Pete Lau is the CEO of the popular and well-loved smartphone brand, OnePlus. The OnePlus 6T brought striking new technologies and design to a phone that costs much less than the flagship phones from Samsung or Apple.
On 14 May, the company will unveil its next products and for the first time this is likely to mean more than one phone. Inevitably, one of these will be its 5G phone. So, when I met Lau in London, looking relaxed and dapper in a finely knitted Moncler jacket and pale grey pants, 5G was front and centre. My suspicion is that people are suffering from sequel fatigue, feeling that 4G was okay for a time but seems not to deliver any more.
What, really, is 5G for, I wonder?
Lau is intensely thoughtful, a gentle smile on his lips as he answers.
“The most obvious difference will be increased speed. And some people may say 4G is fast enough, but the consumer requirement for speed is based on what they have an awareness of. For example, there's still a concept that a download is a process with a time requirement but when we get to the right level of speed, a download will just be an instantaneous experience.
"That's what we will have when the device in your hands and the cloud are acting as one experience. By that point it will be cloud services and functionality being used by everyone.”
It’s true that perhaps 10 or 12 years ago with the 3G era we wouldn’t have thought we could stream video at high quality. But Lau is saying that 5G will offer much more than this.
“In five to 10 years, there is a possibility of a super-knowledgeable assistant that will be enabled for each person, based on the cloud functionality and that combination of cloud, 5G and artificial intelligence.”
All very well, but handsets need to change to make all this possible, especially in terms of how the new 5G antenna influences design.
Lau concedes this is a challenge. “It is significantly harder in design terms, particularly in the antenna design front. The higher bands and the signal strength mean the expectations of the CPU and the chipset and also much higher. So that level of complexity and expectation. also results in the technology and the components making the device more expensive.”
Those 5G frequencies are much higher than on 4G, especially when you get to something called millimetre wave, which can carry huge amounts of data at very high speed and little or no lag. But operating a much higher frequencies adds complications.
“With our 4G devices, a lot could be using say 2.5 gigahertz (GHz) or even under 1 GHz. But with millimetre wave we’re looking at maybe 20 or 30 GHz, that kind of frequency.
"For example,” Lau continues as he picks up a current phone, “With this OnePlus phone here, the antenna will be metallic and can be wrapped around, but the millimetre wave antenna, at least in current technology form, is actually a chip. A chip of decent size that would go in the device So there would be multiple separate chips which take more space.”
If you cast your mind back to the first 3G phones, they were significantly bigger and heavier than the 2G ones before them. It looks like 5G might have the same growth effect. “The 5G chips impact the size of overall design, they have to be oriented in a certain direction. So, they need to be a certain distance from the other antenna chips. While our current phones use a glass back, you couldn't just use that directly, necessarily, with 5G. It would have to be of a particular thickness to work. We look at materials for the device, including glass, and explore what can be least impactful on the signal as possible. Our challenge is in terms of keeping the design manageable and attractive.”
OnePlus is known for its determination to listen to its customers, who form a highly motivated and loyal community. “For us, it's always about going back and standing in the shoes of our users to understand what they expect in our devices.
"For example, they want the battery to last longer. To address this particular need, we could increase the battery size and make the device thicker but from our perspective this isn't a best plan of action. Our customers want a device that is thin and light, but they also want it to last all day. That's the ideal device. But 5G brings the challenge of a phone that's harder to keep at the same size.
"From the user perspective what you want in a 5G device is something that represents the next generation technology as well as having the excellence of device design they've come to expect. It would be easy to create a workable 5G solution that would be. thick and ugly but that wouldn't be what's ultimately desired.
“So, for example, if the engineers say that the thickness of the antenna piece can be no smaller than 8mm, but I'm saying we need it to be 4mm or less, then it’s a very significant challenge that will be placed back to them.”
The most recent OnePlus phone doesn’t have a 3.5mm headphone jack. Is it gone forever from most phones, perhaps?
“It looks like that's the trend. We've seen that the market for wireless headphones has increased very dramatically. I'm personally getting used to wireless headphones on a daily basis and to go back to wired ones would be hard.
"For some trends, they are sort of set in motion and there's not one particular group that can stop that trend from moving forward. Though, at the same time, I understand that there are those who love their pair of wired headphones and their level of sound quality.
“During the transition from film to digital cameras I had friends who are very much into photography and they said no to digital. But today all of them are using digital cameras. There's some parallel to be drawn there.”
So close to the company’s forthcoming announcement, it’s no surprise that Lau is cagey about what’s on the way, but I think we can expect a 5G handset that isn’t bloated or heavy, and almost certainly won’t have a headphone jack.
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