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There are Android phones. There are flagship Android phones. There are flagship alternative Android phones. And then there are Android phones made by OnePlus, which have carved not just a unique identity for themselves, but pretty much sit as the benchmark that most of the relatively more affordable flagship Android phones get compared with. And compare themselves with. While also giving the more expensive flagship phones a serious case of anxiety. It’s been that way for years now, even though some rivals have come close in recent times and continue to try and match the overall proposition, yet the loyal user base is perhaps the biggest testament to the consistency and the experience that OnePlus phones deliver for the money you spend. They’ve effortlessly, and with every iteration, pitched a flagship-esque smartphone experience without making you spend actual flagship phone prices. The OnePlus 9 series will officially launch in India on March 23 and will join the OnePlus Nord and the OnePlus 8T which are currently on sale. The surprise in the mix is the third phone that’ll be part of the OnePlus 9 line-up—the OnePlus 9R, specially for India.

As we head towards the launch of the newest and the greatest phones yet from OnePlus, we speak with Pete Lau, Founder, CEO and Chief Product Officer at OnePlus, about the company’s plans for the OnePlus 9 series, the OnePlus 9R, as well as the plans for India for 2021 and beyond. While it is expected that the OnePlus 9 series will include the OnePlus 9 and the OnePlus 9 Pro, albeit in multiple configuration options, a lot will hinge on the new OnePlus 9R. Even more so because it is poised to be the most affordable phone among the OnePlus 9 line-up, and the company promises a flagship experience, nevertheless. While the company is understandably keeping their cards close to them, what we know is that the OnePlus 9R will have a focus on mobile gaming, with features such as smooth scrolling, immersive gaming controls and more display tweaks. Pete Lau also confirms that the company will continue to try and address the different requirements of smartphone users, be it gaming or photography. Edited excerpts below.

As we emerge from 2020 into what one hopes would be a smoother year, how much importance does 2021 attain for the smartphone ecosystem?

According to the recently unveiled App Annie Report, time spent on smartphones surged by almost 39% in the year 2020, with most spending 4.6 hours a day, up from 3.3. hours a day in 2019. With smartphones becoming an essential aspect of the human function, the importance of reliable smartphones has never been greater. As we step into 2021 with our flagship launch, the goal for the year is to continue to build on the promise of burdenless technology, curating experiences for a larger audience across categories such as TV, audio, wearables, and smartphones. As per IDC reports, the smartphone industry is pegged to grow at a high single-digit rate YoY (year-on-year), majorly driven by upgrading consumers, in the mid-range segment and affordable 5G offerings.

Will OnePlus approach 2021 differently, in terms of product launches, price segments and devices? Or does the premium experience remain the core strength?

In line with the business strategy we announced last year, we will continue to further expand and build a premium, accessible, and connected ecosystem which offers our users a superior technology experience to a wider user base across varying price points. Along with the OnePlus 9 and 9 Pro, we are excited to launch the OnePlus 9R in India. We are focused on expanding our smartphone offering to cater to different user requirements with the OnePlus 9R by providing a robust flagship experience at a more accessible price point. We have also recently confirmed that our first global wearable product, the OnePlus Watch, will launch alongside our new smartphones on March 23.

What are the contours of the OnePlus 9 series, particularly when rivals such as Samsung and Apple now have wider flagship ranges? How important is the OnePlus 9R for India?

To address the constantly evolving and diverse Indian smartphone market needs, OnePlus is committed to delivering an overall strong performance to not only offer the user with multiple choices in the premium smartphone segment, but more importantly, to bring our premium fast and smooth experience to consumers who are looking to level up their handset with the latest technology for a more advanced, faster, and smoother experience. The OnePlus 9R also reinstates our promise to make the premium OnePlus smartphone experience accessible to more users by introducing new products at a wider range of price points, this time within the premium category.

As a phone and an experience, how different will the OnePlus 9R be from OnePlus phones till now? What carries forward and what’s new?

As we have begun to expand our smartphone portfolio over the past year, we have continued to approach our products with the same goal in mind from day one: to offer our users the best-in-class experience, regardless of price point. The OnePlus 9R is a continuation of that approach that meets the needs of our core community. We have focused on a fast and smooth user experience for the past generations of flagships and built a large community of the users who value the flagship experience where performance and burdenless user experience become an essential part of their device. We also understand that mobile gaming continues to be a key focus area among our OnePlus user community, which is why we are introducing the OnePlus 9R, a premium-tier device at a more affordable price point in India. Featuring the latest technologies that we see as must-have features of a flagship, the OnePlus 9R is targeted to empower users with smooth scrolling, immersive gaming controls and a superior viewing experience effectively bringing our flagship experience to more users.

Specifically, for India, will this be a year of consolidation for OnePlus? Or do you feel this is the right time to be aggressive with launches, to tap a pent-up spending spree?

