Chinese smartphone eco-system for beginners

Ok this isn’t the most technical video in terms of its review of the Chinese  smartphone eco-system and it doesn’t touch on the WeChat eco-system, but its a good introductory video for westerners by Winston Sterzel, a YouTuber living in Shenzhen. It focuses on only the top domestic Chinese smartphone brands.

If I was looking to explain Chinese smartphone dynamics to a western client, this video is as good an introduction as any to the hardware side of the business.

Here are the key points I’d highlight and additional comments that I would add to the film.

Mobility in the working population drove Chinese smartphone adoption

The transitory nature of the Chinese workforce following China’s opening up has mean’t that many people are migrants and many only return home once a year (for lunar new year) if they are lucky. Staying in touch is critical to keep families together. Secondly being migrants, having a ‘computer’ that you can carry makes more sense than a traditional PC. Finally, the price point of smartphones puts the internet in the hands of pretty much anyone who wants one. These three factors explain why smartphones took off so dramatically in China. This started in the urban areas, but then migrants brought them home to relatives and gave them away as Chinese new year gifts.

China Mobile had a government mandate to build out connectivity into even the most rural areas in China. Data packages and the applications that run on it like WeChat made telecommunications even cheaper and easier.

The smartphone is where the majority of Chinese online shopping takes place, how families keep in touch and are starting to be a tool for the delivery of government services.

The price-value balance of smartphones

The development of the iPhone had an unintended on the Chinese smartphone contract manufacturers. If we go back to the early Samsung Galaxy models from the S to the S4; the industrial design of these phones owed a lot to Nokia. They had replaceable storage with micro SD cards and a replaceable battery with a battery hatch in plastic. If you dropped the phone the hatch may pop off. This was by design as it got rid of the some of the energy from the fall and the frame had a degree of flex to protect the innards. This is one of the reasons why Nokia 3310 feature phones ran and ran. The face and back might pop off your phone if you dropped it; but they could easily be snapped back on.

Manufacturing phones of that nature also helps with scaling up manufacturing based on mouldings.

Apple didn’t bother with external batteries, which at the time sparked a huge controversy. Their battery life was awful and most working stiffs kept their phone charging from their office PC during the day. By comparison I had a desktop charger with previous Ericsson and Nokia phones, along with a few spare batteries and felt comfortable going on holiday for a few days with a spare charged battery in a zip loc bag and no phone charger. Up until the 6 plus, Apple’s battery has been a real pain. 

So Apple differentiated by done what seemed like an insane idea of using a CNC (computer numeric controlled) machine to make the phone chassis. This is like a robot version of the machine tools that you would have used in shop class individually making each phone chassis.

Apple tried this out with the stainless steel ‘belly band’ of the 4 series phone and then perfected it with the 5 series. I suspect the reason why they moved from stainless steel to aluminium alloy for manufacturing was to balance durability with optimising manufacturing time.

Over time these machines move from the Apple production lines onto another product. Soon you can’t be the smartphone chassis manufacturing business unless you have this capability. Apple’s machines may have been sold on, but there was probably an increase in the CNC machine makers manufacturing capacity as well.

So all of the smartphones shown, whether it cost £80 or £800; none of them felt cheap or had a ‘China penalty’ in terms of case design.  This has affected the market in the Chinese smartphone eco-system. They are more durable, but there is less incentive to go premium when a cheap or medium priced phone looks and feels this good.

The durability of modern Chinese smartphones might be one fo the reasons why sales in smartphones have declined year-on-year. I’d argue a second reason is WeChat; so long as you can use WeChat your smartphone is fine. WeChat has had a similar effect on Chinese smartphones to what the web had on western PC sales over the past two decades – computers had become about as useful as they were going to be and performance became less of an issue.

Chinese smartphone market consolidation

Winston kind of alluded to it in his video but Oppo, Vivo and OnePlus are all related to BBK Electronics; a longtime Chinese phone and consumer electronics manufacturer. When I first went to visit China I bought a BBK ‘keitai’ style clamshell feature phone. At that time BBK competed with international players like Nokia or Samsung and domestic brands like Ningbo Bird. (Ningbo Bird was the largest manufacturer in China from 2003 – 2005).

