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How OxygenOS became the driving force of OnePlus products: A chat with Szymon Kopeć

(Image credit: OnePlus)

In 2019, you've likely heard the name ‘OnePlus’ from commercials, friends, internet or maybe younger siblings but it wasn’t always the case. We’ve seen OnePlus rising from where it was and one of the main reasons behind its popularity and growth is the software experience on its phones.

OnePlus now ships all its phones running OxygenOS, but that’s not how it began its journey. The OnePlus One, globally launched in April 2014 (seven months before India), was shipped with CyanogenMod, which was later updated to CyanogenOS that is essentially the commercially available version of the former. The company’s own custom ROM, OxygenOS, was in the making, but some legal hurdles in India came as a surprise and accelerated the process.

Outside China, the OnePlus One shipped with CyanogenMod 11S, based on Android 4.4.4 KitKat. In China, OnePlus One shipped with Oppo's ColorOS distribution, based on Android 4.3 Jelly Bean

India is the biggest market for OnePlus today, but it was initially a difficult one when its first phone was launched in the country in December 2014. Right when it debuted in India, local consumer electronics company Micromax sued OnePlus for infringement of exclusive rights relating to CyanogenOS causing a temporary halt on the sale. The company launched the OnePlus One with CyanogenOS in India that led to the controversy. Eventually, the legal issues were resolved and OnePlus also started phased rollout of the new OxygenOS to Indian users.

1500 days and counting

OxygenOS recently completed 1500 days of its existence commercially. The first version was based on Android Lollipop and its rollout began on April 3, 2015. From the very first version, OnePlus has promised to “keep it light and essential” and we’ve seen it changing with time following the same approach with consistency. To get into the details of how the company has been consistent on the software side of the product and future of it, we chatted with Szymon Kopec, Product Manager, OnePlus India.

OxygenOS has become an important asset for OnePlus phones and the brand has kept a consistent focus on user experience. So we asked Szymon if they were aware that the software is going to become such an integral part of their products.

“Initially most responses for the Cyanogen were extremely positive,'' he said, “and when OnePlus started working on their own ROM, many users were wondering why is the company doing it when people are already liking what’s available.” 

“We were thinking of the long run because with only hardware you can differentiate a good phone with a less properly made one. In other words, with the hardware, you can differentiate if a phone’s camera has a good camera or not if a phone is fast or slow. The gap between the hardware of most flagship phones has shrunk quite significantly for most of the use cases and scenarios. The major difference we can create is through software experience, services and special features that OxygenOS can offer,” he justifies.

“Obviously, it’s very important to get hardware right with amazing design, great build quality, top-notch specs, and then all the essential features without affecting software intuitiveness. It is the key differentiating factor of our devices,” he added. 

So OnePlus had an idea that going down the line, OxygenOS will be crucial for them but didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. Today, OxygenOS is one of the slickest user interface available on a phone and it stays true to its roots. It doesn’t come pre-loaded with third-party apps, has a hassle free and smooth setup process and is generally a consistent performer. 

Basically, the OS provides users the basic minimum apps required for the phone to function on all cylinders, which can’t be said for many OEMs. So how does the OnePlus development team balance the scale when it comes to adding more features vis-a-vis preserving its fluid interface?

Syzmon says, “That’s a very important point to get right. We have a team of 30 or so product managers and obviously, every manager has an idea about bringing this down and there life is all about craving new products and adding up to the experience. But what we think differentiates a good product from great is not always what you do, but what you don’t do.”

He continues, “So, in the planning phase, determining what additions will be impactful enough or if ingesting something will complicate the experience is really important. In the end, we try to ship only the features or make only the changes that we identify with our community as the most important and contribute to getting the best overall experience.”

OnePlus is known to offer higher RAM capacity in its phones which helps optimize the OxygenOS interface for its smoothness and also enabling faster load time of apps. We asked Szymon about the advantages of having more RAM on the phone and how does it help better the overall experience of the OS?

“We can handle a lot of stuff in the background. Use case of RAM is that we have a feature called RAM boost. So, with RAM boost, we are launching the heaviest of apps, especially games because those are the most RAM consuming apps, we are launching them from RAM memory instead of ROM memory. This increases launching speed significantly and that’s how having lots of RAM is impacting positively on our phones.”