With connected technology increasingly playing a central role in our lives, consumer demand for smart devices will continue to be on the rise well beyond 2020. Post the positive demand we have witnessed for OnePlus products from our Indian user community, we are confident of our strategy and aim to keep this momentum going in 2021.

Do you feel the Indian smartphone market will be even more price-sensitive than before? Or do buyers prefer paying for a genuinely premium experience?

We believe India is a nuanced market, Indian consumers have a very mature understanding of technology and their expectations from a product. A powerful, holistic product that delivers an all-round premium experience will continue to be a central focus for users and is something we continue to focus on across product ranges and price points.

Has the success of the OnePlus Nord opened up another price band for OnePlus to target for success, again?

With OnePlus Nord, we were able to cater to users looking for an affordable offering without needing to compromise on the overall great user experience. The response we have received from our community and even users of the OnePlus Nord, has been phenomenal and gives us confidence that we are headed in the right direction. With the OnePlus 9R, we are looking to go even further to bring out a balanced handset with the latest technology and class-leading industrial design that can deliver a superior user experience overall and can also offer fast and smooth experiences for daily usage and heavy gameplay.

How instrumental is the community and customer feedback when it comes to ironing out the software and the hardware side of things?

At OnePlus, our community is at the core of all our efforts and has played a fundamental role in shaping our journey, over the last 7 years. The fast and smooth performance that our generations of flagships have delivered results in unparalleled gaming experiences that have been recognized among our core community and the gaming community. We also have seen a spike in consumer need in India for a powerful flagship device that is high in specs but also more accessible to the average users.

According to our analysis on our flagship user’s behavior, a lot of our users are gamers and tend to play heavy games that require immersive gaming control with accurate touch and faster responsiveness. As a result, OnePlus has heavily invested our efforts on hardware and software to create the powerful setup for a more immersive, smooth, and responsive gaming experience. With the success and global attention received on developments like high refresh rate gaming for Fortnite and the launch of the OnePlus 8T Cyberpunk 2077 limited edition, we are happy that our products continue to resonate with the gaming community.

Last year, we also launched OnePlus IDEAS to gather user feedback on OxygenOS and suggestions for features that can be added to the OS to make it more efficient. As part of IDEAS 2.0, based on community feedback, we will be adding an FPS counter inside Game Space, a one-stop shop to access your mobile games with customization options exclusively for gamers in India.

Do you feel that the increasing component and input costs pose a risk for new smartphones?

At OnePlus, we are dedicated to providing our consumers with a great user experience across price points, while still ensuring the best possible offering across our product portfolio. We always look for ways to ensure our products remain accessible for a wide range of consumers. One example is our focus on ensuring all OnePlus devices for the India market are manufactured in India in line with the government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative, which also ensure that there is minimal cost impact on our users.

There is a lot of conversation about 5G. Do you feel it is an opportunity or purely a futureproofing tick-off on the checklist?

At OnePlus, 5G is a top priority in our product strategy and we identified the need for it early on and have continued to remain early movers in 5G R&D development. In early 2020, we invested $30 million to scale up 5G research and remain committed to that. Additionally, our R&D team in India has also been focused on 5G software development efforts as well as field testing efforts, while working closely with telecom operators and stakeholders like Qualcomm.

One great example of how 5G is bringing more value to users is with gaming. The gaming industry is increasingly gaining global popularity and is worth more than the global box office and music industry combined, in several markets. 5G will accelerate this. Improved speed, better latency, and increased capacity will facilitate cloud gaming. Combined with powerful OnePlus devices, people can play advanced games anywhere they go, all on 5G.

With the stresses of 5G, such as battery consumption and heating, how important will design be? Is it possible to blend functionality and utility with beautiful designs?

Our burdenless philosophy is central to how we make all of our products, guiding us in aspects such as product planning, product development, and industrial design. We believe that a truly burdenless experience can only be achieved when advanced hardware, carefully optimized software and great industrial design work seamlessly together. As always, our devices will continue to be future-ready, packed with cutting-edge technology, and we will continue to push boundaries when it comes to product design.

Apart from the OnePlus 9 series, what is on the menu for OnePlus for India? Are there any new categories that could be tapped?

While I cannot reveal specific details at this point, I will definitely say that 2021 is an important year for us with a lot of developments in the pipeline. We are very focused on our new long-term partnership with Hasselblad and continuing to improve the OnePlus camera experience for our users over the next few years. We will also look to keep building on the success of the expanded product portfolio strategy we introduced last year, which includes further expanding our ecosystem offerings in India. In line with our product strategy, we will extend our focus from personal digital connected experiences to smart-home products; thus, strengthening our burdenless ecosystem play. You will hear more from us when the time is right.