Now they make everything from cheap TVs and speakers under the Memorex brand, to smartphones and high end Blu-Ray players as Oppo.

In the smartphone sector, they operate under three main brands. OnePlus is aimed at international users and kind of similar to Xiaomi in terms of the balance that it strikes between technology, features and price. Oppo is more of a Samsung or Huawei analogue. Vivo was launched to have a lower price youthful brand.

Between BBK, Xiaomi and Huawei you now have most of the Chinese smartphone eco-system, by value and sales volume. Just a few years ago there would have been far more players that would have merited a review including the following the companies and their sub-brands:

  • ZTE
  • Lenovo
  • Meizu
  • Coolpad
  • TCL

These are still big businesses, and I am not denigrating these brands. The analyst reports show that the Chinese smartphone eco-system is undergoing rapid consolidation; in the same way as Sony and HTC have been dwarfed by Samsung and Huawei.

ICYMI | 万一你错过了| 당신이 그것을 놓친 경우

The great big Spotify scam: Did a Bulgarian playlister swindle their way to a fortune on streaming service? – Music Business Worldwide – this also shows how topsy turvy the economics of Spotify are

China is quickly becoming the dominant force in startups | Quartz – makes you wonder about Silicon Valley

Opinion | The Tyranny of Convenience – The New York Times – Americans say they prize competition, a proliferation of choices, the little guy. Yet our taste for convenience begets more convenience, through a combination of the economics of scale and the power of habit. The easier it is to use Amazon, the more powerful Amazon becomes — and thus the easier it becomes to use Amazon. Convenience and monopoly seem to be natural bedfellows. – great article by Tim Wu

WPP Vows to Do Better After Weak Results, Nervous Outlook Send Shares Plunging – The New York Times – WPP plans to accelerate a programme to simplify the business by aligning digital systems, platforms and capabilities to provide bespoke teams for its clients as opposed to the different agencies that currently compete with each other to win contracts.

Smart homes and vegetable peelers — Benedict Evans – interesting starting point, but I think that there should be a second layer. Can the intelligence be local (like lighting sensors based on movement and presence in office buildings) or does it need cloud computing? Why can’t smart lightbulbs be at the edge rather than in the cloud. Why does a Nest thermostat need to be in the cloud?

WeChat New Year Data Report 2018 – China Channel

WSJ City | Five signals sent by China’s Anbang takeover – Reining in big spenders (spending capital abroad in an untargeted manner), reduction of systemic financial risk, concern over complex short-term high-yielding wealth products

Wealthy Chinese Women Are Unique in APAC: Agility Research | Jing Daily – interesting dissonance between Hong Kong and Chinese high net worth consumers

Levi’s Invented A Laser-Wielding Robot That Makes Ethical Jeans | Fast Company – the laser and chemical free treatment remind me a lot of the work that Frontline Clothing in Hong Kong have been doing for years in association with their Chinese supply chain partners

Struggling Esprit to close more than 40 shops in Europe | South China Morning Post – it plans to close more than 40 “heavy loss-making” shops in “core” European countries, or make around a 10 to 15 per cent reduction in its controlled space in these countries

Amazon Has Officially Invaded The Advertising Industry | Forrester Research – the bit this misses is that consumers already use Amazon’s search page as a first port of call for things

Huawei distances itself from executive’s comments that rivals using politics to keep it out of US | South China Morning Post  – Huawei did not authorise Yu to make comments about the US on behalf of the company, and does not agree with his views, Chen said. Yu did not immediately respond to a text message seeking comment – Richard Yu is known for going off-piste with media

LittleThings online publisher shuts down, blames Facebook’s algorithm – Business Insider – not terribly surprising, one only had to look at the games companies that built their businesses on Facebook and got eviscerated

Burson Cohn & Wolfe – SixtySecondView – like any other business merger the focus will keep the eye off the ball at a time when the PR industry is seeing exceptionally low growth rates. I have friends and former colleagues on both sides of this in both Asia and Europe; so I hope it works out well.

