Exclusive: A Q&A with OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei on how the Nord came to life

The man in charge of making the company's first sub-$500 phone in years explains the Nord's design philosophy, his thoughts on foldables, and why his profile photo is the Monkey King.

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Carl Pei needs no introduction. Smartphone nerds know him as one half of OnePlus. Co-founded with CEO Pete Lau, Pei has been instrumental in raising OnePlus from newborn to Android God Emperor.

Contrasting the brand's "Never Settle" motto, which strives to deliver on speed and performance, Pei is a more soft-spoken person who never fails to remind me of the integrity and "heart" that OnePlus pours into its products. As OnePlus has ballooned and gained ground on Samsung in premium phone markets, Pei's presence at North American launches receded.

Of course, anyone following him on Twitter and Instagram could see he was still heavily involved with OnePlus launches — only more so in places like India and Europe. From the outside looking in, Pei seems more interested in growing a brand and creating products that connect with emerging populations. People in places that want a high-quality phone, but can't afford to pay $1,000 prices.

Lately, Pei is looking very energized. A week away ahead of the OnePlus Nord launch on July 21, Pei and I sat down to talk about a multitude of topics: him taking the lead on creating OnePlus' first mid-range phone; the design philosophy behind it; why does the Nord have so many cameras on the front and back?; his personal thoughts on foldable phones; why is his WeChat photo a picture of the Monkey King?

Get your coffee or your popcorn or whatever because this is going to be fun.

The below Q&A has been edited for clarity.

Ray: You seem very rejuvenated with the Nord project. I feel like I haven't seen you as excited about a product launch for a while.

Carl: My WeChat profile photo is of the Monkey King. I decided to change it to this profile photo when this product started because over the past few years as OnePlus has grown I've also become quite comfortable.

We settled into a routine, we made better and better phones, we expanded our channels, and things were so good. So when [Pete Lau, CEO of OnePlus] first approached me in January to ask me if I wanted to take on a new project like this, I didn't say yes in the beginning.

I thought it through for a really long time. That week, I couldn't really sleep for four of seven nights. But I was super lucid and super clear in my mind. I thought through everything I had done over the past couple of years and decided this would be a good thing to do.

Ever since then it's been a near-infinite source of motivation to make this as successful as possible. Hence the Monkey King, who was under a mountain for 500 years and then finally escaped and wreaked havoc in heaven.

Ray: Why is now the right time to launch a mid-range phone after selling "flagship killers" for so many years?

Carl: It's been almost seven years [since OnePlus was founded] and over the past couple of years we've really focused on flagship phones and together with our community we made them better and better. And by doing so we've also grown our company. But there's been an increasing amount of users who also have been asking for more affordable OnePlus products. It's not that we didn't hear them before. It's just we didn't feel the technology was really ready until now.

So now with the new Snapdragon 765G, we feel like from both a power efficiency and from a raw processing power perspective, we finally have a mid-range processor that can power the fast and smooth experience that we've really become known for at OnePlus over the past couple of years.

Ray: At what point did you guys decide you wanted to build a mid-range phone that would meet your expectations? When did the project begin?

Towards Q4 of last year, we decided to experiment in this market and we had a couple of different names for this product and they've all leaked: OnePlus 8 Lite and OnePlus Z. But when we were first thinking about it in Q4, it was more of an experiment. We wanted to dip our toes into this new market to see how things would turn out, but as we were working on this and as we started talking to more consumers and doing more research we actually found that the market demands for a product like this was much greater than we originally envisioned.

That's when we decided to spin off a [separate team within OnePlus]. So this team was then formed in early January. The R&D process had already started for a couple of months. The design was very different from OnePlus phones when it was still a more kind of dipping-our-toes-in-the-water product. But once we decided to get really serious with this product we changed the design to really remind people of a OnePlus phone. The way the camera is designed; the way they're stacked in a linear way. The way it curves on the two sides to fit the design of other OnePlus products.

Ray: Mid-range phones are really popular, especially in India, where Chinese sub-brands like Honor (Huawei), Pocophone (Xiaomi), Realme (Oppo), etc. are competing fiercely on value with spec sheets. Is the Nord a response to these hyper-competitive phones?

Carl: We think that there's tremendous demand in certain markets for our brand and for our products if we move to a more accessible price range and it's less of what the competition is doing. We look at data, we look at the volume that the different markets have in different price segments, and I would like to think that we put a lot of heart into our products.

