Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Chinese SuperPhones Attack: Apple and Samsung Should Fear Them

In Depth: Attack of the Chinese superphones: the brands Apple and Samsung should fear

Lenovo, Oppo and OnePlus

The constant wave of similar smartphones from the big manufacturers can get tiresome - innovation has given way to making sure the latest handset doesn't rock the boat.
There are some mild exceptions, such as the HTC One M8, but generally most follow the same formula year on year - so where will the big changes come from?
The answer could well be China, as the country has moved from being a hotbed of cheap copies of popular handsets to creating genuinely innovative and alternative handsets.
With a wealth of smartphone manufacturing experience grown on home turf, Chinese brands are producing phones of a much higher specification and build quality that counter western competition, at a much cheaper price.
According to Gartner, sales of Chinese smartphones grew 86.3% percent in 2013, and they're on an onward march that must be unsettling for the more well-known brands. The likes of Huawei and ZTE are already making moves into the developed smartphone nations, and they're set to be followed by a legion of Chinese smartphone makers in the next year or so.
That said, the incumbent Chinese brands aren't making the waves they'd probably want just yet, so Apple, HTC, Samsung won't be worried just yet. But with ferocious marketing campaigns and strong budgets from domestic success, we take a look at some brands you've probably never heard of that could be vying for your pocket space in just a couple of years.


Lenovo Vibez
"I'll be very clear: Our aspiration is someday to be No. 1 in the mobile space," said Lenovo's Vice President J.D. Howard, in charge of developing the brand's smartphone business outside of China, following the dive-bombing of the PC market.
The brand has some form in the Android and Windows game, having been an active supplier of tablets for a number of years now, but in phones its still massively unknown outside of its own territory.
Global sales figures show that Lenovo actually had the 5th highest worldwide smartphone sales in 2013 right after LG, and managed to outsell the Korean outfit in the 4th quarter last year. However, 97% of those sales were in China.
It's not for lack of trying though: since its first Android smartphone 'LePhone' arrived in 2010, Lenovo has expanded its range with a plethora of different devices, and even took on NBA star Kobe Bryant to market its phones.
Lenovo's latest range of smartphones launched at Barcelona's MWC 2014 have so far spread as far as India and could provide some serious competition, with the latest Vibe X and Z handsets packing 1080p screens, quad-core Snapdragon processors and 13 megapixel cameras that rivals flagships such as the Samsung Galaxy S5 and LG G2.
And that move beyond its own shores looks set to take a huge leap forward following its recent surprise acquisition of Motorola Mobility from Google.
Lenovo Moto deal
Despite an unrecognisable 0.2% share of China's mobile market, taking on Motorola will give Lenovo some much-needed recognition in the western markets and align it much more closely with smartphones in the minds of consumers.


Oppo Find 5
Oppo is a little different from some other brands, in that it's been selling in western markets for a few years, and its one of the forerunners in pushing new technology into smartphones.
For instance, it's one of only two brands with a Quad HD (1440x2560 pixels) display, something that the rest of the smartphone players are set to introduce in the next 12-18 months.
In May 2013 it launched a European web store called Oppo Style, that featured the Oppo Find 5 as the centrepiece for a very reasonable €399 - massively undercutting the similarly specified rivals around at the time.
The Oppo N1
Since then, Oppo has launched some rather disruptive handsets such as the Oppo N1. On the surface it's a standard smartphone: relatively rectangular, has a full HD screen and the basic suite of competitive specs.
But Oppo has done its homework and come up with a truly unique swivelling top-mounted camera for super-selfies and a rear touch panel - both features you won't find on the HTC One M8Samsung Galaxy S5, or any other 2014 flagship.
With Oppo only selling direct to the public through its own site and a number of smaller third party partners, it makes it more difficult for it to get its products into the hands of potential customers, with network penetration worldwide not proving fruitful just yet.
However, its ambitions are increasing rapidly, and with a market of consumers desperate for the latest top-end tech no matter the cost or design Oppo has a niche to tap that's largely untouched still.


One Plus
At the start of 2014 few had even heard of OnePlus. Oppo's former vice president Peter Lau quit late last year and set out plans to bring a new, low-cost handset to market packed with a custom version of Android using the popular CyanogenMod.
That handset arrived in late April under a flurry of internet marketing; the OnePlus One was revealed along with the "NeverSettle' hashtag and a crazy campaign that involves smashing your phone to be in with a chance to buy the 'One' for just $1.
OnePlus is aiming to compete with the Nexus line of smartphones from Google, by selling the phone directly to consumers at the extremely competitive price of just £229 (about $299 / AU$319).
Despite this the One has higher spec than either the Nexus 5 or HTC's One M8, with a higher processor speed and an extra gigabyte of memory.
How can it possibly sell the OnePlus One at such a keen price? Firstly, it isn't paying the millions of dollars to support other products or global advertising campaigns.
OnePlus One
It's got one product to focus on and is doing all of its current advertising and buzz-generating through social media. It also still retains strong ties with Oppo, the much larger brand (that also still owns a prominent stake in the business) which is providing it with access to a manufacturing plant too.
OnePlus look like a Chinese brand perfectly poised to break out of Asia and in to the western world, having so far managed to generate buzz around the handset; get them into people's hands for early previews; and by understanding the way people purchase smartphones is shifting from expensive monthly contracts, to one that sees some consumers buying a handset, then equipping it with a seperately purchased SIM.
Landing in June for 'general availablity' the OnePlus One is definitely a handset to watch.