Samsung says it’s going to stop pumping out features and start making devices good instead – BGR – “We developed mobile phones earlier than China, and we were obsessed with being the world’s first and industry’s first rather than thinking about how this innovation would be meaningful to consumers,” Koh said. “Being the first turns out to be meaningless today, and our strategy is to launch something that consumers believe meaningful and valuable at a right time.” – this reads like a slap in the face to Huawei’s approach on innovation and features

Tea Turns Up Temperature in Fight Against Coffee – WSJ – what tea misses is ritual

Daring Fireball: Berkshire Hathaway’s 2017 Annual Report (PDF) – they know how to play to small town audiences well

Things I’d like to see in 2018

There are a number of people who have done great trends / predictions for 2018. I thought that I would focus on what I would like to see.

Smartphones are stuck in a period of innovation stuckness. It is becoming increasingly difficult to justify upgrades to your handset. This has had knock-on effects to mobile networks. In markets where subsidised handsets are the norm like the UK we’re seeing that SIM-only contracts are becoming the norm.

Apple is trying to innovate its way out of this problem with its work on augmented reality interaction. Consumer media consumption will take a good while to catch up.

Smartphone cameras are as good as consumers need (at the moment). Displays are now good enough that improvements look indistinguishable. They are also large enough for you to watch Amazon Prime or Netflix during a commute. Mobile wallets are merely a back-up in case one leaves your wallet at home.

Whilst the app names have changed, much of the smartphone usage now is for the same things I used a Nokia or Palm smartphone ten years ago:

  • Alarm clock
  • Web surfing
  • Entertainment
  • Media playback
  • Communications

I hope that we start to see smartphones going back to the future and looking at different form factors. My iPhone would be much more useful as a productive device if it was available in a similar form factor to the old Nokia communicator. Different form factors of devices for different users. Gamers would benefit from better controls a la the Nokia nGage.

Interfaces can make better use of haptic feedback, and be designed to take advantage of more hardware-optimised devices.

Innovation isn’t only the responsibility of app developers and phone makers. What about a modern 4G version of ‘Enhanced Full Rate’ on GSM (GSM-EFR) ‘hi-fi voice calls’. UK operator One2One launched GSM-EFR on 2G networks in the late 1990s as part of their Precept tariffs, but I haven’t seen any other carrier try to do a similar thing since. Why not? I suspect part of the problem is that ‘innovation’ in your average mobile network provider now is testing vendor products in a lab to ensure they work properly on their network.

The web has developed a digital equivalent of clogged arteries. Part of this is down to buffer bloat and a lack of lean web design approach. Unfortunately the mobile web has not brought a clean slate approach but hacked together adaptations. A bigger issue is the layers of advertising technology trackers, analytics and assorted chunks of Javascript. Ad tech hammers page load time and responsiveness.

Share of time spent viewing video content in selected countries using ad blockers

We’ve seen Apple and Mozilla try to redesign their browser technology to slow down or stimmy ad technology. Consumers are adopting ad blockers to try and improve their own web experience.

There needs to be a collective reset button. I am not sure if we see a resurgence of the paid web or a kinder lighter footprint in advertising technology. Otherwise we have an unending conflict between the media industry and the rest of us.

The debate around machine learning in 2017 highlighted a Black Mirroresque dystopia awaiting us. The good news is that we tend to overestimate technology’s impact in the short term. In the long term the impact tends to meet our expectations all be in a more banal way.

Part of the current problem around machine learning is that Silicon Valley seems to only consider technology rather than the consequences of potential use cases. This needs to change, unfortunately the people in charge of technology companies are the least capable people to achieve it. We need a kinder more holistic roadmap. Legislation and regulation will be far too late to the party. We won’t be able to stop technological progress, but we can influence the way its used.

Lying in bed ill over the Christmas period, I read that crypto currency mining currently required as much energy as Bahrain. By the end of 2018, it will require as much energy as Italy. That is insane.

Apart from speculation and buying products on the dark web what is the killer app for crypto currencies? Why is worth the energy overhead? Steve Jobs focused on computing power per watt as part of his vision for laptops and moving the Mac range to Intel. Part of the move to the cloud was about making computing more efficient for businesses and providing computing power over the network for consumers on ‘low power’ mobile devices. Yet almost a decade and a half later, the hottest thing in technology is a grossly energy inefficient process.

