“You know, actually the Chinese brands are doing more innovation than the likes of Apple and Samsung…”
It was a remark by one of my colleagues at the launch of the Lenovo Vibe X2. My first reaction, conditioned by habit, was almost one of dismissiveness. The Chinese were, after all, supposed to be many things, but not innovative. Nay, China was – and remains for many – the land of the cheap copycat. Way back in 2008-09, when the first wave of Chinese devices (many in the grey market, from brands that had more vowels than credibility) arrived in Indian market, we had been surprised at the kind of specifications they claimed to offer for prices that seemed rock bottom. And there were some innovations too. A friend of mine bought a device with a 5.0-inch touchscreen display with an antenna that allowed him to tune in to terrestrial TV channels. The reception was atrocious, the handset itself behaved oddly, but what could not be denied is that it did stuff that your routine handset – well, even your smartphones – could not do.
The catch always was of quality. Most of the Chinese devices that hit the market around this time were of regrettable quality – the displays were odd, the batteries sometimes refused to charge (at other times they caught fire), and the phones themselves seldom lasted beyond a few months of heavy usage. In fact, such was the reputation of Chinese devices that even when the likes of Micromax and other Indian brands released relatively low priced devices, they were dismissed contemptuously of being “Chinese importers.” Chinese phones were considered the resort of those who did not have the budget for a high-end device or even a mid-segment device but wanted something that seemed to pack in a lot of features, was shiny (you will be surprised!) and most important of all, cost very little.
Fast forward to that press conference of the Vibe X2 from Lenovo. A Chinese company. The phone claims to be the fastest in terms of benchmarks and comes with an innovative layered design the likes of which we had not seen before. And they are not the only ones. A few months ago, Gionee (another Chinese company) had surprised people with an insanely thin 5.5 mm phone that felt anything but sub-standard – incidentally, that record has been better by a 4.8-mm thin phone from another Chinese company, Oppo. Oppo, incidentally grabbed a few eyeballs in India when they released a phone whose rear camera could rotate to be its front camera and also released the first quad HD mobile phone in the nation. Huawei surprised everyone with a sleekly designed, powerfully specced Honour 6, and oh yes, we have not even got into the little matter of Xiaomi, which turned the whole market on its head with not just innovative products, but an innovative marketing strategy, that relied solely on invites and word of mouth promotion.
And these are not aberrations. Recent times have seen the momentum of innovation seemingly move from the Korea-US-Taiwan-Japan quadrilateral towards the land of the dragon. While the likes of Apple, Samsung and even LG and Sony are being seen as being conservative in terms of innovations in technology and design, churning out a series of products that seem better specced clones of their predecessors, the Chinese seem intent on being more innovative and are ready to take more risks.
“We have to try that much harder,” Gionee India’s Arvind Vohra told me over a cup of coffee. “There were so many grey market players who came over and released sub-standard products that people have started believing that all Chinese brands are sub-standards. So yes, we need to innovate and innovate at a high-quality to beat that perception.” Not surprisingly, one of the things that Gionee is focusing on is boosting up its sales and service to combat the bad rep Chinese brands have in this regard. And it is not just a matter of hardware, most Chinese manufacturers also invest heavily in interfaces and UI, giving the user more than just the standard Android experience. Oppo has Color, Gionee Amigo, Lenovo has Vibe and Xiaomi MIUI.
The past few weeks have seen Lenovo in particular pull off a few design coups. The company surprised the world with the stylish and steely K900 last year and this year has already pulled the Vibe Z2 Pro, complete with laser weaved back panel and the Vibe X2, with its multiple-layered body, out of its hat. And notably in the presentation launching the device, Anuj Sharma, the marketing head of Lenovo’s smartphone side, waxed eloquent about its design in a manner that seemed more Cupertino than Beijing (no pun intended). “If you are making a phone, it should not be lost in a sea of sameness. If a rainbow had just one colour, it would be dull,” he said. A few years ago, many tech experts would have labelled him a wannabe. On that day, most nodded in agreement.
And those nods actually conveyed something more than agreement. They were an admission that the Chinese had arrived in the mobile market, not just in terms of market share, but in terms of innovation too. It has not been a comfortable journey, but arrived they have. And while many are surprised at this sudden makeover, Xiaomi’s Hugo Barra feels it was just a matter of time. “The Chinese are very innovative,” he said, waving a spoon at me, as he snacked on some squishy Indian cuisine. “They made paper. They made gunpowder. They made a very famous Wall. Why cannot they make awesome phones, then?”
The world is discovering they can. And we cannot hear ONE consumer complaining.
Honey, the Chinese just went from being copycats to innovators.