Author(s): Ben Wood
On Monday, at an event in New York City, OnePlus, a five-year-old smartphone maker from China, announced the availability of the OnePlus 6T phone in the US exclusively through T-Mobile. Its flagship-level mid-tier products are well-known in China and India, as well as some other countries where it has an army of enthusiastic fans. However, in the strategically important US market, OnePlus is still relatively unfamiliar. Its new device will be supported by 233 carriers in 74 countries, reflecting the manufacturer's international reach.
T-Mobile said the Android-based OnePlus 6T would begin selling in its stores from 1 November. The starting price for the phone is $549, but T-Mobile is offering discounts when customers trade in an eligible device, and 24-month financing plans.
For OnePlus, this is a significant development and certainly one that's been in the works for at least a year. Getting a handset into US carrier channels is a challenging task that even much larger rivals like Huawei have found can be risky.
OnePlus isn't entirely new to the US market, as customers there have been able to buy phones directly from the manufacturer for several years. But only a limited number of subscribers in the country buy smartphones on the open market. To break into the US, phone brands need to soldier their way through the process of getting onto carrier road maps and pass rigid certification rules.
OnePlus is unusual among Chinese tech companies, which often focus on mass-market products for domestic customers. The OnePlus smartphone that T-Mobile will sell, the 6T, packs features that are typically found in highly-specified smartphones. The device is equipped with an in-display fingerprint sensor and dual cameras. It also offers a new Nightscape mode to improve dimly lit photos, as well as a Studio Lighting setting.
OnePlus phones have received rave reviews over the years, and more importantly, stand out in terms of value. Looking at their specifications, these are extremely competitive smartphones compared with other Android devices. For cost-conscious buyers, they are credible alternatives to the iPhone.
Historically, OnePlus, which only has about 1,000 employees, has been very effective at using partnerships to promote it position. It was notable that Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon played a significant role at the phone's launch event. The US chipmaker also recently welcomed OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei onto the stage at its 4G/5G Summit in Hong Kong (see Instant Insight: Qualcomm 4G/5G Summit). This reflects its belief that emerging challenger brands including OnePlus, Oppo and Xiaomi will be crucial to the next wave of growth for the US chipmaker. This is particularly important while rival Android smartphone players such as Huawei and Samsung continue to pursue the own silicon strategy and Qualcomm remains locked in a legal wrangle with Apple.
We believe OnePlus has a real chance of making at least a dent in the US market. Its decision to team up with T-Mobile, a carrier that has marketed itself as the country's rebellious service provider, is in harmony with OnePlus's reputation for breaking the mould. The carrier also has a large number of Android devices, giving OnePlus the opportunity to catch subscribers looking to switch from older Samsung, LG or other makers' smartphones.
OnePlus has become known for being an innovative hardware maker, providing value for money to consumers who are willing to move beyond the top brands. Success in the US market would build on its progress elsewhere and the timing looks good, given the challenges some Chinese rivals are facing in the US.