Why OnePlus waited three years to release a new smartwatch | TechCrunch

Why OnePlus waited three years to release a new smartwatch | TechCrunch


2024-02-26 09:00:22

OnePlus’ second smartwatch captured media interest this week, courtesy of its stated 100 hours of battery life. The device utilizes a clever dual-chip system, seamlessly switching from the Snapdragon W5 to the far more power-efficient BES 2700 MCU. If the device does its job correctly, users won’t notice the shift, beyond the extra battery life it brings.

The OnePlus Watch 2 is also notable for the three-year gap between releases. The first-gen device received lukewarm reviews, leading some to speculate that the Oppo-owned company might have backed out of the watch space altogether. Instead, customer pushback simply sent the company back to the drawing board.

This morning, ahead of the device’s official unveiling, I sat down with Tuomas Lampén, OnePlus Europe’s head of strategy, on a pair of folding chairs outside Google’s MWC booth. In spite of OnePlus’ big news, the company opted out of a booth this year, preferring instead to hold an off-site briefing a day prior to the show’s kickoff. Lampén was, naturally, wearing the Watch 2, gesturing to the device frequently over the course of our conversation.

It’s perhaps unfair to classify the device as a clean break from its predecessor. In addition to the lessons learned from the earlier device, the low-power element of the hybrid chip design relies on some features designed specifically for the Watch 1. So the first product wasn’t entirely an evolutionary dead end. Many of its shortcomings could, however, be pinned on the product’s chip and OnePlus’ decision to go with the barebones in-house operating system, Real-Time Operating System (RTOS), rather than Google’s considerably more ubiquitous Wear OS.

In terms of functionality, the first OnePlus Watch more closely resembled pre-Apple Watch smartwatches. This afforded the product excellent battery life, but most consumers are looking for something with more smart functionality than your average fitness band. Lampén admits that community feedback “wasn’t great.”

He adds, “For me, personally, I didn’t do any fitness tracking or stuff like that. It was a great companion for the phone — notifications and stuff like that. It was pretty simple. You could say that we used the time to talk to our community and figure out how to make a great smartwatch.”

Community has been a fundamental aspect of OnePlus’ operations since its inception. Forums played an integral role in the development of its early smartphones, with the company soliciting feedback and regularly engaging with its then-small customer base. As organizations grow, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain those sorts of intimate connections. As it added more products and was eventually folded into Oppo, OnePlus faced criticism that it had lost sight of the connections that made the company so unique.

The Watch 2 is, however, very much a product of these connections. Lampén says Wear OS and battery were the two most requested features for the product. As such, the new device presents a kind of balancing act between the two. According to OnePlus, the second watch has been in the works at least since the first was released. The company apparently didn’t seriously consider exiting the category altogether, in spite of what appear to be disappointing sales. Lampén says he doesn’t know the exact figure, while adding that the company didn’t manufacture as many devices as it could sell, leading to a shortage in certain areas like Europe. One assumes, however, that had the original device garnered the reception the company had hoped for, it would have fired up production to meet that demand.

The hybrid chip/OS system was a major contributor to the gap between devices, according to Lampén. “Building the dual-engine architecture . . . took some time,” the executive notes. “We had to work with Qualcomm and Google engineers to get it working. They had to do modifications on both the Snapdragon chip and even Google had to change something in Wear OS.”

Image Credits: OnePlus

It’s difficult to say precisely what Google is getting out of the deal, beyond seeing another Wear OS device come to market. If the company’s work with Samsung on a foldable friendly version of Android is any indication, this could point to future Wear OS devices utilizing a similar hybrid approach to eke out as much battery life as possible. Lampén interjects, “I’m sure we filed a bunch of patents (pertaining to the dual-architecture engine),” suggesting that such technology could remain proprietary for some time.

Depending on how inclusive such patents are (and whether they’re granted), OnePlus could potentially license the tech, addressing what is commonly understood to be smartphones’ biggest shortcoming. Unsurprisingly, the executive didn’t speculate about its possible future outside of OnePlus’ own devices.

The new technology also means a significantly higher price tag. At $299, Watch 2 is nearly double its predecessor’s $160 starting price. Lampén refers to the new product as a “flagship device,” owing to both functionality and a price point that puts it more in line with the Samsungs and Apples of the world. Flagship also seems to imply the future arrival of a lower cost version, though, again, the executive predictably wouldn’t speculate on the matter.

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Brian Heater
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