In the smartphone world, just like in a normal society, the biggest and most notable get all the attention while the weak, the struggling and the underdog get lost somewhere in the chain. We all know so well of Apple and Samsung, the two biggest smartphone vendors on the planet at the moment. All the attention from the public and media spotlight is shone on the two and a few others that may not have huge shipping numbers and marketing budgets but make devices good enough to get them a share of the huge smartphone marketshare. These others include the likes of LG, Huawei, Sony, Nokia, HTC, Motorola and Lenovo. While upcoming device manufacturers like the makers of Oppo Find 5 are increasingly getting deserved recognition, a lot of other players that are not small either by name or financial muscle are still playing in the dark shadows and the general public can hardly relate them with any smartphone they have ever owned or plan to own in the foreseeable future. Unless the public we are talking about is based in Asia.
In Africa we have several of these like Mi-Fone and Tecno that are causing ripples with their budget Android devices. In China it is a different story as there is a whole barrage of device manufacturers serving the world’s most populous nation and are largely successful there. I will only concentrate on a handful of companies that have considerable international impact i.e can be felt at least in several markets far away from home. These are:
If you do flash custom ROMs on your Android device then you obviously know of the most beautiful ROMs available: MIUI ROMs. The MIUI ROMs really stand out from the crowd that it did not take long after the announcement of iOS 7 that word went round that the icons were an exact replica of what we have been having on MIUI ROMs for a while now.
Xiaomi is a Chinese company whose CEO is known to many as the “fake Steve Jobs” due to his obsession with the late Apple co-founder’s leadership style, fashion sense and design-centred thinking. The most recent thing that has thrown Xiaomi into the limelight is its hiring of someone who directly dictated the goings-on of our beloved Android OS, Hugo Barra, the immediate former Vice-President of Android Product Development at Google. Barra will be moving to Xiaomi as Vice President of its international division. If you love reading signs then that should be a sign that Xiaomi is positioning itself strategically to raid your pocket and your heart with its smartphone offerings soon. HTC did the same not many years ago and you all know where they are right now. They are not the small Taiwanese company that they were but rose to be a global brand. Xiaomi is out to bury the image of an Apple copycat in mainland China to a global force. And they have the cash to do just that. iPhones are very popular in China (you know very well the endless hilarious and at time emotional stories of Chinese men and women going to greater lengths to get iDevices including selling off body parts). Xiaomi managed to totally outsell Apple in China. Its latest phone moel aimed at the low end market segment in China sold out in 90 seconds. If that is not a sign, I don’t know what is. It’s 2013 projection is that it will sell 20 million devices. Could you be seeing Xiaomi devices near you sooner? Maybe. They are expanding and soon you’ll be seeing more of them. Just like Huawei was a nobody several years ago in this space.
Know of the MX brand of smartphones from the east? They’re made by these guys. While they are a rare sight locally, they are as gorgeous as the Oppo Find 5. It is the Meizu MX 2 that made the hideous Chinese company come into international limelight and it went on to do well in various markets. Meizu may not be as ambitious as Xiaomi or have the huge user base (thanks to software) of the former but it has the potential just like Oppo to disrupt a market that is increasingly looking as if it is saturated yet we know so well that there is room for more.
Honestly we all know about Intex. Or at least we can point to one of their products. From game pads to computer speakers, they make them all. However it is hard to associate the Indian company with any smartphone yet just less than a fortnight ago they launched two of their latest phones. In India smartphone prices for high end devices are as high as they are locally and as such companies like Intex that produce affordable but good looking and fully functional devices are having a field. So much that you can no longer ignore Intex. The same way you can’t ignore the next company on my listing: Micromax.
Micromax has been in this space for a while and is well known by many. It is hugely popular in the Indian subcontinent and we are yet to hear the last of them. There are several Micromax devices locally that I have spotted and I am sure with time more will be here. Unlike most of the Chinese knock-offs that you’ll easily pick up at a very cheap price along Tom Mboya Street, Luthuli Avenue and the infamous River Road, Micromax devices are of good quality. I’m yet to hear of them making ripples in the west as Xiaomi and Meizu are at the moment but their focus on the Indian market has been paying off while they slowly turn to Africa. Recent reports from India show it giving some established players like Samsung a headache. They’re worth watching in the smartphone space going forward.
I am not sure if they do make smartphones but I know that of all the affordable tablets currently in the market, they have the most solid of all. Remember when Ice Cream Sandwich was introduced to the world by Google in late 2011? All the focus back then was on the new OS that merged tablet and phone functionality on Android for the first time since the days of the clunky Honeycomb. While the Xoom was still king of the roost, it is actually the little known Chinese company that stole the show by launching the first tablet running ICS, the Ainol NOVO 7. While I will never trade my old Galaxy Tab 7 for a tablet made by lesser known Ainol, I have to give credit where it is due. There are so many useless (yes I said useless) Chinese tablets in the market but Ainols though not that good tend to have better support both officially and through third party developers. They can be rooted, upgraded (officially), run most of the scripts I consider handy for an Android device to fit my strange tastes and can be good at gaming too. Going forward I believe Ainol tablets can only be better and the software-hardware integration get way better than what we can currently experience. You should be hearing more of them. The problem with Ainol products, as is the problem with most other Chinese products, is that they don’t have looks of their own. Some of the tablets resemble the Apple iPad others the Asus-made Google Nexus 7 while others simply have the characteristic design language of the Galaxy Tabs. While the problems earn my respect for being the lesser evil of all that is currently flooding the local market, the design language is nothing to write home about.
Sharp and Panasonic
These two are household names and you may be wondering why they are in a list with some less known brands. While they retain their big names as far as consumer electronics go, they haven’t made such a dent in the global smartphone market. Sharp is well known for its display division which produces some of the crispiest LCDs in the industry (for both phones and TVs) while Panasonic has been flexing its muscles and has recently made its intentions of going out in full force clear by setting up shop in Kenya. They (Panasonic) brought you the Eluga, a waterproof Android smartphone and have a few other smartphones to their name. Could we see more of Panasonic smartphones in the future? I am not sure but the lack of media spotlight on its phones just tells you it is not their strongest point but if they could ride on their brand identity in other consumer electronics like LG and Sony have done then you could be hearing more of them in no time. Remember we still have many Panasonic cordless phones (even some running Android 🙂 ) in our offices and homes so the idea of you walking into a store in Mombasa or Nakuru to pick up a Panasonic phone doesn’t seem far-fetched like it is for Meizu, Xiaomi and the like that are targeting the western market before shifting focus to the African market. I am well aware that they recently announced that they have called it quits as far as smartphones are concerned but we all know that the future is in mobile devices and just like HP, we could see an about turn in the near future. Till then, it is uncertainty that will reign supreme. As for Sharp, they continue to release smartphones in their home market of Japan and nearby markets, devices that the rest of the world usually salivates at due to their ruggedness and proven durability. Will we see Sharp in retail shops near us soon? I don’t think so but at least you know they too are in this game.
The question is: are we ready to ditch the brand names we are all familiar with for the unknown? Do these alternative players in the industry compromise on quality in order to deliver products at great prices? If yes, are the compromises worth it and can you the consumer tolerate them?
Note: I use the term “device manufacturers” in this article to mean the companies that are behind the device design, sales, marketing and distribution to offshore markets since by saying manufacturers it could imply the direct companies that own the factories and industrial installments where a majority of these devices are churned out from. This is not the case for some of them since as we all know companies like Apple do design their devices elsewhere and have them manufactured elsewhere. Whoever manufactures them is not what I would call the “device manufacturer”. Rather it is the company behind the commissioning of the devices. I hope that is clear.