Could Chinese iClones be Android’s Secret Weapon?

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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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