Editors note: This article was originally published in the buildup to the launch of Google and OnePlus latest devices, as the nature of their pre-launch leaks was so comprehensive that we were able to do the analysis of what each phone means in advance. The language has since been amended to reflect the official status of both companies new products.
Googles release of the Pixel 3A and 3A XL this month, accompanied by OnePlus split of its single flagship into a basic and a Pro model, marks a significant moment for the phone industry. Starting from divergent positions, the two companies are ending up at the same destination, with one premium variant and a more distilled and simplified sub-flagship. And that happens to be where practically every smartphone vendor finds themselves today.
Googles Pixel lineup started in the premium range and is now trickling down the glories of the Pixel camera to a more widely affordable price point, while OnePlus is taking on the harder task of trying to climb its way into higher price brackets after starting as a budget-tier performance monster.
Once upon a time, there was only one iPhone. It was the iPhone, even if Apple doesnt like the definite article. There also used to be just one Samsung Galaxy flagship phone, but you can now have it in a medium or large, with or without 5G, or in a budget- and pocket-friendly E version. Apples got the iPhone XS and XR, Huawei has its Pro and non-Pro flagships, and the entire mobile industry is seemingly moving to a multitiered flagship strategy. With Google and OnePlus latest releases, that transition to having a duality of senior and junior flagships is reaching its completion.
The two major companies with new phones this month are both special cases in the Android ecosystem. Google is the author of Android, and its still coming to grips with the responsibilities and competencies of a serious hardware manufacturer. OnePlus is a boutique outfit under the umbrella of a giant conglomerate that also includes the Oppo and Vivo brands. It has survived as a small, lower-cost player for as long as it has because its had access to resources far beyond those of the typical budget device purveyor. But every business venture has to be able to sustain itself eventually, and both Googles hardware division and OnePlus are reaching a level of maturity where they can no longer be the niche alternative. They have to take on the likes of Samsung directly, and that demands a bit of benign fragmentation.
For Google, the Pixel 3A is an admission that just selling premium-priced devices isnt a long-term strategy. Theres no shame in owning up to that fact when even Apple, the company thats made the most profit out of designing and selling phones in history, makes a slightly-less-premium edition of its flagship. Most people arent buying a super flagship every single year, as illustrated by the leading US carriers recently noting that theyve had the lowest rate of smartphone upgrades ever. So to tempt people into buying yet another phone, Google has to sweeten the deal, and theres no better way to do that than slashing the cost.
The $399 3A retains most of the Pixel cameras class-leading strengths, which, combined with its much lower price, could seriously tempt some people to buy it even as a second device. Would it be too wild to buy a Pixel 3A as essentially your Instagram device, to be used alongside your regular phone? Not really. Its indulgent but justifiable, especially for owners of older iPhones who want a camera upgrade and are curious about how the other half of the world lives.
For OnePlus, the pro OnePlus 7 makes sense because the company has continuously been thought of and presents itself as a top-tier smartphone maker. It needs top-tier pricing if its going to keep up with the flashy features that define those super flagships. CEO Pete Lau told me that hes spending three times as much on the OnePlus 7 Pro display as he is on the basic version. Like Nokia with its five-camera system on the Nokia 9, Huawei and Oppo with their periscope-style telephoto zoom lenses, or LG using the phones chamber and screen to generate sound, OnePlus is looking for a unique hardware feature to make it stand out. Those cost money. But OnePlus cant afford to abandon its traditional user base, either, and thats why the vanilla OnePlus 7 will play the junior flagship role.
Its somewhat strange to watch the smartphone industry, long one of the most fruitfully competitive markets in the world, repeatedly coalescing around certain trends. Weve witnessed the aluminum unibody hype, the notch mania, the headphone jack massacre, and the escalating war of which company can fit the most cameras on the back of their phone. Theres something magnetic that seems to keep all of these competitors closely bunched together.
With Google and OnePlus having now unveiled their latest portfolio additions, heres what the smartphone companies with the most mindshare have to offer:
The basic definition of the junior flagship is that it maintains the name and fundamental advantages of the top model, but it strips away some of the niceties and luxuries. Its different from merely having a flagship, a midrange, and an entry-level device. Phone shoppers have grown too savvy, and maybe even jaded, to buy a phone that doesnt carry the flagship branding and allure. We demand the same name and core qualities that companies advertise in their glitziest and priciest marketing, but at a price thats humanly attainable. Thats why everyone must now have a junior flagship in their lineup. Xiaomi, Honor, Motorola, Sony, Vivo, Oppo, and most others are fully in line with this strategy.
The junior flagship is a natural and sensible reaction to the trend over recent years of phone companies pushing their absolute top model toward ever more stratospheric prices in order to secure unique whiz-bang hardware features. Peoples budgets havent been growing as fast as super flagship prices, so OnePlus is doing the logical thing of staying in the chase while still having a flagship-tier device at a reasonable price. Google is finally admitting that it needs one of those, too.
With OnePlus stepping out of its value-for-money comfort zone and Google stepping into it, the competition and choice across the Android phone market will improve for consumers. So, even while everyone seems to be pursuing the same basic strategy, the upshot for phone buyers will be a greater variety of choice and more pressure on every company to put out the best possible device.
The tech worlds most competitive market is only growing more so.