We are starting to see regulators in Korea and China step in to regulate the market and energy supply to miners, but western economies need to look at this. And I haven’t even got on to the ICO (intial coin offering) as Ponzi scheme…

If you substitute the words ‘fax machine’ or ‘call centre’ for app would Uber, Deliveroo etc be considered as technology companies? I suspect that the answer is no.  A company may use a lot of technology – it happens a lot these days. But that doesn’t make Capita, Mastercard or Goldman Sachs a technology company, lets  apply a bit of critical thinking. I wouldn’t mind, but this same mistake was made in the late 1990s during the dot com boom.

Many companies including Enron were ‘repackaged’ by management, venture capitalists, investment banks and consultancies (cough, cough McKinsey) as asset-light technology driven businesses aka ‘an internet company’. It didn’t work out well last time. It won’t this time either.

More information
Enhanced full rate (GSM) – Wikipedia
Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index | Digiconomist
Setback for Uber as European court advised to treat it as transport firm | Reuters
Other trends reports
Fjord: 2018 Fjord Trends
iProspect: Future Focus 2018: The New Machine Rules
Isobar: Augmented Humanity: Isobar Trends Report 2018
J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group: The Future 100
Ogilvy & Mather: Key Digital Trends for 2018 – Whatley and Manson are doing webinar presentations this week if you want to catch them
Campaign Asia did a nice precise of them all
Past prediction stuff that I’ve done
2016: crystal ball gazing, how did I do? | renaissance chambara
2016: just where is it all going? | renaissance chambara
2015: crystal ball gazing, how did I do? | renaissance chambara
2015: just where is it all going? | renaissance chambara
2014: crystal ball gazing, how did I do? | renaissance chambara
2014: just where is it all going? | renaissance chambara 
Crystal ball-gazing: 2013 how did I do? | renaissance chambara
2013: just where is it all going? | renaissance chambara
Crystal ball-gazing: 2012 how did I do? | renaissance chambara
2012: just where is digital going? | renaissance chambara
Things I’d like to see in 2012 | renaissance chambara
Crystal ball-gazing: 2011 how did I do?
2010: How did I do? | renaissance chambara
2010: just where is digital going? | renaissance chambara
Predictions for 2009 | renaissance chambara













ICYMI | 万一你错过了| 당신이 그것을 놓친 경우

How Adform discovered HyphBot – one of the largest botnets to ever hit digital advertising (PDF)

Apple wins one of their First Augmented Reality Patents related to Compositing an AR Scene – reminded of the locative art from William Gibson’s Spook Country

Sweating bullets: notes about the creation of PowerPoint by Robert Gaskins – (PDF)

Social Media Is a Denial-of-Service Attack on Your Mind | Nautilus – (paywall)

Facebook launches collaborative Stories for Groups and Events | TechCrunch – Storify / Moments for Facebook?

When fake news will be made by pros – Monday Note – opportunity for PR industry? ;-)

Google – The colour purple. | Radio Free Mobile – interesting support for Swift in the Fuchsia build

Have we reached peak smartphone? – Kantar‘Younger mobile users aren’t simply listening to less music or reading fewer books; instead, the way in which they are engaging with entertainment and the devices they are choosing is evolving. For example, we have seen a decline in younger mobile users listening to music on their mobiles, but the purchasing of vinyl and streaming music through home virtual assistants is on the rise. Social networking has held steady, with 87.8% of 16-24-year-olds using their phones for this purpose (87% in 2016), so as new (or retro) technologies come onto the market the role of the mobile device for younger users will continue to change.’ – a certain amount of this is BS

To predict crime, China’s tracking medical histories, cafe visits, supermarket membership, Human Rights Watch warns — Quartz – Minority Report in action

Interviews Come Back — With Cringely’s Answers – Slashdot – Slashdot’s proto-AMA with Robert X Cringely from 2000

Ten years of the Kindle

Amazon Kindle & Sony eBook

Amazon is celebrating 10 years of the Kindle so it makes sense to reflect on the device and the service.

