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Summary:

Android’s share of the mobile market might be growing rapidly, but if it really wants to generate Apple-style levels of consumer excitement, it could learn some lessons from the legion of iPhone copycats that are all the rage across China.

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It’s no secret that Google is desperate for its Android software to become the dominant platform for mobile phones. But while it’s making inroads both in the U.S. and worldwide, there’s still one area it’s lagging in: genuine, unbridled fan lust.

So it must be exciting for executives in Mountain View to see pictures like this one: a huge gaggle of people queuing excitedly for the new M9 handset from Chinese manufacturer Meizu. It’s the kind of image we usually associate with Apple launches and major console game releases.

So what secret sauce does the M9 have that’s causing such excitement? Well, it’s got lots of good features at a competitive price: just $409 for a 16GB SIM-free model. But the real selling point seems to be one that Google would be less pleased to trumpet: It’s unashamedly borrowing from the iPhone.

Despite the Android underpinnings, Meizu’s notorious for finding more than a little inspiration from Apple products, including interface elements that would seem eerily familiar to iPhone users. The similarities were even more obvious on its previous model, the M8, which was so closely modeled on the iPhone 3G many users would find it hard to tell the difference at a glance.

All this is a result of China’s huge “shanzhai” industry of pirated goods. Shanzhai companies, which specialize in mimicking elements seen on more expensive rivals, have an approach to manufacturing and design that’s both controversial and fascinating. I’ve been interested in the phenomenon for some time, and even spent a few weeks in China last summer exploring it for a piece on shanzhai in the UK edition of Wired magazine.

You can buy shanzhai handsets all over the developing world, but among Western consumers, they have a pretty poor reputation. They’re seen as unremarkable, derivative low-cost imitations. But is that a fair description? In some cases, yes, but Meizu proves it’s not always accurate.

There’s another element to remember: It’s not as if China has some special stranglehold on copycats. Some of the people I met in Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen argued that American and European companies were joking if they thought the piracy of ideas was purely a Chinese phenomenon. Just witness the plethora of lawsuits flying around the mobile industry in the Western world to see that.

Some go even further. One Chinese handset designer pointed out to me privately that these Western iPhone competitors weren’t only slow to market, but also poorly executed in an often-spectacular way. Take, for example, the much-derided BlackBerry Storm, which hit the market nearly 18 months after the iPhone but was slammed by reviewers.

Real shanzhai manufacturers, with their deep expertise and extremely rapid production cycles, would be embarrassed to ship a product that took so long and performed so badly. The market just wouldn’t bear their failures.

In some ways, it should be no surprise that companies like Meizu are creating a significant following inside China. If you’re the average urban Chinese smartphone buyer, the M9 has some obvious advantages over the iPhone. For a start, it’s more affordable, at around half the cost of the Apple equivalent. It also has more localized functions, and it’s being very aggressively marketed by a local company that knows which buttons to press.

Whether or not you agree with the way shanzhai companies build their business, it’s clear they can create good products that feed demand — and perhaps, given time, they may even be able graduate into genuine contenders. Manufacturers such as Huawei, MediaTek and ZTE have all made products that seem unoriginal but have turned into raging successes regardless.

So could it be that Android’s worldwide success could end up relying on high-quality iPhone clones? It would certainly seem ironic, but it doesn’t seem impossible.

Image courtesy of BBS.meizu.com

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  1. There is a reason that the chinese forms large que’s for Meizu’s products.
    1, Meizu has a reputation for creating good quality products,some of which EXCEED the quality of western stuff : specifically their M3 and M6 music players.
    2, Meizu generally gives good support for their products unlike other chinese manufacturer’s.
    I doubt it has anything to do with apple,though meizu gained fame in western circles because they were the FIRST to ape the apple UI/Single button interface(though every other manufacturer has done it subsequently)

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  2. I think categorizing Meizu as a clone maker is not the right way to look at it if you want to understand why so many people qued up to buy the phone, it is a very good android phone, probably better than the evos and the droids at a much more affordable price…

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  3. Ah, it comes down to this. Google has become the Walmart of the internet.

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  4. Bobbie Johnson Monday, January 10, 2011

    Nirmal, good point on support. Rdx, my argument’s that companies which start out as shanzhai manufacturers are making incredibly rapid advances now, and can often produce better hardware, faster. Good ones don’t need to stay shanzhai for long. Meizu’s M8 was a straight Apple clone – but with each successive generation, things get better and more innovative and offer features that local buyers want. If Android is harnessed by these aggressive, local, rapid companies, then it’s going to give it a massive leg up.

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  5. [...] That leaves Lenovo and HP, each of which has their own potential plan to remain relevant in a mobile future. Lenovo is leveraging its home base in China, an area ripe for handset growth, even after it sold its smartphone division in 2008 and then paid double to buy it back 18 months later. But the company hasn’t yet pushed its smartphone strategy beyond the borders of China where it faces competition from a growing number of cheap Android handse…. [...]

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  6. [...] That leaves Lenovo and HP, each of which has their own potential plan to remain relevant in a mobile future. Lenovo is leveraging its home base in China, an area ripe for handset growth, even after it sold its smartphone division in 2008 and then paid double to buy it back 18 months later. But the company hasn’t yet pushed its smartphone strategy beyond the borders of China, where it faces competition from a growing number of cheap Android handsets. [...]

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