By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions
SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY
The rise of smartphones – mobile phones capable of Internet access and able to run ‘apps’ or applications – is the latest wave of the global connectivity revolution. Mobile phones rapidly made their way around the world to become almost ubiquitous – the most successful take-up of a piece of communications technology in history – and now smartphones are set to do the same. The number of mobile phone subscriptions in the world surpassed 6 billion in 2012 (out of a population of 7 billion) and, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the number of mobile phones will exceed the world’s population by 2014.
Over the last five years, with the increasing popularity of smartphones, the focus of the mobile industry has shifted from voice and messaging to apps and data services.
Smartphones are complex pieces of technology and any country that can develop the capability to make them and innovate is set to make a lot of money.
The high export value potential of designing and making “computer equipment, office equipment, telecommunication equipment, electric circuit equipment, and valves and transistors” was flagged up as a priority for developing nations back in 2005 at a UN meeting looking for “New and Dynamic Sectors of World Trade” (UNCTAD).
At present, smartphones have a long way to go to surpass old-style mobile phones: by the end of 2016, according to Portio Research (portioresearch.com), the number of non-smartphones in the Asia-Pacific region alone will still be bigger than the entire worldwide number of all smartphones. Even so, it’s predicted that by 2016, there will be 555 million active smartphones in China alone, as well as half a billion smartphones in Europe by the end of 2014. By 2013, North America’s smartphones will make up 50 per cent of all mobile phones. All in all, a lucrative market.
The main factor holding back the rise of smartphones is price. Smartphones tend to cost more than a basic mobile phone. But as China gets more heavily involved in the smartphone marketplace with its own smartphone and mobile phone brands, low income consumers will find themselves with a wider choice of affordable and powerful smartphones, each one a mini-computer.
Out of the 10 largest global manufacturers of smartphones, four are Chinese: Lenovo, Yulong, Huawei and ZTE (Gartner).
Huawei (http://www.huawei.com/en/), the world’s biggest smartphone seller (according to research firm Canalys) (canalys.com), has started to move some of its design team to London in the United Kingdom, to better tailor its products for foreign markets. It has revenues each year of US $35 billion.
China’s mobile phone market is vast, accounting for a third of all smartphones sold in the world. Getting a foothold in this marketplace places a company in a very strong position to build the expertise and capital to push into the wider global marketplace. And that is what Chinese brands are starting to do. So far, Chinese exports of branded smartphones make up a fifth of those sold around the world (Canalys).
The big global competitors to date have been South Korea’s Samsung (samsung.com) and the American Apple brand (apple.com). Other large competitors are Canada’s troubled Blackberry and Finland’s Nokia.
To compete with them, popular and successful Chinese brands include Xiaomi (xiaomi.cn), which sells more mobile phones in China than does the American Apple brand, and ZTE (http://wwwen.zte.com.cn/en/).
For years, many of the top global brands have had their phones and the components manufactured in China. This meant Chinese manufacturers were assembling the phones but not benefiting from the high value that can be extracted from being the owner of the brand name and the originator of the innovation and holder of the copyrights and trademarks.
But now China’s Lenovo brand (http://www.lenovo.com/uk/en/), for example, has successfully pulled past U.S. electronics maker Hewlett-Packard (www.hp.com) to become the largest seller of personal computers in the world. It is also selling more mobile phones and tablet computers than personal computers.
Lenovo Chief Executive Yang Yuanqing espouses a two-part strategy to defend market share at home in China while going hard at overseas markets. Lenovo started with so-called emerging markets in Russia, India and Indonesia.
“We have very aggressive plans to explore overseas markets,” Lenovo’s mobile phone division head Liu Jun told China Daily. “We hope the overseas market will contribute more than half of Lenovo’s total smartphone revenue in the long run.”
Xiaomi founder Lei Jun is considered part of a new generation of dynamic Chinese technology leaders. His casual clothing and charismatic public presentations have had some equate him to the late Apple founder Steve Jobs. But Jun is not happy with selling smartphones and instead sees the company’s future in software and that the phones are just a tool to access the software. Xiaomi hopes to make even more money from selling games, running online marketplaces and offering social media.
The Chinese-made smartphone brand Coolpad (http://coolpadamericas.com/) – made by Yulong Computer Telecommunication Scientific Co. – is the third best-selling in the Chinese marketplace, surpassing Huawei and Apple and has global annual revenue of US $1.8 billion, according to Forbes magazine. Sino Market Research found 10.2 per cent of China’s smartphone users own a Coolpad, behind Korean brand Samsung and China’s Lenovo.
Coolpad has succeeded by investing heavily in research and development (R&D) and innovation to make the phones cheap but also powerful.
Innovations include technology that lets users have more than one phone number for the same phone by being able to connect to two different network technologies. The phones also include security and privacy protections that make them popular with businesspeople and government officials.
The Coolpad brand has also been frenetic in launching different models of the phones to appeal to its customers. In 2012, it launched 48 different models, selling for between US $50 and US $500.
Coolpad was launched in 2012 in the US as part of the company’s global expansion plans.
China has placed innovation at the core of its economic development policies. China increased its R&D spending in 2009 to US $25.7 billion, a 25.6 per cent rise over 2008, according to Du Zhanyuan, vice minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology. In 2011, China surpassed South Korea and Europe in total patents filed and was in a neck-and-neck race with Japan and the United States.
China now boasts twice as many Internet users as the United States, and is the main global maker of computers and consumer electronics, from toys to games consoles to digital everything.
China is also on course to become the world’s largest market for Internet commerce and computing.
The drive to change and transform China’s global economic role was promoted in 2011’s Beijing International Design Week (http://www.bjdw.org/en/), with its theme of transforming “Made in China to Designed in China.”
1) iHub Nairobi: iHub – Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the technology community is an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. This space is a tech community facility with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers, designers and researchers. Website: http://www.ihub.co.ke/
2) Venture Capital for Africa: Venture Capital for Africa (www.vc4africa.biz) is the continent’s leading founder’s network, the largest and fastest growing community of entrepreneurs and investors building promising companies in Africa. Website: https://vc4africa.biz/
Red Dot: The red dot logo stands for belonging to the best in design and business. The red dot is an internationally recognized quality label for excellent design that is aimed at all those who would like to improve their business activities with the help of design. Website: http://www.red-dot.de
C3: C3 offers product design and product engineering services in Shanghai, China. Their strong point is managing innovative design processes from scratch (market research) until production: a one shop service: Website: chinacreativecompany.com
North Korea Tech: North Korea Tech is dedicated to covering and collecting information regarding the state of information technology and related industry in North Korea. You can expect to find articles related to Internet connectivity in the country (yes, it does exist), North Korea’s use of technology, and the country’s centrally-controlled and heavily-censored mass media. Website: http://www.northkoreatech.org/
Published: September 2013
Note on story: Very few outside of China in 2013 were talking about this topic, let alone the increasing market share of smartphone manufacturer Huawei. This was one of many stories to result from a research trip to China. For the keen-eyed, try and spot the Huawei logo in the accompanying photo taken in Tianjin.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.
© David South Consulting 2021