Experiencing the razor edge of mobile UX in Beijing

By Kevin McCullagh, founder of Plan.

Shanzhai Market in Beijing, home of the imitation mobile phone
Shanzhai Market in Beijing.

A colleague and I covered ten Chinese cities in three weeks during November 2009. We were in search of emerging big picture shifts in design sensibilities. We interviewed opinion forming designers, advertising executives and journalists in swanky high-rise office and hotels, but they kept on guiding us down backstreets instead to semi-legal Shanzhai markets, for a real experience of authentic Chinese innovation.

The features and interfaces of Shanzhai (‘bandit’) mobile phones are inferior to mainstream models, but in visual terms they are often doppelgangers of the real thing – usually Nokias. These pirate phones began as simple knock-offs of popular handsets, with brand names such as Nckia, Sumsung and HiPhone, catering for the bottom end of the market with price tags as low as USD 20. Their main appeal remains that from a few paces it’s hard to tell the difference between them and the real deal.

They are often made by fly-by-night operations, staffed by a handful of well-connected techies in or around Shenzhen. These companies began by reducing the handset form factor a little to fit local hands, and went on to add functional improvements like dual SIM-card slots. More recently they have turned their attention to design ‘improvements’. What particularly irks the big brand manufacturers is that the Shanzhai versions often beat them to market – including last minute production line tweaks.

This might prove to be a short-lived burst of local design innovation, since recent reports suggest that sales have started to dip. Word has got around among Chinese consumers, who will typically research a purchase for weeks online, that the while fakes may look the part, they break too easily and their UX stinks.

The following photos are a few of my favourite Shanzhais, followed by an example of an innovation too far.

USD 30 Vertu imitation phone

Looks something like a Vertu, but for USD 30.

A new take on Motorola's RAZR?  A phone with an electric razor inetgrated.

Mobile phone and electric razor, if only Bodie and Doyle were still around savour this gadget heaven.

Imitation iPhone with Mickey Mouse branding

I can see Steve Jobs signing these off!

Imitation iPhone in candy pink

Imitation Samsung Anycall phone

While claiming to be a Samsung ‘Anycull’, this phone takes it visual cue from the Olympic Water Cube.

An imitation iPhone with combined Apple and Sony branding

I had missed this is ‘co-branding’ initiative by Sony and Apple!

Taxi drivers watches a video player on his rear view mirror

I notice a less welcome innovation on the way across town for dinner. Our cab driver has strapped a video player over his rear view mirror and is taking in a movie, while ducking and weaving through rush hour traffic.

Kevin McCullagh, founder of Plan

Kevin is the founder of Plan, a product strategy consultancy based in London.

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  1. 1
    Bryan Rieger

    Interesting observations. These knock-offs can usually be found throughout most of Asia – we often run into them at MBK in Bangkok. They provide users with the brand (Apple, Nokia, Sony) but with none of the actual UX that these brands are known for.

    Last summer (2009) while in Bangkok I saw a few knock-offs that really got me thinking… they looked just like an iPhone (incl. Apple logo), but appeared to be running a version of Google’s (free and open OS) Android (unconfirmed).

    If (a big IF) some of the ‘pirate’ manufacturers figure out how to build off of some of the free and open platforms (such as Android or Symbian) it could be VERY disruptive for the industry especially if apps created for these platforms run on these ‘knock-off’ devices (currently most of them support some variant of J2ME to run applications – so iPhone apps won’t run on knock-off iPhones).

    Not sure if you ran into the physical app stores (I have pictures if you’d like) where people can load up their devices with (typically pirate) apps, media, etc for prices very similar to that of the app store (~$1.00 US or so per ‘app’). The standard app store economics for these apps work fine in the region, but as many people may not have credit cards or often the real service isn’t available in their region these ‘app kiosks’ are often the only way for them to (side) ‘load’ content onto their devices.

    FWIW – we saw LOTS of iPhone apps (from the Apple app store) available for sale via these app kiosks and there were no shortage of customers. New and used iPhones were for sale everywhere (they were the must have gadget/brand – hence the knock-offs). If Apple ever releases a $99 USD iPhone AND ensure the App Store is available (along with a way to purchase) in emerging markets they could really see a huge increase in market share.

  2. 2
    Marek Pawlowski

    The physical application stores sound intriguing, I’d love to see those pictures. Perhaps you could write a follow-up piece to this, with a photo essay of what happens at the stores, why people are using them and the sort of things they’re buying?

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