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Imitation to innovation
By Erik Nilsson (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-07-14 10:14

Imitation to innovation

Creation is the key to surviving the highly competitive cellphone market,such as this winnie-the-pooh. [China Daily]

Fierce competition is transforming the shanzhaiji - or "mountain village mobile phones" - market and its cultural impact.

For years, most users used "shanzhai" to just mean "fake". But the vicious rivalry among shanzhaiji manufacturers is shifting the industry from imitation to innovation. With more than 10,000 black market handset makers in Shenzhen alone pushing units for profits of 10 to 20 yuan ($1.5-3) apiece, low revenues and high competition means shanzhaiji makers must now get creative to survive.

"Shanzhai mobile phones have shown pretty impressive innovation in terms of technology, appearance and manufacturability, which find no parallels," says principal of Newport Technologies Karl Weaver, who specializes in shanzhaiji.

"A lot of unusual technologies and designs are combined together. These combinations bring out a wild variety of functions, although most infringe on the original manufacturer in some way."

China is the world's largest handset market with about 650 million mobile users and another 8.52 million sets sold every month. Last year, about 250 million shanzhaiji entered the market, Weaver says.

In Beijing's Zhongguancun electronics market, vendors peddle fake Nokia phones with electric shavers and two SIM card slots - features the real brand doesn't offer. 3G iPhone replicas with exteriors identical to the real devices are sold for 400 yuan compared to $299. Others are printed with names like "Sunyericcsun".

Related readings:
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Imitation to innovation Copycat 'Shanzhai' culture takes on life of its own in China
Imitation to innovation China's mobile phone users hit 650 million

But there are also quirkier contraptions, such as mobiles shaped like cigarettes packs resembling those of Panda, Baisha and "Marlbara" brands. Users can put up to seven cigarettes inside. Others are shaped like automobiles, such as Ferraris, BMWs and Hummers.

Big Thunder phones are built with eight speakers. The Big Cannon Paparazzo also features a 6X telescopic lens for its 1.3 megapixel camera, a 3-inch touch-screen with Chinese handwriting recognition, double SIM slots, an additional MicroSD slot, Bluetooth, MP3 player, and a money authentication reader able to distinguish real banknotes from fakes.

The golden Buddha Heart and Karma model, which resembles a temple ornament, even comes with a certificate to prove it has been blessed by monks.

"You can call shanzhai convenient creativity," says shanzhai expert Scully Meng, editorial assistant of the London-based NGO China Dialogue.

"They create it but do so based on something that's already been created by someone else. I think people are getting tired of big brands and a certain way of life, and this is a way to express themselves."

Imitation to innovation

She also points out that shanzhai innovation isn't only about developing new technology, but also fulfilling people's needs.

Weaver believes the "genius" handsets with shaving razors designed for on-the-go hygiene demonstrate how shanzhai phones often meet needs overlooked by major brands.

"The R&D at Motorola, it's happening in the laboratory. It's not close to life," he says.

But the problem, experts and consumers agree, is quality. While shanzhaiji have incredible functionality and affordability, they often don't work well or last long.

Because the market is unregulated, batteries can explode, and special absorption rates (SAR) of electromagnetism, which could harm the brain, can reach unsafe levels.

But a recent test by Shenzhen Communications Association and Shenzhen Electronic Product Quality Test Center of 12 randomly selected shanzhai mobiles and three brand mobiles, including top international manufacturers Nokia and Samsung, found the "shanzhai mobiles are close in quality to their rival brand firms".

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