devices and future devices?
Szymon: For future devices, I cannot share anything. For current devices, you might have noticed that we already support video recording through other lenses on the Android 10 update. It has been a very popular request from users, and we have put efforts to support it in the Open Beta build, which obviously will continue in the stable releases.
Aamir: Similarly, Ambient Display, we are missing an Always On Display on OnePlus phones. The iPhone launch brought back the spotlight on Always On displays, as they launched an Apple Watch with an Always-On display. And people are also expecting Google Pixel 4 to also focus on the Always-On Display. So can we see something similar coming back to OxygenOS?
Szymon: So Always On Display, similar to how we spoke about notifications versus battery life, this is also about experience versus battery life. So we had Always On Display for a very short period of time, and we have seen how it impacts battery life, and we had to get rid of it and figure out a better experience. Already in Android Q [Android 10], we have a smarter way of doing it.
Aamir: I noticed you can see the weather icons that are available, and you can also see the Messages app preview texts, at least when the notification comes in. It’s not an Always-On Display implementation, but it is trying to do something instead of nothing.
Szymon: Exactly. That’s one thing, one aspect of what you can see, how we display things on the Ambient Display. And the second thing is under the hood, we have optimized some of the algorithms responsible for figuring out when to display content and when not to. This way, it is easier for the phone to figure out when to show content when the screen is off and when to not. So, this is our direction, for now, we do not think that having a display that is always on would be good for both the screen and especially for battery life. So for now, we don’t have such plans.
Aamir: Okay. Samsung used to lower the refresh rate. Some speculation [in the forums] was that OnePlus removed the feature because you couldn’t really figure out how to lower the refresh rate in that Always-On mode.
Szymon: This speculation is not correct. In some cases, we already reduce refresh rate to 30Hz, that is not a difficult thing to do, but it still doesn’t solve the problems of battery life or screen problem for displaying content all the time.
Aamir: So just saying that “lower the refresh rate” would be an incorrect answer to the question of getting back Always-On Display?
Szymon: Yes, that is what we believe.
Aamir: People also have been raising this issue that OnePlus devices come with a lot of RAM, but you do not allow us to actually use all of that RAM. There is a lot of app killing going on in the background, especially with devices that come with 8GB RAM and beyond — that’s a lot of RAM which could hold a lot of apps in memory. But somewhere along the way, the software does not allow you to achieve the true potential of your hardware. There’s a website, www.dontkillmyapp.com which ranks you high in terms of app killing. Do you have any comments on this?
Szymon: One scenario of utilizing 8 or 12GB RAM is keeping apps in the background. The other scenario is faster launching of heavy apps, we call it RAM Boost. We can load the app from RAM memory for faster launching. These are our ways of utilizing the massive amount of RAM. But of course, it is again a similar scenario of finding the balance between good battery life and keeping all the apps in the background. We are using an algorithm that detects which of the apps you tend to come back to often. And with that, we are trying to optimize the apps that you tend to come back to frequently, they will be there for you. While the apps that you most likely will not visit again, they are not necessary, and you could get a better battery life in exchange. And this is again something that you have to use your phone for a while — basically, the longer you use your phone, the better it is able to optimize this experience for you. But that is our way of keeping a good battery life. Because at the end of the day when we look at the requests and needs of our community and dig deeper, battery life is up there as one of the top three most important points. And it is a very important priority for people looking for new smartphones. So that is something that is very high on our priority list for the phone.
Aamir: My last question: Would OnePlus consider working on a theming solution? I noticed you already have a better color picker in the Android 10 update. Previously you used to only allow choosing between a few colors for accents, now you have a color picker wheel and users can choose from a lot more options. Can we expect something more to be done along the theming direction?
Szymon: That is something we were considering, especially for Indian users, as we see the amount of customizations that we see on the phones with Indian users is way higher than anywhere else. But we think that a full theming solution where you have kind of an overhauling experience, that’s not the way we want to take now. Right now what we have done is that we have followed the way of having the customizations all in one place where you can adjust everything quite easily, and everything is presented in an easy to modify way. And we have already added quite a few customizations already compared to pure Android. And what we see is that this is also something that is not getting more and more popular. 2-3 years ago, average users used to customize their device way more. Right now, users seldom even change wallpapers from the default ones we have so. So more than giving users more options to pick from, we want to spend this effort to provide the best out-of-box experience, where users can just open their phones for the first time and feel like “Oh, these icons actually feel nice, I like this wallpaper, I like these animations, let’s just keep it this way because it is nice”. If we are able to do this right, then it is the best way of satisfying our users.
Aamir: That approach makes sense. I think it is a sign of showing how the Android ecosystem and Android skins, OxygenOS included, have matured over the years. People used to find faults with these things earlier, now they find it better suited to their tastes. So actually having a real reason to theme is going down the priority list of many users. You have dark mode right now, so there’s an even lesser need for theming.
Szymon: Yes, I agree with you. For example, Pete [Lau] is laying a lot of focus on aspects of the internal experience of the phone — the wallpapers, the animation for the transitions from the lock screen to the home screen — that’s something he emphasizes a lot on. In these kinds of ways, we can make the default experience very good. Obviously, we want to empower our users to customize their phones if they wish to, our duty is to provide them with an excellent out-of-box experience, where they don’t have to think “Oh I don’t like how this looks, I have to change something.”. They should think “I like how it looks, and sometimes I want to add my touch to it”. That’s our direction.