The OnePlus One is one year old, and it’s finally available to anyone who wants one.
The OnePlus One is a cult smartphone that won our Reader’s Choice award this year for having an amazing combination of price and performance. At $299, it held its own with $600 flagship smartphones, and it did so in a very open, hackable way that really appealed to power users.
OnePlus has an extreme, just-in-time manufacturing system, though, so it would only make limited quantities available at any given time. That led to us having to pull our Editor’s Choice award at one point because it was so hard to buy the phone.
Well, with the OnePlus Two officially coming later this year as an invite-only product, the OnePlus One is now available to everyone. And it’s still doing pretty well as a competitor! While there are now a whole bunch of pretty solid smartphones selling for $179 or $199 unlocked, like the Moto G and Huawei SnapTo, they generally have Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processors. The OnePlus One uses the faster Snapdragon 801 and has an unusually large 5.5-inch screen.
OnePlus’s greatest strength, though, is its community. The company has done a magnificent job of nurturing a vibrant power-user community that really feels invested in using and improving its phones. That’s something a lot of phone makers have tried to do, but haven’t succeeded at long term.
The S6 Shows the Split
Power users want different things than mainstream buyers, as the Samsung Galaxy S6 shows. Although it was quite functional, the Galaxy S5 was not considered a big winner for Samsung. The S6, on the other hand, seems to be a stunning success, especially in its Edge model.
The S6’s super sales come even though Samsung killed off power-user-friendly features like the removable back, removable battery, and SD card slot, in favor of a slim metal-and-glass body. It turns out that not many of those mainstream users were removing the battery anyway.
But the power users feel betrayed. I’ve seen this happen several times before. We saw these kinds of moans when Apple changed its infinitely-expandable Mac Pro tower PC into a SimpleHuman trash can, and back when now-defunct wireless carrier Helio pivoted from being a data-heavy power-user’s carrier into the “MySpace carrier.”
Power users are demanding and expensive to support, and they just aren’t a big enough market for a truly mainstream electronics company to cater to. As the PC market has shown, though, there’s still room for boutique or niche hardware makers, as long as they’re happy with being boutiques.
In the phone world, though, it’s very hard to run a startup. I’ve been watching Saygus spin its wheels for several years negotiating manufacturing and carrier agreements. Successful boutiques may need to come with the backing of a bigger player.
Enter the Niche Players
OnePlus is taking a tried-and-true approach to serving power users: create a spin-off niche brand catering to them, one that doesn’t have expectations of world-beating sales. It’s a little like a boutique PC maker. (OnePlus is essentially a spin-off of Oppo, although it doesn’t formally say it is.)
I’d be curious to see if any of the other smartphone makers could pull this off. I’ve been to Samsung’s headquarters, for instance, and they have a ton of young designers there. Hive some of them off into their own little firm, give it a spigot of Samsung money, and see what grows. LG or Lenovo could follow the same playbook.
Samsung has always gotten one thing right: there are simply too many people in the world for one size, or one phone, to fit all. It would be great if power users could get their due from a slew of OnePlus-like options—not just One.