Meizu, Gionee and Xiaomi


Meizu MX3
Meizu entered the global conscious following the announcement of its M8 smartphone only four days after the original iPhone was announced.
It was regarded as an iPhone clone, with a similar interface and design, and the reality did little to change that perception, running as it did a modified version of Microsoft's Windows CE 6, and by 2010 Apple had successfully pressured Meizu in to shutting down production of the M8.
Following this it shifted its focus towards creating Android smartphones that bore much less resemblance to anything of Apple's.
In 2012 the MX followed - the first of its smartphones to be released outside of mainland China. Meizu hadn't gone far however, launching just across the bay in Hong Kong. The second variation of the MX - the MX2 - branched out even further, reaching as far afield as Israel.
The Ubuntu Meizu
Following an announcement in partnership with Canonical at MWC 2014, Meizu may finally be ready to dabble in the global market with phones featuring the Ubuntu operating system.
The MX3 was also shown off at MWC, with a curved design that looks like a blown up version of the iPhone 3G - watch out Meizu, that's some thin ice to walk on.
More recently Meizu has been rumoured to be jumping in to the burgeoning wearables market, by releasing a smartwatch with a curved display - set to rival a main feature of Apple's alleged iWatch we might see later this year.


Founded in 2010, Xiaomi churned out 19 million smartphones in 2013 and has rapidly risen to become one of the leading tech firms in its homeland.
Originally it was more focused on releasing Android firmware known as MIUI. The custom firmware resembled hints of Samsung's TouchWiz UI and Apple's iOS, and was available as an aftermarket download for many smartphones available in China.
In late 2011 the Mi-One phone was announced featuring the MIUI software, which thanks to its Apple-esque interface proved popular amongst Chinese smartphone users, in a time when the iPhone was still unavailable in the People's Republic.
The brand was then confident enough to strike out with its own designs, as Xiaomi's next phones, the Mi2 and Mi3, went in a different direction with unique designs and an interface that had matured beyond a pseudo-clone of Apple's own.
Showing intent to take their phones international, Hugo Barra (previously vice president of Android product management at Google) was poached to become vice president at Xiaomi Global.
On his departure from the Android stable he was quoted as saying that he intended to "help them expand their incredible product portfolio and business globally", which cemented Xiaomi's international intentions.
In 2014 Singapore became the first international venture, with the critically-acclaimed Redmi and Mi3 handsets selling out in early March, and in April it announced that it was expanding in to a further nine countries - although currently that's primarily aimed at the developing markets.


Unless you happen to hail from Myanmar, Nigeria or China, there's every likelihood you've never heard of Gionee, but it's been touting popular and attractive phones in the domestic market since 2005, and was one of the first Chinese manufacturers to go international.
Despite the lack of awareness outside the home territory, Gionee sells over 23 million smartphones a year in China, ranking it number 2 in the GSM market behind Lenovo - it's no small fry.
Gionee has had stiff competition in the home market, forcing it to innovate wisely. Its current range offers some surprises such as that on the catchily-named Elife S5.5, which is world's thinnest smartphone at just 5.5mm. For perspective, the iPhone 5S is positively chunky at a whopping 7.6mm.
Its latest flagship, the Elife E7 takes photography seriously with a set of cameras that stack up against competition from the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Nokia Lumia 1020.
The rear camera matches the S5 with a 16MP resolution, with a sensor of larger 1.34μ pixels that gather more light, and an 8 layer Largan lens which steals one of Apple's tricks of being covered in sapphire glass.
The front camera bests even the new HTC One M8 with an 8MP resolution, and both can be adjusted using a customised camera app that allows for 'professional' image adjustment - and it's even nabbed Oppo's 'swivelling camera' idea.
The bad news is that all this innovation is set to stay largely out of reach, unless you're willing to dip into the import market. Despite selling over 1 million phones a month to overseas markets, these are largely more local and like Xiaomi there's still no tangible presence in western markets - and seemingly no plan to do so.

So which is the one to watch?

It's difficult to predict how well any of these brands will do if they managed to break in to the more developed smartphone market, but Lenovo stands out with the strongest chance of success.
It's already a household name with a successful home computing division, and with the recent acquisition of Motorola, there's plenty of global marketing power to enable it to be a competitive force.
Oppo and OnePlus are the other two to watch. Oppo has already started to make inroads into the European market , and it's not an unimaginable step for it to coerce some of the networks into stocking some of its innovative flagships such as the N1.
OnePlus is the new kid on the block with clear intentions of making waves in the smartphone world, by proving that flagship performance and build quality don't have to cost the earth.
It's approach to social media and buzz-generation has made many stand up and notice, and our first impressions of the Oneplus One were largely very positive - and competing on price always garners interest - the next step is seeing if the brand can sustain it.
Should Apple, HTC and Samsung really be afraid of any of these brands? For the most part, no. It won't matter how great value the phones are, there's still one major hurdle in the way of all of the Chinese brands mentioned.
Unless consumers start to move away from network-subsidised smartphones in their droves, it'll take a keen network executive to sit up and take notice of these relative unknowns.

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