One of the perks of owning a McLaren 720S Spider is the ability to control the light in the cabin. At the touch of a button, the tint of the panoramic sunroof can go up from 30% to 95%, thanks to the electrochromic glass. The technology is also reportedly used in some windows of the Boeing 787. But using the same tech in a phone takes some doing.
And Shenzhen-based smartphone maker OnePlus has done just that, with its ‘disappearing cameras’. A week after the unveiling of the Concept One phone at the CES, we got a demo byOnePlus founder and CEO Pete Lau himself on a bleak winter morning in Delhi. Lau had flown in the previous night from China. He looked a bit jaded from the 8,500-mile trip from Los Angeles to China to Delhi flown in a few days, but he showed no trace of fatigue when he demoed the Concept One. There’s a reason for Lau’s excitement: in his long-term vision for the next-generation 5G technology, he sees the smartphone as a supercomputer and super assistant. Lau, 44, in an interview with Fortune India spoke about his vision for 5G, how it can disrupt the way people interact with devices, the future of data consumption, and what smartphones will be like in 10 years. Edited excerpts:
What is your vision for 5G?
I am very optimistic on 5G, but it needs to be looked at from the perspective of 10 years into the future because its impact will be life-changing.
I would look at 5G as having three chief phases: The first can be called Era 1.0, and it represents the connectivity between the cloud and device(s). And so that particular phase over the next three years would demonstrate increases in speed and lowering of latency times, which would result in a much more seamless device-to-cloud experience. And that transmission will happen quickly.
We’ve already seen some changes; for example, the higher frame rates in gaming. Next could be camera applications—whether its photo or video—that would store directly in the cloud and function through the cloud.
For Era 2.0, we’d be looking at five years from now. With increases in cloud functionality, speed, and seamless connectivity between cloud and device, a layer of AI (artificial intelligence) functionality could be run on top of that. This will enable each person to essentially have a super-computer with them all the time. We call them smartphones now but they aren’t actually smart enough. This era would see a whole new level of smartness enabled through AI.
Currently, companies everywhere are focussed on AI... developing and improving AI and the impact of it. But what we see currently is that AI functions on a cloud computing algorithm, which then runs on the phone. So the phone has to be able to operate and run that, and then connect back to the cloud. But, if we think about it in the future, there is seamless connectivity and all of this computing and algorithm functionality would happen on the cloud; it opens up the realm of possibilities for not just speed, but also AI functionality and its impact.
Next comes Era 3.0... 10 years from now. This is very much the era of IoT (Internet of Things) coming into full fruition; that would mean each person having a super assistant for individual customisation or individual need. And that would be combined with touch points of connectivity everywhere and for everything. And the application of data from all these touch points would enable that super assistant to be personalised.
Where would the smartphone be 10 years down the line?
The smartphone of the future—whatever the device—will be one touch-point of many. And each person will have an account, which is unique. People ask: Will the phone be the centre of the future or the smart display? And my answer is it’s the account which lives in the cloud and functions on the cloud, and is, therefore, your connection for interaction with everything. So, your personal supercomputer and your super assistant is that account functionality in combination with the cloud.
What about privacy?
Everything will be cloud-based. Security will also be cloud-based or cloud-centric. It [security] would be a challenge, but privacy would be the biggest challenge, as you have so many touch points and incredible computing power. It is not just a challenge for the smartphone industry but also for the entire technology or mobile Internet industry of connectivity. If we look at, for example, in China, transactions fora store or a hotel can be done through a smartphone by using facial recognition. That is an example of something that is not even device-based, but actually cloud database-powered face recognition. And then in the here and now, the future will only consist of more of such things. So, privacy gets the highest priority.
There are no set standards for 5G technology among companies and countries. Is that a challenge?
I believe working out a common standard would be inevitable, even though I am not an expert in network technology.
How will you develop the 5G ecosystem? What’s your plan for India in light of the current situation in the telecom sector?
To answer the second question first, what we see in India is that the carriers, the government, and the relationship, and what is evolving, it is behind some markets. But globally, 5G transition is moving forward; for example, at the flagship level for chipset offerings, there aren’t any that are not 5G. So, this sort of transition is going to be brought forward and I believe India would be able to follow quickly. We saw this in 2014 when we were starting in the Indian market with 4G and the quick transition into 4G in India. Regarding the 5G ecosystem, One Plus is not just looking to build an ecosystem, but is focussing on the foundation of a seamlessly connected user experience; it is really about getting the platform right for whatever we do and whatever we create.
How will the consumption of data change because of 5G? How will data change the behaviour of users?
I see data consumption in the next five years going up significantly. With the realisation of seamless connectivity, people’s behaviour, and their consciousness of data consumption will decline or perhaps move quickly to the point of something that people don’t even care about. Seamless connectivity will also enable data consumption to perhaps be 10-100 times of what it is now in the next five years. There’s not so much a specific consciousness of the fact that you are consuming so much data. It’s just the reality of the way things will be.
So consuming data would become part of the system?
Indeed. Because people won’t have that focus or care or concern for data; perhaps children born in 2020 would never know what data or the concept of data consumption actually is.
Why should a customer move to 5G?
I see it as the human pursuit of speed—something that’s unending. Many think 4G LTE speed is good enough. But there will be a transition when the current speeds won’t be enough. For instance, we could compare 4G LTE to what was available 10years ago: services available now [say, video streaming on mobile phones] versus the technology available then. As a joke, you can say it will make people lazy. But the thing is, it [5G] will allow people to focus on what matters most to them. A whole lot of things can be handled by the super assistant we talked about. For example, a business trip. The whole process of planning, tickets, check-ins, locations, and time—all of that can be taken care of by it. Life for humanity will be more convenient.
What are the industries 5G would disrupt? Or will it disrupt the way a human functions?
From my perspective, it’s definitely impacting everything. We can already see that with the transition to 4G, the number of industries impacted was significant. Some of the reports looking at the impact of 5G across industries are also showcasing what the technology would become in 5-10 years.
You recently completed six years in India. How has the country’s smartphone market changed, and how have you helped change it?
Six years ago, when we came to India, there were many brands in the market—both local and international. But if we look at the number of brands now, it is fewer. In 2014, the average price of a device sold was under $100, from what I remember. And 4G was not very well dispersed. For most new players, the takeaway was to launch a product that hits that price point of $100 or less, maybe around ₹5,000. But we were launching a product that was already over ₹20,000. People would ask: Who are you selling that to? The results show demand, from the user’s perspective, for that type of product was there, and will continue to be there. Six years later we’ve seen tremendous change. Brands are much more focussed and the average quality of the offering is much higher. If you look at our contribution to the industry, it would be around quality standards. By consistently following this higher standard of quality, we created confidence in the industry that with a quality product, users will know, and understand, and rally behind that product.
(This interview was originally published in the March 2020 issue of the magazine.)