When I was in high school I lived in Amman, Jordan. During this time I learned a lot about myself, my family, and my Palestinian culture. Some of my best friends during that period were my cousins. People that I used to only see once a year were now the people I was spending my weekends with. This was during the early 2000s, and like many teenage boys, we played video games. There was one game series that we all seemed to love and gravitate towards and that was the Need For Speed Underground series.
We loved these games for the fast racing gameplay and the plethora of vehicle customization options. Now, in Jordan, the legal driving age is 18 so we would spend time discussing how we would modify our cars when we got them just like in the game. We would run through countless scenarios in the type of paint job, rims, and spoilers we would put on our cars. There was a sense of breaking the mold, where we would be the generation to make car customization normal and we would love every moment of it.
Fast forward 17 years and I have a 2016 Chevrolet Malibu. How many customizations have I done to this car, you may be wondering. The answer is zero. Despite saying with so much zeal that I was not going to be like my older cousins and uncles when it comes to my approach to a car, I inevitably became what I was adamant that I would never become. This inevitability makes me think about OnePlus. The company started as a disruptor, a company that would show the bigger names of how making a high-end phone was done. But in recent years, the company has become more “settle in” and less “never settle”.
The OnePlus One is one of the phones that I remember the most fondly as I look back at the variety of phones that I have used in my adult life. The idea behind that phone just felt so revolutionary at the time. In an era of $650 smartphones and a nonexistent midrange market that was worthwhile, it was this phone that showed a different way. A phone with top of the line specs, an incredibly fun software experience in Cyanogen OS, and a good enough camera for the time. All that for $350. I remember thinking at the time that this was a company that was going to change the way that phones are made. That surely Apple, Samsung, HTC, and LG would have to adapt to such an aggressive price point.
This trend continued through the company’s subsequent releases the OnePlus 2 and OnePlus 3. While the constant criticism seemed to be centered around subpar camera performance, the speed of the performance and thoughtful software additions of Oxygen OS that replaced Cyanogen OS from the first phone made OnePlus a darling brand here in the west.
OnePlus was an easy recommendation for anyone looking for an excellent phone without having to pay a premium. This was in an era of rising prices with Samsung and Apple’s flagship efforts, and while OnePlus continued to rise as well with the release of the OnePlus 5, 5T, 6, and 6T the company still represented a significant discount compared to an iPhone or Galaxy Note. And with every release OnePlus seemed to inch closer to making its cameras more competitive with the Pixel, iPhone, and Galaxy Note series. It was the release of the OnePlus 7 series of devices where the company seemed to take a turn away from its roots.
The Pivot to Pro
With the OnePlus 7 series of phones, the company went away from the biannual release cadence that it established with the OnePlus 3 and 3T. Instead, the company released 4 phones that year: OnePlus 7, 7 Pro, 7T, and 7T Pro. The Pro series of OnePlus devices featured a more advanced camera system, higher resolution high refresh display, and a pop-up selfie camera. The 7 Pro started at under $700, which was still very competitive with what Samsung and Apple were offering. After all, this was after Apple broke the $1,000 price barrier for the iPhone.
But the OnePlus 7 Pro signified a segmentation of its offering. Not much different from what Samsung has done with its Galaxy S series and Galaxy Note series. The Pro was indicative of everything that OnePlus had to offer while the standard numbered devices felt more in line with the traditional spirit of the OnePlus One in the sense of a device that offers almost all of what the competition offers.
The issue for OnePlus with the rollout of this strategy came in the way of regional availability. Here in the United States for example, at the beginning of the year OnePlus released the 7 Pro but not the 7. And later in the year, released the 7T but not the 7T Pro. This has led to confusion when it comes to releases by the Chinese company, especially here in the States.
OnePlus continued this odd trend at the beginning of this year with the release of the OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro. The 8 saw a wider release on carriers (the more pedestrian of the two phones), while the 8 Pro was relegated to only be sold through official OnePlus channels through the company’s online store. This decision was especially odd seeing that the 8 Pro seemed to be the device that was the company making a statement that it was ready to compete with the big players in the premium segment. With a higher $900 price tag, premium design, and revamped cameras, to not have it in carrier stores where most Americans still purchase phones seemed odd.
While the 8 Pro was reviewed very well by reviewers, there was a sense that the company was starting to lose its identity. As Michael Fischer said in his review, this was a moment where OnePlus “became the villain” (see his excellent review here). I would say that the company decided for the past couple of years to evolve its philosophy instead of compromise. The trouble with having an enthusiast brand like OnePlus though is that the diehard fans refuse to accept any sort of compromise. Much like the fans of a heavy metal band that decides to change to a more popular sound, those core fans are hard to keep happy. OnePlus attempted to placate them with the OnePlus Nord.
Old Roots, New Complications
As many bloggers and tech YouTube personalities complained about the high price of the OnePlus 8 Pro, die-hard OnePlus fans also yearned for the days of the sub $500 OnePlus device and the incredible value that that device offered. So what does OnePlus do? Develop a phone specifically for those people, and that device was the OnePlus Nord.
The Nord was not sold in the United States but was sold in Europe for the equivalent of around $465. This device was a throwback, giving reminiscent feelings of the OnePlus 5 and 6 as opposed to the more expensive feeling OnePlus 8 Pro. And the device was a hit, it was incredibly well-reviewed, and many felt that this phone showed that OnePlus was listening to its dedicated fans that were invited to buy the OnePlus One. The reality is, however, that this was OnePlus further diversifying the portfolio and had nothing to do with catering to fans.
Mere months after releasing the Nord, OnePlus announced two new entrants into the Nord series with the N10 5G and N100 5G. These devices are coming to the States unlike the original Nord, but there is a very Samsung-like feel to this release. OnePlus made its name as a brand that prioritized high performance for a lower price. This business model is of course unsustainable. But these new Nord devices use lower-end processors and are shipping with a version of Android that is already a year old.
These devices feel like the older Galaxy J phones that Samsung would release to appease carriers to have a free phone to offer on contract and device payment renewals. These feel more like a concession than a boundary-pushing release that OnePlus has strived for. In many ways, the company has transformed into a western version of its sister company Oppo. Oppo releases a bunch of phones to try and capture as much market share as possible.
The issue with this strategy in the US, in particular, is that OnePlus has established itself as a quality phone maker that will put in better specifications than a company like Samsung or LG. A company that will emphasize value for money over the abstracts of an experience. That OnePlus wouldn’t make a phone with lower quality processors or go back to a physical fingerprint sensor and less RAM and storage. This shift feels like OnePlus is diluting its brand equity for market share.
Perhaps it was my own naivety to think that they could maintain this brand image, that perhaps they were destined to turn into another Samsung after all. Just like my aspirations as a teenager to be something different but inevitably falling into mostly a predefined box, this is the evolution of OnePlus. The old guard of OnePlus fans will not like this direction, and they have already started to voice their concern. OnePlus years ago disrupted the market by saying that they would never settle, and not be the typical phone maker. And we all as a collective tech community believed it, which makes their compromised settling that much more disappointing.