With all that memory under the hood, is there any development on extending a PC-like experience with OxygenOS, similar to Samsung DeX? It allows your Samsung phone to cast a PC-like experience to the big screen with the same apps you use on your phone every day.

Szymon replied, “Yeah, we were exploring Samsung Dex like experience many years ago. Around 3 years ago there was a very interesting startup that was offering this kind of an experience where they were exploring the way to work towards something like DeX. But that is what goes with your question about how we determine which feature to keep and which to skip. How to make the experience fast and how to prioritise what we should do. And at the end of the day, we decided this experience of using a phone like a computer with some other screen is just too narrow at this point and not useful enough to take up memory and explore this direction. There were more important things we decided to work on. Yeah, so that’s why we didn’t pursue this.

One of the major highlights of the OnePlus 7 Pro, the 90Hz refresh rate just amps up the smoothness of the OxygenOS. And with Android 10 set to hit OnePlus phones soon, we’re going to get full screen gestures that will require more optimizations for the animations.

About OnePlus’ vision for Android 10, Szymon says that, “Our direction, especially for Android 10 is to try and make the experience smooth on the next level. So when we create new software, we always ask ourselves whether it’s complying with our principle of fast and smooth products, where fast is relatively easier to do smooth is the more difficult part. So for Android 10, we’ve worked on dozens of transitions and animations, little tweaks that make this experience feel more polished and 90Hz display is definitely helping with that on UI level.”

A big challenge for smartphone makers right now is battery efficiency as with smartphones getting more powerful with time, it’s not easy to compensate it with a bigger cell with every iteration. It will hamper the size and weight of the phone. How does the development team look at facing this challenge?

“It’s a fair point. When we see how OnePlus phones have evolved from OnePlus one to let’s say 7 pro, which has a way larger screen, higher resolution and refresh rate making for a high battery consumption setup, that’s where Qualcomm is doing a great job with shrinking the processing chip. Now it’s manufacturing 7nm chip which is not only more powerful but also it’s way more power-efficient. On top of that, we have done plenty of stuff with OxygenOS to try and make it as battery efficient as possible. Like we’re launching the app in a smart way and we have done algorithm to keep specific apps in the background while removing other to make sure that the user experience is intact but at the same time battery life will be done right. Especially, on these system features, anything we do, we need to make sure it will not impact battery life in a negative way so optimising for battery life from a software perspective is a very important part of the equation of having good battery life.”

OnePlus isn’t just a smartphone company as it also has a range of audio products and to address the elephant in the room, it’s soon entering into the smart television space. We know that OxygenOS will be at the centre of all these products, binding them together. How has the overall experience been in the other two categories?

“For OxygenOS, it started from phones, but we have had a really nice experience with our Bullets wireless working with Oxygen OS devices, where it effortlessly gets connected as soon as you take them apart, but basically, it’s already connected. So that is our direction, be it TV, while I can’t talk about it much as it’s still not launched, but I can say that seamlessness and the way TV will work with the phone is the very reason why we are introducing a TV in the first place. We believe that smart TVs are not smart enough, we strongly believe that with OxygenOS we can solve this problem.”

"Seamlessness and the way TV will work with the phone is the very reason why we are introducing a TV in the first place."

Szymon

While that’s a tall claim to make, we asked him if we’re going to see some of the OxygenOS traits on the TV and he absolutely agreed.

He said, “We constantly brainstorming about how we can take this experience of phone and TV even further and I already think you will see a couple of features that you would like. But we’re just starting so there’s more great stuff to come in the OTA updates in the future but I cannot say more than that. I guess I’ve already told you enough.”

So, what's the OxygenOS development timeline looking right now? Is there a successor in development? Maybe NitrogenOS?

Szymon chuckles, “That’s a cool name! We think OxygenOS for now is fine and we’re not planning to rebrand to anything else. We’re look forward to bringing some great features especially for India in terms of services and a couple of things I think you guys might really like. Right now, I'm most excited about those features coming to India which were announced a couple of months back as we’re working on them from last one year.”

He continues, “So work-life balance, smart SMS app, OnePlus roaming and all of this stuff is coming your way very soon and we’ve been polishing it with our end from four months, we’ve been developing them from a couple of four months and we’re really looking forward to ship it to our end users and see what our community will think about that.”

Guess NitrogenOS is up for grabs? You know who called dibs!