China Power

Xiaomi Propaganda Poster

This humble post has been gestating in my feeble brain since I attended an Alcatel event with Howard, shortly before my summer break. I originally set out today to write about “peak Samsung”, about how the world’s number one manufacturer of smartphones has found itself in a position where it has nowhere to go but down. But that’s not the story, at least not for me. Apple ceded its smartphone bragging rights to Samsung in late 2011 but seems to be doing fine nonetheless; likewise, it’s not like Samsung is going to go bankrupt anytime soon.

The story as I see it is the ascendency of the Chinese smartphone industry. Chinese manufacturing is, of course, nothing new—we all know that American, Korean and Taiwanese brands have had their devices assembled in China for years. But suddenly it’s seems like we’re at a tipping point where Chinese brands are cool.

How did we get here, anyway?

Huawei

According to Tomi Ahonen (who gets paid to write about this stuff) Huawei is the world’s #3 maker of smartphones worldwide as of Q1, 2014. My own experience with the company goes back to late 2010, when I was trying to choose between Canadian upstart carriers WIND Mobile and Mobilicity. As I understand it, WIND had tapped Huawei to provide critical parts of their network infrastructure, along with some cheap and cheerful consumer gear as well. At one point I owned a Huawei U8350; woefully underpowered as it was, the keyboard was at least as good as an entry-level BlackBerry of the day.

Huawei has gotten a bad rap from governments in Canada and the US; last I heard they’ve entirely ceased network equipment sales south of the border. Despite this, the company’s ongoing success in handset manufacturing speaks for itself.

MIUI and Xiaomi

In the same way that Android succeeded as a trojan horse of mobile operating systems, available to OEMs at no cost, MIUI was the saviour of Android modders back in the dark days of Gingerbread when Android largely sucked. Xiaomi, the company behind the MIUI ROM and a handset maker in their own right, got a lot of attention when they poached high-ranking exec Hugo Barra from Google last summer.

2014 marks the year of Xiaomi’s international expansion into Singapore, Malaysia and India, where their products are proving to be every bit as popular as in their home market.

Lenovo

That same Tomi Ahonen report cited earlier lists Lenovo as the world’s #4 smartphone maker, despite zero market presence here in the Americas. All that is about to change—at least behind the scenes—as the Chinese giant who purchased IBM’s PC business ten years ago has now added Motorola Mobility to their acquisitions list.

Meanwhile, back in China, Lenovo has just announced their latest Android flagship, the Vibe Z2 Pro. Notable features include a thin, all-metal body, dual micro SIM support, a Quad HD screen and a 4,000 mAh battery (!!!)

Oppo

This company first came on my radar as a sponsor of an XDA Conference in 2013. They’ve built a small but seemingly dedicated following in the USA, selling their wares unlocked through Amazon. Oppo’s current flagship is the quick-charging and Quad HD Find 7.

The company got a lot of press for their phablet-sized N1, but arguably the best thing to come out of Oppo is former Vice President Pete Lau, who left late in 2013 to start a new company called OnePlus.

OnePlus

“Never Settle” has been the mantra for OnePlus and their first product, the OnePlus One. For an Android enthusiast it’s pretty much a dream come true, combining Chinese manufacturing prowess with the genius of XDA Developers. Only problem is, it’s almost impossible to get. That hasn’t stopped the hype, though. And gaffes aside, you have to give the company credit for a successful advertising campaign executed solely on social media.

Back in January I wondered if 2014 would be the year of the Chinese Android Smartphone. At the time I knew nothing of OnePlus, and certainly couldn’t foresee Lenovo’s acquisition of Motorola/Google’s handset business. And now here we are, about to go into a third quarter where even the likes of Alcatel are making a splash on North American shores.

I suppose I could brag and say: “Look at me, I was right all along!”, but you know what? With ever more options for affordable, capable devices coming our way, I think we all win.