From the moment the first leaks started to pour out about the new OnePlus 5, its design was one of the closest guarded secrets. While it was likely that the 5 would feature a dual camera setup, the question is what sort of setup it would feature.
Vertically mounted in the existing OP3 body or horizontally mounted similar to the LG models of late? Would OnePlus build off the successful strategy that helped the 3 and 3T stand apart from the crowd (while not necessarily deviating from the norm of metal smartphones too much), or would they look towards a totally new design? Today, all our questions about the anticipated phone have been answered; and for some it is a major letdown due to the change in direction from previous OnePlus devices.
Manufacturers have been borrowing ideas from Apple for quite some time, and this extends beyond just the mobile space. The road does go both ways as Apple similarly borrows designs, ideas, and features from others as well. In particular though, some Android manufacturers have borrowed heavily from Apple, sometimes coming awfully close to infringement, and I am not just talking about the Android clones of iOS products either. Samsung found itself in hot water just a few short years ago, accused of copying Apple’s design principles and while in that case it is easy to see how Apple many have over extended what infringement actually is, the point still stands that a startling amount of Android OEMs in some way, shape, or form have borrowed from Apple. This does not just affect hardware designs either. In my mini-review of the Huawei Honor 8 Pro (which does look a whole lot like an iPhone anyway), for example, I made mention of how closely Huawei mimics Apple’s design principles in their extensive use of overlays and blur (something increasingly popular in the Android space at large), white and blue color palette, and emulates the light feel of the OS. Huawei does not stand alone either, Xiaomi and their long standing “MIUI” interface also closely adheres to what Apple does. In stark contrast however, Google distances itself from copying what Apple does in terms of software with the Material design, and the likes of Samsung and LG straddle the difference. So all of this makes us wonder: why do OEMs, and in particular OEMs that target the East, mimic Apple so closely?
The causes of wanting to follow Apple’s lead can be narrowed down to 3 main ones.
Apple’s Design is Iconic
Apple is iconic, and has a well known and well regarded design. If you were to walk up to any stranger on the street and show them two phones, any Nexus device and any iPhone, and asked them which phone they are familiar with, they will likely point out the iPhone. Similarly, show many people a website with glossy curved icons, a largely simple white background with blue or black accents and they likely will recognize this in some way as an Apple design.
Apple is masterful at advertising, both straightforward and subliminally. Apple’s products are recognizable at a distance, as are their rather plain and arguably boring UI experiences. Icons thrown to the desktop are an Android power user’s worse nightmare, but it is familiar for iOS users going back a decade now. Similarly, Apple’s UI for the iPhone has only had two major revisions. The initial “denim” look, and the newer glass UI.
In the same time, Android has had at least 4 major UI changes from the blocky white, black, and orange UI of the first versions, the green of gingerbread, Tron-esque Holo, and now into Material design. Add to this the numerous, nearly countless UX skins that carriers and OEM’s have thrown onto Android over the years and you are left with hundreds of different experiences. Funnily enough, we still continue to see OEMs, even large ones like Samsung, move away from Android design principles and often borrow some of that glass UI. Familiarity works in the end, and for many OEMs across the world, offering an experience similar to what many users already know helps the transition from one platform to another.
The iPhone is a Status Symbol
In many areas – markets that these OEMs target – the iPhone is regarded as a status symbol. For many years in the United States, the iPhone was the luxury of smartphones. It demanded the highest price, was exclusive to one carrier, and was renowned such that if you were someone with an iPhone, you were someone special. That changed over the years as Samsung and others have encroached on their space, offering premium experiences for more users, and as carrier subsidies and yearly releases expanded upon that user base. In some cases they did so at a saving, but currently many flagships are toe to toe with what Apple demands for their iPhones and in some cases asking even more for their devices.
However, many countries’ smartphone customers do not have the means to spend $700+ on a smartphone, and this is exacerbated when you figure that in many countries inflation, exchange rates, import taxes, and tariffs can sometimes push the cost of an iPhone or Galaxy S8 well beyond $1,000. Factor in the significantly lower wages and an iPhone can be effectively four times as expensive, if not more. In some areas like China or India, it is difficult to get a top tier flagship that costs that much, and similar to how it was in the United States a few years back, those who have iPhones are usually seen as the elite.
