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OnePlus mulls the price of innovation

Qualcomm’s big Snapdragon Summit has become yet another battleground for smartphone one-upmanship, as companies duke it out around the latest flagship chips. OnePlus, which has carved out a name for itself by producing high-quality handsets on a budget, clearly intended to use the Maui-based event to establish itself among innovation leaders in the category. Ultimately, however, it appears the Chinese manufacturer is leaving the show with a bit of egg on its face.

CEO Pete Lau hit the stage this week backed by a slide proclaiming that the company’s 2019 handset would be the first to market with the Snapdragon 855. Huge if true. After all, OnePlus has long taken a wait and see approach to new tech. The company has rarely been the first, but that kind of patience has paid off in lower-cost, solidly built phones.

That claim, however, was apparently the result of an unfortunate miscommunication — the last thing you want when a company like Qualcomm invites you to their big party. “We appreciate the opportunity to clarify that we will be one of the first to have access to, and use, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855, and apologize for the miscommunication,” the company said in a statement provided to Engadget.

OnePlus blames the error on a slide deck produced by a non-native English speaker. The note should have read something along the lines of “one of the first to feature.” These things happen, I suppose, though the mistake looks to be alive and well in this tweet, boasting Lau’s show-stealing “surprise announcement.”

Perhaps OnePlus simply didn’t have the clearance to make such a claim onstage and only learned about it in hindsight. The company may in fact even be the first to offer the feature, but anyone who’s been involved in one of these sorts of corporate presentation will tell you the company in charge is extremely touchy when it comes to exact language — especially when it comes to playing favorites with other hardware partners.

Quite frankly, I’m surprised Qualcomm wasn’t micromanaging the A/V portion of the show to a greater degree.

Assuming all goes well, OnePlus will still be able to claim its position as one of the first companies to bring 5G to market. Though that push to innovate will come with a hefty price tag. Here’s Lau again, this time speaking with the Verge, “It’s hard to know because there’s a lot of specifics still to look at, but it’s likely in the neighborhood of $200-300 more.”

That’s a pretty high premium for a company whose growth has been so closely tied to cost. Given the 6T’s $549 starting price, we’re definitely pushing well into a premium flagship price point here. And for many consumers in many regions, the effects of 5G won’t be immediately apparent. 

What OnePlus does in the next year or so will have a profound effect on the company going forward. The smartphone maker is at a crossroads, and will have to determine where it plans to operate in the future, as king of the mid-range or a premium manufacturer competing for Apple and Samsung’s high-end market share.