We put a lot of attention to even the smallest details. Inside the [Nord box], there’s a quick-start guide that we completely remade for the OnePlus Nord. Usually, a quick-start guide is just a bunch of like legalese. Like, this is a SAR (Specific Absorption Rate) value or whatnot. But this time around, we just wanted to interrogate every aspect of the phone and make it more user friendly so our quick start-guide is about the things we want consumers to try out when they finally open the box. I tend to think we put a lot more heart and effort into everything we do.

“We just wanted to interrogate every aspect of the phone and make it more user friendly.”

Ray: I feel like the general marketing materials used to explain this phone are a lot more casual. The posts on the Nord Instagram, the film-inspired aesthetic, and the casual language used for promoting the Nord. Is this intentional, maybe to cater to a younger audience?

Carl: The first thing we did when we started was we kind of took some time to decompress and do a post-mortem. It had been six years [since OnePlus was founded] and the world had changed a lot in six years. The team sat down to look at how things in the world had changed over the past six years: people's attitudes have changed and social media has changed. As a result, when we were defining the strategy for this new product line, a lot of it came from the changes we observed.

For example, today people value truth a lot more than before. They want transparency, so as a result, you can see in our language and in our tonality, we're not afraid of admitting when we're not confident about something. As an example, one of the pieces of copy that I really like is: "Four cameras on the back. Two on the front. If you don't like cameras we really messed up." I think that kind of tonality is something we're going for and it felt natural. It vibes well with the personality of the team as well. We all felt that it was very us.

Even the documentary that we're working on came as a result of wanting to give people a more inside look on how the sausage is made rather than being very corporate and "Here's our product, go buy it. We have a cheaper product to target or gain more market share, that kind of communication."

Ray: There are a lot of cameras on this phone. It's a lot more than even the flagship OnePlus 8 Pro. I think people are questioning whether they're all necessary. There are two selfie cameras. Why add these extra cameras which likely add to the cost?

Carl: It is a little bit different between markets. Some markets have a real need for more cameras. Take India: selfies are way more common in India than in the United States. And when people take selfies, a lot of them are actually with friends or in groups, so this feature like the ultra wide-angle selfie camera really makes sense for India. In Western markets, selfies tend to increasingly feature more people so although it's a feature primarily designed for India, we're excited to see how the rest of the world reacts to it.

When it comes to the cameras on the back, I think one common misconception people have is that if we were to have fewer cameras that we would be able to reduce the cost of the phone by a lot. Usually, when it comes to a mid-range phone, the main camera is what's driving the cost.

The other cameras are there as an auxiliary feature for when customers want to use it or to improve a certain other feature (i.e. the depth camera for portrait mode). Apart from the main camera, the other cameras don't really add a lot to the overall cost. It's not like if you have two cameras instead of four cameras that you can add another OIS (optical image stabilization) to the secondary camera. It doesn't really work like that. On the back of the phone, the main camera is still what we chose to focus on the most.

And for that, we took the same sensor we had on the OnePlus 8 and brought it to the Nord. The benefit of that is not only that it has a near flagship-grade camera, but it's also a sensor that our team has been working on tuning for quite some time now. So it's a very mature and well-tuned camera to bring to market.

Ray: You say you're confident you can now deliver a really great, fast and smooth experience on a mid-range phone. A few years ago you did the budget/mid-range OnePlus X, and when we talked in the past, you mentioned how the OnePlus X took focus off the flagship. Was there any change in philosophy making a mid-range phone this time around? What's different now?

Carl: I don't think OnePlus X was not a good product, but it was probably too early for us back at a time when all of our consumers were techies. Whereas today, we're targeting a lot broader. I do think the Nord, when it gets into the hands of a more broader consumer base... they're going to embrace it.

With the pre-launch that we're currently doing with the OnePlus Nord, if you look at different metrics like Google Trends, it's still doing really, really well. It's, I think, the most searched for. We were also really worried that tech enthusiasts wouldn't be as interested in the OnePlus Nord as compared to other phones because it's using a mid-range SoC (system-on-chip). But the amount of buzz that this product is getting has removed our worry that tech enthusiasts wouldn't care about the [Snapdragon] 700 series.

“Apart from the main camera, the other cameras don't really add a lot to the overall cost.”

Ray: If the mid-range Nord is as fast and smooth as you claim, why would anybody buy a OnePlus 8 which has the same camera (but not one that's as good as the OnePlus 8 Pro)?

Carl: I think different people want different things. If you look at other consumer categories like cars within the same brand, you have different car product lines. You have the Porsche 911 but you also have the Macan that's targeted at a more mass market. So where people want the best, I think they're still gonna go for the flagships, and the flagship market is still quite a large market.