Contrary to the U.S. and U.K., in many of these countries patent laws are weak, non-existent, or are not as enforced and this leads OEMs to closely imitate the iPhone in all but the cost. This is not exactly a bad idea either, and it has been good for the industry. Mid range phones, and even some budget devices are no longer made of cheap plastic, and are instead being manufactured with aluminum and more “premium” components. 2.5D glass is becoming more of an industry standard as are things like dual cameras. The lack of a headphone jack is obviously an example of how not all imitations are for the best.
Complain as we may at times about the fragility of devices, it simply cannot be denied that a $200 smartphone today is worlds better than a $200 smartphone 4 years ago. For many of these companies, imitation has served to both improve the quality of their devices, but they also improve their desirability as they slowly trend into their own niche instead of following Apple so closely. It has allowed them to save costs in design by offering a cop-out guaranteed to get some customers, and it could have streamlined manufacturing with foundries servicing multiple OEMs and various devices. It certainly contributed to the proliferation of affordable devices that changed the industry so much in just a few years.
It Just Works
Apple’s designs, while simple and maybe boring, work. The iPhone 7 design, which is both dated and simplistic compared to many devices like the HTC U11 or the Galaxy S8, is still a solid design that works in nearly every way. The phones are comfortable, streamlined, and have an identity. The metal and glass melt into each other with no unattractive elements contouring the body; it’s ergonomic and most importantly, recognizable.
While Apple stands to detour from the familiar rectangle with round home button design they had pioneered for 10 years with the 10th anniversary iPhone, one can speculate it won’t deviate too far. Similarly, the UI of iOS, while there is a lot of room for improvement, similarly just works. Apple’s UI is generally simple, uncluttered, and familiar with people who may have never used an Apple device before. Subjectively it is also an attractive, albeit boring, UI with a good use of contrasting colors, easy to understand UX elements, and smooth transitions. The dialer, calendar, and gallery are all applications that are pleasing to use without feeling cluttered or like the device is trying to throw every little feature at you at one time.
It cannot be said enough, Apple’s designs just work. They are tried, tested, proven, and familiar with its users and are no doubt part of the reason so many iOS users just never leave.
After taking some time and reviewing the landscape it is easy to see why OEM’s like to use Apple as a source from which to imitate. OnePlus is no different than many of these manufacturers. While many of us in the West may see the brand as the second coming of Nexus, some of their biggest markets are India and China, markets where being different is not always advantageous. OnePlus, while designing the 5, must have taken many of these factors into account when deciding to mimic Apple’s tried and proven design and copying Apple likely was not even the intent.
OnePlus toyed with many different designs and the natural progression from the OP3T design to the OP5 can easily be seen. When reviewing the Honor 8 Pro mentioned earlier, one of its biggest distractions was how closely it mirrored the 7+, even fitting into a skin case made for the iPhone. But that phone brought little more than the design to the table, and many that copy Apple fall into that category. The OnePlus 5, on the other hand, looks to be a powerhouse improving upon the elements that made the OnePlus 3T so successful — it was affordable, had a clean UI, and was open to developers. While the OP5 is a little less affordable, it trades upwards for things like a more premium camera, less compromises, stronger hardware, and in my opinion a better design in the end. And of course, looking like an iPhone does not impair its development potential in any way, though it might tick off some enthusiasts or OnePlus fans who were hoping for an original design.
There is also the fact of OnePlus’s sister companies to consider: Oppo and Vivo. Not much has been said about Oppo in relation to OnePlus in quite some time now, but the ties are inevitable from the hardware design to the actual hardware components being used. The newly announced Oppo R11 looks remarkably similar to the OnePlus 5, and the camera sensor in the OP5 is the Sony IMX398, a sensor Sony had made “exclusively” for Oppo. There is no doubt that Oppo’s manufacturing power is backing OnePlus with this phone, and that is not a bad thing if it enables OnePlus to offer a more thorough product (though we suspect a lot of money is going into marketing this round). Oppo and Vivo are two of the top three manufacturers in China totaling over 32% of the market share and over 147 million devices shipped in the country. While the two companies still have yet to really make inroads in the global market, their growth puts them on a track to be there shortly and OnePlus may just be positioning itself as the third arm, maybe an enthusiast arm, of that trio.
The OnePlus 5 looks like an iPhone, and that’s fine, because if it takes what is already a stellar hardware design, one of the best, and enhances it with everything we have already loved in the OnePlus family, it is going to be a difficult phone to put down. It is one thing to simply copy the iPhone, it is another to build on its strengths and improve it, and that might just be what OnePlus is trying to accomplish.