updated 11:04 pm EST, Mon January 13, 2014
Chinese smartphone maker targets United States for 2014
While still the most lucrative in the world, the smartphone market in the United States poses problems for manufacturers. Apple, of course, dominates the landscape, with its monolithic iPhone accounting for more than a fifth of all mobile phones in the nation. Samsung also looms large, responsible for a quarter of the American smartphone market, and no other smartphone manufacturer registers double digit share in the market. The two giants crowding the American market don't intimidate China's Meizu, though. Speaking with Electronista last week, representatives from the company were confident that a combination of simplification, affordability, and high-specs in its devices can make it a force when big push into the American market comes later this year.
"If you want to start from the beginning," says Meizu's Sierra Ma, who is heading up the U.S. expansion for the smartphone maker, "we'd start in 2002, when we were an MP3 player manufacturer. At the time, we sold all over the world."
Meizu exec Sierra Ma holds up the company's newest offering, the MX3.
That focus shifted quickly, though, she says, thanks to the vision of the company's founder, Jack Wong.
Wong saw smartphones as the inevitable future for Meizu, with MP3 players soon to become an endangered species. The Meizu founder -- who sometimes draws comparisons to Apple's Steve Jobs -- set to remaking his company, dedicating operations to the production of smartphones starting in 2006. By 2009, Meizu had launched its first smartphone, the M8 miniOne. Meizu has seen success in its home market, and it now operates more than 600 retail shops in China.
In 2012, Meizu began to look beyond China's borders, and the company now sells devices in Russia, the Ukraine, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. In reaching for the U.S. market, Meizu thinks it can fare better than other Chinese firms like Huawei and ZTE, which have struggled to gain any recognition.
"Huawei and ZTE have an entirely different strategy than us," she notes. "They have their network equipment business, and selling phones is just another revenue line. For us, we're focused on smartphones. Another thing is that Huawei and ZTE began with low-end phones. We're entering with a high-end device, so you can't really compare."
That high-end device will be the latest version of the Meizu MX, a sleek handset running a tweaked version of Android that Meizu says is focused on simplicity and ease of access. FlyMe, the name for its interface, is more of a user experience than the typical Android skin, according to Meizu.
"We're an Android phone. On top of Android, we put our own operating system called FlyMe. A lot of people ask us, 'Is it a skin?'" Ma says. "It's not only a skin, it's a simplified version of Android."
With FlyMe, Meizu focused on one-handed operation throughout the platform, and Ma points to an apparent paradox in smartphone design trends as the reasoning behind that focus. Even as Android device screens grow larger, consumers don't necessarily want to sacrifice one-handed use to accommodate those bigger screens.
"People don't want to deal with that sort of screen for operation," she says, demonstrating the MX's simple pull-down gesture to access Google search features. "We wanted to make it smart enough to let you get most things done with one hand, even with the big screen. You can access more than 80 percent of functions with your thumb using one hand, whereas on a Samsung phone, you can only get to about 22 percent of items."
In practice, Meizu's method works quite well. The MX's 5.1-inch screen is easily navigable, with many controls adjusting themselves to fall within the arc of the user's thumb. Features like the camera have also been tweaked in order allow easier control, as the user doesn't need to focus and then locate the on-screen shutter button to take a picture. Instead, with one or two taps and holds, the camera focuses and then snaps a pic, saving the trouble of potentially shaking the shot.
Performance on the handset doesn't suffer due to these interface tweaks, though, as the MX generally zips through most functions. That's due to the 8-core processor the device packs, as well as its 3-core graphics processor and 2GB of DDR3 RAM. Those components make up another leg of Meizu's approach to competition: putting high-end components into its devices.
"People are looking for phones that are not just from the big names, but are also good quality phones," says Ma. "In this economy, people are really concerned with the quality of what they're paying for, but they don't want to lower their expectations of what they're getting for a price. That's how we're positioning our devices: equipped with premium chipsets, but reasonably priced."
Alongside the speedy internals, the MX3 packs an 8-megapixel rear camera, 2-megapixel front-facing camera, and 2,400mAh battery, as well as near-field communications technology in the higher storage capacity models. Topping it all off is that aforementioned 5.1-inch display, outputting at 1800 x 1080 and 415 pixels per inch. When it launches in the United States, it will do so with 4G connectivity, even though current models selling in China do not have such capabilities.
With those specifications, the MX3 is positioned solidly against much of its Android competition, and Meizu believes the third facet of its strategy will make consumers give it a long, hard look: it's priced like an entry-level device. Meizu will be selling the handset for between $300 and $400 at launch, off-contract.
When it makes a bigger North American push in the second half of 2014, Meizu will be looking to work with U.S. carriers, though the manufacturer isn't yet ready to announce anything specific. In addition to working with carriers, though, Meizu will also be offering the MX3 off contract through online outlets, something Ma believes will make it attractive to consumers due to its pricing.
"Nowadays, nobody really wants to get locked into a carrier."
The American market is fraught with potential pitfalls, due either to marketing or simply being crowded out. The company, though, thinks it's on to something, and not just because of its price point and technology. For Meizu, it boils down to passion, and that passion starts at the top.
"Our founder, Jack Wong," says Ma, "he's very much into the whole experience of the product. He just cares about the product, and that passion for the development of the whole, that's what really separates us. We're looking forward to seeing you guys in the U.S. later this year."