China & Catching up: The Price of a UX

China & Catching up: The Price of a UX

Is easily affordable worth the potential risk?

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2014 can be remembered as the year when OnePlus stormed into the smartphone market and kept the nerd and enthusiast groups abuzz for months over one single smartphone, the OnePlus One. 2014 can also be remembered for the rise of Xiaomi, as it spread its reach beyond the Chinese nation towards other markets, and wrangled away Samsung’s monopolistic seat in the affordable smartphone segment. There were also some notable runner-ups in 2014, like Lenovo which made the news after it acquired Motorola and its smartphone portfolio. Oppo chugged along behind with a solid lineup throughout the year, keeping itself alive for another few years. There are many smaller Chinese manufacturers, all of whom nibble away at the low-end spectrum of the smartphone (and by extension, tablet) market.

Come 2015 and we see Chinese manufacturers progressing stronger, as newer players have come to be known with the general public. But what makes these Chinese OEM’s and their devices gain such popularity? Tag along as we attempt to find the common themes between smartphones from Chinese manufacturers.

Cost

Most Chinese manufacturers, the ones known to the public at least, have the cost of their devices as the primary selling point, especially in the minds of westerners used to expensive flagships. The low cost of large scale manufacturing in China really helps the production economy of devices, allowing rapid and massive creation and assembling of units without over-inflating the price.

If the cost of production is low, the manufacturer has a lot more room to wiggle when it comes to the asking price of the product. This is where competition comes in, with the forces of high demand as well as high supply diminishing the profit margins and production monopolies of individual manufacturers. The end result of the process is a lot of devices, which are then sold for cheap. It also must be noted that the means of selling these devices typically involves a mix of online flash sales and retailers and sales in physical stores. The online sales model helps keep costs down as well, it allows the companies to spread all over the world without necessarily being taken in by actual stores.

Spec Overload

Low cost of production can also work in a different direction: spec overload. I remember the times when Chinese “smart” phones (non-Android) first appeared in my city’s markets some 8 years back, when the Nokia 6600’s and others were what fell under that definition of smart phones. The Chinese phones that came in featured quad speakers and quad flash with glaringly obvious (but not really worth their size) camera modules. The phones attempted to go overkill on the “features” which were flashy and proved easily marketable material. The same continues on to this day, with the difference being the increase in general consumer education has shifted marketable features from the outside to the inside. This “specification sheet first, results second” approach is still strong within Asia and China in particular. It certainly drives innovation in some ways, but sometimes this means favoring numbers over performance. For example, octa-core processors were heavily marketed yet, up until recently, these chipsets didn’t offer significant advantages.

When not attempting to go extremely affordable, Chinese devices will try and load up on features, whether it be in the form of hardware gimmicks or software offerings. For example, Elephone’s 2015 “flagship”, the Elephone Vowney  will come with a 2k display, 3GB RAM, a 20.7 MP camera and a 4200 mAh battery. How all of it contributes to a pleasurable user experience is a different story altogether, but the specs exist for things to go in that general direction. The software of the device and the manufacturers’ apathy and lack of dedication often up end up killing the device, irrespective of its massive specs and potential.

The iPhone

As a generalization of the smartphone industry as a whole (exceptions exist), we are also moving towards an iPhone-inspired user experience. This generic shift is only in terms of build quality and materials for manufacturers based out of Asia, but for most Asian manufacturers, hardware and software both continue to be “inspired” by Apple and its iPhone lineup. This is extremely common for Chinese devices to the point where it is responsible for skewing the global average. Not only is the hardware made to emulate the feeling of an iPhone, the software is also moulded to deliver an iPhone experience aesthetically. Quoting experiences of our own XDA Editor, Mathew Brack, from his recent trip to China:

One event that confirmed this view happened whilst in the office of Elephone for a meeting. Upon exiting we were asked for a photograph with some of the team in front of the new ZUK sign they have in the lobby. The man in charge of the team asked that someone take the photo and when several people pulled an Elephone or ZUK Z1 out of their pocket, he without a second thought stopped them and stated:
“No this is an important occasion, we need a worthy camera, someone get me an iPhone!”
This left me stunned. I can’t imagine many companies willing to say this in front of their staff, never mind the press, however no one seemed phased by it. They just returned their phones to their pockets and pulled out their iPhones instead. This attitude appeared to be ingrained in everyone.

Staying in a neighbouring country from China and otherwise interacting with a lot of Chinese in my day-to-day activities, this view is resonated with first hand experiences: China is a big market for Apple and the craze for iPhones is real over there. Android is more of a second class citizen for most of the country, becoming the option they fall back on when they cannot buy an iPhone, and as a result, they usually opt for iPhone-esque Android phones. So to please this domestic audience, manufacturers are forced to make their devices seamless with the iOS experience, choosing to ride upon the fame and marketing of Apple rather than risk it all by attempting to create their own.

This leads us on to the next point of recurrence:

User Experience

“This double-edged sword is what brought OnePlus to the world stage”

User experience starts right from when the user purchases the device and ends when he disposes of it. The rise of Chinese devices has led us on to the online purchase trend, previously uncommon for smartphones, where users are bereft of going into physical stores and getting a first-hand feel of the device before making a purchasing decision.
Options still exist, but they are few and far between outside of Asia, forcing Chinese retailers and resellers to rely on the power of Internet, marketing and advertising to get their product noticed. This double-edged sword is what brought OnePlus to the world stage, and it’s also a polarizing means of advertisement to both enthusiasts and fanbases. Some companies, like Xiaomi, have gathered a huge following and community with eager fans that seemingly respect the company, to the point where one of the biggest manufacturers gladly announces new phones through forum posts.

Internet sales also bring us to the problems of customer support, or more specifically, the lack thereof. The latest spate of Chinese devices has brought to light the poor customer support situation that exists when purchasing a lesser known device. The problem is compounded when manufacturers attempt to scale up production while not having enough quality checks in place. This results in the act of purchasing a device, which is essentially a mass consumer commodity, transforming into a leap of faith. You place an order online for a lesser known device, without having first-hand experience of it, and then either wait till production scales up to fit in your demand or be passed a device which skimped quality checks in order to be produced quicker or cheaper.

Cheap comes at its own costs, and most conscious enthusiasts would rather not risk the trade-off if it means a significant compromise; unless in desperate situations, of course. Devices that come at a fraction of costs of their global counterparts hide their compromises elsewhere. Speaking from a development perspective, Chinese devices, especially those from MediaTek and its lineup of lesser known SoC’s, kernel source code is absent or broken. Again, exceptions exist, but they are just that: exceptions. Third-party ROM development scenarios are virtually non-existent, and even manufacturer update guarantees do not exist. In effect, devices are sold on an as-is basis, making their product lifespan shorter despite all the potential. That is not to say an easily affordable device is necessarily poor, but they do carry greater risks.

Conclusion

The questions that beg to be asked are: is easily affordable always good? Is it worth the hassle? Would you rather have a cheap device that may not work as well as one that costs thrice as much? The final answer to this depends on the priority you as a user place on user experience and on price. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong here. Android is all about choices, and you can thank our Chinese friends for providing one-half of the spectrum.