Rather like Apple products Kindle is a combination of hardware, software (including content), payment infrastructure and the Whispernet global mobile virtual network.

Like Apple, Amazon came in and refined an existing business model. Companies like Sony made very nice e-readers, but they didn’t have the publisher relationships and market access that Amazon had.

Context rather than convergence

In a time where consumer electronics thinking was all about convergence, from the newly launched iPhone to the Symbian eco-system Amazon were determined to come up with a single purpose device.

Amazon resisted the trend and created a dedicated device for reading. That is why you have a black-and-white e-ink screen and an experience exclusively focused on seamless content downloads.

Yes, they’ve rolled out tablets since, but even the latest range stick to the original Kindle playbook. Some of their decisions were quite prescient. The Kindle was deliberately designed so that it didn’t require content to be side loaded from personal computer like an iPod.

The Kindle has survived the smartphone and the tablet device as a reading experience.

Using the U.S. legal system to clear the field

Amazon was helped out by the US government prosecuting Apple under the Sherman Act. Wikipedia has a good summary of this case. On the face of it Apple was doing a similar structured deal with publishers on book pricing to what it had done previously with record companies for iTunes music.

This case effectively stalled Apple book store momentum and lumbered Apple with overzealous US government overwatch. The consumer benefit has been minimal – more on that later. The irony of all this is the way Amazon has leveraged its monopolistic position to decimate entire sectors of the retail economy.

The interesting thing about this case, say compared to the Apple | Qualcomm dispute is that Apple still kept Audible audio book sales in iTunes throughout this dispute and didn’t look at ways to bounce the iPad Kindle app from the app store. Audible is an Amazon-owned company.

By comparison, Amazon bounced Apple’s TV from its own e-commerce platform and has taken a long time to support the AppleTV app eco-system – long after the likes of Netflix.

Piracy in China

Amazon hasn’t had it all its own way. China had a burgeoning e-book market prior to the Kindle and Chinese consumers used to read these books on their laptops.  Depending which store you used; it might have more books at a cheaper price because intellectual property wasn’t ironed out.

A cottage industry sprang up that saw Kindles acquired in the US and Japan shipped back to China and reflashed with software that made them compatible with the local app stores.

The Kindle brain phenomenon

I moved from the UK to Hong Kong to take up a role and tried to lighten my burden by moving my reading from books to the Kindle. I found that I didn’t retain the content I read. I enjoyed the process of reading less and did it less often. I wasn’t an e-book neophyte I had enjoyed reading vintage pulp fiction novels as ebooks on Palm devices and Nokia phones in the early 2000s as a way of passing them time on my commute.

Talking to friends their experience was similar. I now read on the Kindle or listen to audio books only for pleasure. I tend to buy my reference books in the dead tree format. There is something more immediate about the process of reading from a ‘real book’ rather than an e-book.

It seems that digital natives aren’t ready to give up books just yet. Studies about the use of digital technology and e-books in education are mixed and anecdotal evidence suggests that technology industry leaders liked to keep the level of digital content in their children’s lives at a low threshold.

The Kindle hasn’t replaced the bookshelf and the printing press yet.


Disposing of the medium didn’t mean that we got cheaper e-books. On Amazon it is worth looking carefully to see what is the cheapest format on a case by case basis. Kindle competes against print books and secondhand books.

Secondhand books win hands down when you are looking at materials beyond bestsellers. A real-world book is easier to gift and Amazon Prime allows for almost instant gratification. The Kindle starts to look like Amazon covering all the bases rather than the future of publishing. This may change over time, a decade into online news was a more mixed media environment than it is now – but Kindle feels as if it has reached a balance at the moment.

More information
New study suggests ebooks could negatively affect how we comprehend what we read | USA Today
Shelve paperbacks in favour of E-books in schools? | BBC
Study challenges popular beliefs on e-reading | The Educator
Are Digital Textbooks Finally Taking Hold? | Good eReader – makes the case for a heterogenous book environment of standard textbooks, e-books and used books
Do ‘Digital Natives’ Prefer Paper Books to E-Books? | Education Week
Our love affair with digital is over | New York Times (paywall)