I also think that you have to be bold about these things. Because if you're afraid of "what if I take share from my other product?"... that's not how the world works. We're not living in a vacuum, there's a lot of other companies out there as well so if we're not making this product then somebody else could also make this product. It's better to make it ourselves and we take a little bit of our own share than having somebody else take our share.

Ray: Were there any features that weren't included to keep costs down? Any features that you considered adding, but maybe didn't make it in?

Carl: I think IP certification is a topic that comes up pretty often. We need to create a great everyday experience with an affordable price. When we're doing this we need to still cover people's bases in case of accidents. Sometimes people spill water on their phones or use it in the rain.

So when we designed the OnePlus Nord, it still comes with the seals that you find in IP-certified phones. At each stage of the design process we also test it to make sure that the design can survive 30 centimeters underwater for 30 seconds, so it'll protect you against the day-to-day encounters with water. But we didn't really feel like it was necessary to go through the extra process of the extra cost involved in getting that IP certification.

It's always about balancing the experience versus the cost, especially when you're making a mid-range phone.

[Another feature] is on the topic of digital well-being. People spend a lot of time on their smartphones and sometimes the apps they're using, it's hard to imagine that those apps are making people smarter or making people better. So we discussed at length in the beginning what we could eventually do to make the smartphone a more productive tool or a more healthy tool for people.

At the same time, we need to be practical because we only had a couple of months to bring [the Nord to] market. Digital well-being was something we thought about a lot. We had a long discussion about how sometimes social media is making the youth unhappy and what could we do as a smartphone brand and smartphone maker in the long run to mitigate some of this. Google has been doing work here on Android so we never really landed on the perfect idea where we could contribute here.

“I also think that you have to be bold about these things.”

Ray: A lot of phone makers are still chasing foldables. It feels like the momentum has slowed down a little bit and while I’ve personally not had the best experiences with foldable phones, I’m curious what are your thoughts on foldables? There were rumors OnePlus was working on foldables. Is the company working on them?

Carl: So, speaking from my personal perspective and not speaking on behalf of the company, I think that software and the user experience is something that has to come before the hardware and the form factor. Just because we can make a foldable phone doesn't mean we should. If the software is still the same, but it's just kind of a stretched version of what people normally see [on a phone], I don't really see the added value for foldables right now.

But in a couple of years, once somebody figures out the right use-case and the right user experience, I'm not ruling it out. I think it’s good that people are pushing the envelope because you really have to throw things on the wall and see what sticks. So I’m happy that people are doing so.

Ray: Security is potentially the biggest concern when it comes to OnePlus. Though OnePlus has not found itself in serious hot water and there are no reports of affiliation with the Chinese government, what would happen if the company was blacklisted by the Trump administration as a national security threat? Does OnePlus have a contingency plan if it were to be banned from using Android like Huawei?

Carl: [Laughs] So this interview is about the OnePlus Nord.

Ray: Fair enough.

Bigger fam

With that our time ran out and a PR spokesperson stepped in to wrap up the call. I thanked Carl for speaking with me and we agreed to talk more on OnePlus in the near future.

I've been following OnePlus every step of the way since it launched the first OnePlus One in 2013. Companies love to celebrate the journey and OnePlus is no different. It's really come a long way. From getting people to smash their phones for a OnePlus One, to having an invite-to-buy system, to finally standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the iPhone and best Samsung Galaxy, OnePlus has continued to push forward.

And now it's adding to the family. A flagship and mid-range product lineup — core OnePlus philosophies in tow. Will the Nord succeed where the OnePlus X didn't? For all of OnePlus' successes, it has endured its share of criticisms. The OnePlus 2 was almost ruined with the Snapdragon 810 chip, which tended to overheat. The VR launch for the OnePlus 2 was cringe-inducing. OnePlus resisted industry-standard features like IP-ratings and wireless charging up until the 8 Pro. OnePlus has suffered data breaches. Like any company, OnePlus isn't bulletproof.

However, early signs are promising. Pei said the OnePlus has sold over 55,000 AR invites and pre-orders sold out quickly. Not bad for a phone that hasn't launched, nobody has touched, and we've only seen a few official glimpses of.

The Nord is launching in Europe and India — no North American announcement yet, only a "we're also looking to bring more affordable smartphones to North America in the near future" — but I'm excited to see how much of a OnePlus experience the company can deliver with a phone that costs "below $500." Can the Nord rekindle the magic of the very first OnePlus phones that created a cult following?

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