Android Influencer: Helen Li, the woman behind OnePlus’s Oxygen OS

We asked OnePlus's Head of Product, Helen Li, what it's like to develop an Android fork.


If you don’t like what Google’s doing with Android, you can always make your own version of it. That’s what OnePlus did after it cut ties with Cyanogen. Rather than stick with the plain Google AOSP, OnePlus took the operating system and branched it out into its own, bonafied Android fork. The result is a version of Android that looks like it’s stock, with useful, well-integrated extra features.

We were curious about why OnePlus went in this direction, so we asked Head of Product, Helen Li, to chat with us about the open source operating system, why the company decided to branch out on its own, and what it’s like to work on an Android fork. 

Greenbot: Let’s start with a very basic question: Why did OnePlus decide to make its own operating system after splitting with Cyanogen. Why not just stick with Google’s stock AOSP?  

Li: Well, AOSP is great, which is why we’ve kept a lot of it. However, having our own ROM allows us to optimize the software for our hardware so it yields the best performance. We also have better control of our update schedule and are therefore able to react to feedback and market demands faster.

Greenbot: What’s it like working on your own operating system versus taking something fully-developed from Google? 

Li: It feels like playing a much more frightening version of Jenga. But ultimately, I think it’s worthwhile if we can progress towards a unique product in the market that’s a perfect balance between simplicity and feature richness, power, and grace. 

Greenbot: What does Oxygen OS offer that Google’s Android doesn’t?

Li: We specifically designed the software for the hardware so that you can get the best experience on the device. For example, Waves MaxxAudio’s enhancements are tuned specifically for our speaker, and the setting notification levels use the alert slider without any fussing around required in the interface. When you own the entire [software stack], the software becomes a much more powerful medium to showcase what the device is capable of. We’ve also added a lot of customization options so you can really personalize your experience and make this piece of hardware truly yours. 

Greenbot: Can you share with us some special features you’re working on in Oxygen OS?

Li: One of the features we rolled out as an opt-in beta for the latest release is Shelf. Currently, it has a couple of pretty handy boards, in addition to your regular widgets. We hope to evolve this space into something you want to return to again because you’ve customized it and made it into exactly what you want it to be. We are hoping to create the offerings together with our fanbase. Their feedback will be very important in the kinds of features we’ll implement for Shelf. 

Greenbot: What are some of the difficulties you’ve encountered while working on Oxygen OS? 

Li: The unique challenge with building Oxygen OS is that we had to build a team while also building the operating system at the same time. I moved the Paranoid Android guys to Shenzhen just this January, and we’ve been racing against time ever since to deliver Oxygen 1.0 on the OnePlus One as a community release. Then, [we started working on] Oxygen 2.0 for the OnePlus 2. We’ve added a lot of new people along the way, so it took some time to develop that team chemistry so we could comfortably wedge ourselves into an established production process.

Greenbot: The apps bundled in Oxygen OS look a lot like something Google made. They follow Material Design’s guidelines to a T. Was that intentional, and is that something you guys plan to stick to moving forward? 

Li: We wanted Oxygen to be a pure Android experience and we think that Material Design is one of the best things about the update to Lollipop, so we kept the style. 

Greenbot: What about security patches? That’s been a really hot topic in the Android world lately. Google, Samsung, and LG recently committed to monthly security updates. What about OnePlus with Oxygen OS? 

Li: We’ll do the same.  

Greenbot: Okay, let’s get to the fun stuff. For every Android Influencer, we like to ask three fun question. So, how long have you been an Android user, and what was your first phone? 

Li: I switched over from iOS about four years ago out of boredom. To be honest, the switchover was a pretty painful process at the time. I think Android has come a long way since. My first smartphone, if I remember correctly, was a BlackBerry Electron. My Dad is a device junky; I used to get them from him after he got bored with them after a month or two. I can’t even remember how many I’ve gone through. 

Greenbot: Which phone are you wielding now? 

Li: I’ve never wielded just one phone at a time to be honest! I have a OnePlus One, a OnePlus 2, and a Nexus 5 right now.  

Greenbot: Lastly, what is one app—that your company doesn’t make!—that you absolutely can’t live without. 

Li: Candy Crush. 

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