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Startups like OnePlus may be the saviors of true smartphone innovation

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I really like the OnePlus One. Granted, it took me the better part of a day to get past the name, which lies somewhere between a pun and riddle, but I’ve not been this enamored with phone for a long time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen plenty of nice handsets. I flew to Barcelona early in the year to check out several convention center halls full of the things, and a large chunk of the ones I came into contact with ranged from nice to really nice.

If you’re in the market for a high-end smartphone right now, it’s nearly impossible to make a wrong choice.

It’s one of those poorly guarded secrets reviewers don’t always talk about: If you’re in the market for a high-end smartphone right now, it’s nearly impossible to make a wrong choice. The infrastructure that underlies the industry has matured to such a point that flagship devices from the usual choices —your Apples, Samsungs, LGs, et al —are all great devices. It’s more a matter of finding the phone whose individual bit and pieces —screen, camera, operating system and so forth —most closely add up to what you’re looking for in a device.

It’s taken as a given, of course, that compromises must be made. After all, while it sometimes seems as though Samsung makes a different flavor of Galaxy for every man, woman, and child on Earth, when was the last time you met someone totally satisfied with their phone? Most people could spend an entire evening regaling you with a laundry list of disappointments in their chosen device. I’m not suggesting that it’s a particularly enjoyable way of spending a warm mid-summer night (in fact, as a 10-year veteran of this industry, I’d strongly recommend against it), I’m just saying that once you’ve run out of things to say about the World Cup, the option’s on the table.

So if the latest iPhones and Lumias are so nifty, why am I devoting half of this column to singing the praises of some device you’ve never heard of? The OnePlus One’s hardware is quite good by most standards —it’s got a lovely screen, good battery life and slick industrial design. But there’s certainly nothing Earth-shattering on any of the above fronts, particularly when some of the biggest companies in the world are fighting trench warfare over a few fractions of an inch in screen size, resolution, and camera megapixels. And let’s be honest: You won’t notice the extra pixels in that Quad HD screen anyway.

What’s exciting about the OnePlus One is less what the phone is than what it represents. It’s a scenario that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago: A smartphone manufacturer is founded in December and has shipping product half a year later. Not only that, it’s actually a really good product — one capable of standing its ground against the latest devices by the biggest companies in the game. OnePlus sought to launch its first product without cutting any corners —and a few nitpicks aside (yeah, the camera could be better and no, the battery’s not removable), it managed to do so.

What’s more, at $400 unlocked here in the States, the company managed to pack all of the above into a device that’s a fraction of the price of competitors. How did is manage such an impressive feat? Much to the eventual chagrin of the Apples and Samsungs of the world, the answer likely lies with the competition itself. As I discussed in an earlier column, the battle for smartphone supremacy has had a measurable trickle-down effect, both among fellow phone makers and in other industries. Manufacturing chains have become more accessible and scalable and components have rapidly increased in quality, while decreasing in both size and price.

Stagnation and a general unwillingness to take risks are what shrunk BlackBerry and Nokia’s once sizable marketshares.

Of course launching a successful hardware startup, though far more realistic a notion than it was only a few years ago, still isn’t a walk in the park. After all, what’s the whole point in cobbling together another samey phone in a world where the competitors are already creating terrific devices? Does the world need another Android handset maker? The answer is yes, so long as that company is actually willing to do something interesting with its product. Thankfully, the nature of the space makes differentiating oneself a necessity.

In the case of the OnePlus One, that means offering a top-tier handset at a far lower cost. It also means shipping with CyanogenMod, a powerful customization add-on previously only available to ambitious tuners. Where setting oneself apart in the world of Android has traditionally meant sluggish proprietary skins, the One shipped with an OS that users can truly tweak to fit their own tastes.

It’s the sort of idea that would have taken years to run up the flagpole at a larger, established corporation, where the countless dollars spent on branding often tamp down true potential innovation. And, of course, if something has worked in the past, why would a company deviate from the status quo? If smaller companies like OnePlus and Huawei are really looking to make their mark, they’re going to have to create a compelling reason for consumers to jump ship from larger, better trusted brands — and that will likely mean price coupled with innovation.

This certainly isn’t limited to startups. Say what you will about BlackBerry’s new square Passport phone (and if you spend any time in the comments section of tech sites, you no doubt already have), but it’s nice to see the company legitimately trying something new. It’s about time. After all, stagnation and a general unwillingness to take risks are what shrunk the once-sizable marketshare of BlackBerry and Nokia, allowing truly innovative products to sneak in and take over.

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