Interview with Zack Zhang from Honor: The Millennial Demographic, Huawei’s Technology Pool, EMUI and Lessons Learned

Interview with Zack Zhang from Honor: The Millennial Demographic, Huawei’s Technology Pool, EMUI and Lessons Learned

Recently XDA Editor-in-Chief Mario Serrafero sat down with Zack Zhang, Vice President of Honor USA to discuss the differences between Honor and Huawei, how the two brands share technology and how their pricing structure is affected by the choice to sell devices primarily online. Also covered was EMUI, Kirin processors and how Honor is helping developers and the community.

Mario Serrafero: So, what phone are you using now?

Zack Zhang: The Honor 8, of course!

Mario Serrafero: Yes, you’ve read my review, it’s a really good device. I always carry two phones, and it’s my second phone. If you weren’t using the Honor 8, if you had to use a non-Honor device, which one would you use?

Zack Zhang: Hmm… I don’t know. I’ve only used Honor devices lately. I test other competitor’s devices, but I don’t really use them. I just have a look and do a comparison. I have been using just Honor or Huawei brands for several years, but no others in that time. I am constantly testing phones from other companies though. For example, I’ll take one device for a week or two to test it, just like you, but not for longer. So it’s hard to say. I’ve tried many devices, some are from our competitors OnePlus, and ZTE, and Samsung, and the iPhone. I can hardly say which one I would choose — constantly trying new ones though.

Mario Serrafero: Would you say that allows you to learn from other manufacturers? See what they’re doing, and get a feel for what people want?

Zack Zhang: Yes, that’s right. I try other devices to try to see what their advantages are. I look at both hardware and software to try to see what they are doing better than us, and where we can improve our devices. This is why I try other companies’ devices.

Mario Serrafero: Cool. That was a bit of a warm up question. Something that I’ve seen a lot of people get confused about, even some people in the media, is the distinction between Honor and Huawei. Now Huawei is of course the parent company, but what would you say is the main difference, what would you want people to know is different, between Honor and Huawei?

Honor is more focused. We focus on young guys, especially internet savvy consumers.

Zack Zhang: Huawei is a brand that is for everybody. You can see that Huawei is in part for the very young people, maybe 15 or 16 years old, but also for older people. Even 70 year olds and older can all use Huawei devices. They try to have something for everybody.

They also have some different niches like the Mate series which is more targeted at business professionals. The P series is more focused on design and photography. And the Nova series is for young ladies. So, as you can see, Huawei tries to cover everybody. But Honor is more focused. We focus on young guys, especially internet savvy consumers. The narrower focus is a major difference.

Mario Serrafero: Right. And do you, the lead of Honor, want people to associate Honor devices with Huawei at all, or do you think that in the consumer mind, they should be distinct entities for this very reason that you just told us?

Zack Zhang: Yeah, I think it’s better. In our mind, when we communicate about the brand, we separate it. For Honor, it is totally separate from the Huawei group. Because for Honor, it’s really a brand that people will say “I like the Honor brand. The product they have, the way they’re thinking, and the way they communicate”, which is a different way of living. I’ll give you an example. For a Huawei device, people can buy the device anywhere in a store, in the supermarket, everywhere. But for Honor, it is more limited. We’re more focused on ecommerce. You can buy the device on our shopping mall, you can buy it on Amazon and the phones are much cheaper and it’s cheaper despite that the quality is still the same. Actually some parts are even priced higher than the Huawei devices, as you know, if you compare the Honor 8 and the P9, the P9 is much more expensive than the Honor 8, but the Honor 8 still outperforms it in certain areas.

The Honor 8 has 4GB of RAM, but some models of the P9 only have 3 GB. Everything else is almost the same. One with Leica branding, one without.

 The Honor 8 has 4GB of RAM,  but some models of the P9 only have 3 GB. Everything else is almost the same. One with Leica branding, one without. So, that is a difference there, but the Honor 8 is also much cheaper. The price gap actually comes from two parts. One is sales channels: for Huawei, Samsung, Apple, all those brands, when they sell the device, they are using the highest margin channels to sell them. But for us, we are just focused on online sales. We’re using the internet sales to calculate the price. So that is part of where the gap comes from. The second part is that Honor spreads by word of mouth. By our reputation. With Huawei, Samsung, and all the other brands, they are doing 360 degree communication. You can see a lot of advertisement on TV, on billboards, on all the other things. Of course, maybe you’ll say that in the U.S. that is different, because currently Huawei is still small. We’re also not that big in the U.S., but actually, worldwide you can see that Huawei is similar to Samsung and Apple. Doing all that marketing, everywhere you can see the advertisements. So that’s the second big difference. The two biggest differences already make a lot of things different, especially in terms of price. So even with the same quality and specs, the Honor device is much much cheaper compared to Huawei, Samsung, and other companies. And we give credit to the Internet advancements. Even now there are still a lot of people that are not going to go to the internet to buy a smartphone. Without touching it… They’re afraid of [purchasing that way]. And that’s how Samsung and Huawei do their business. And Honor is definitely not the smartphone for those people. Honor is for the people who understand the industry and the technology. It’s for people who know a lot about technology and quality and details.

Mario Serrafero: It’s the Android enthusiasts and internet millennial type of crowd.

Zack Zhang: Yes, so we’re just targeting them to give them the best offer, best service, best device, best price. And also, another big difference is for Honor, when we do communication, we always believe that the engagement with the consumer is most important and not only social media. Because what the Internet offers to us is most importantly is lower price, but it also offers two-way communication. A traditional advertisement is just one way, top-down. And there’s no way to return information to the brand. So even currently, you can see when Samsung will do it, their advertisements are just one way. So they’ll do some premium ones, but there is no feedback, no engagement. So we think that the young people, the younger generation, they like to be respected. So all of the communication that Honor engages in is two-way. When we do something or say something, we listen to the feedback. And when people give us feedback, we respect it. We will try to make some change. Because young people are innovative. They have some good ideas. And those good ideas can help us a lot. To make the UI better, to better know what they require. I still remember the day that we entered the U.S. market, and we listened to the consumer. And that’s also the reason why we are cooperating with the XDA Developers community. Because we know these groups of people know a lot. And because of their feedback we get to know more about the market, and we can make a better product.

Mario Serrafero: One last thing related to quality and consumer feedback, really feedback that shapes the products in general. How much input does Huawei have on your products? We know that you share the UI, UI elements, and the software, and of course the HiSilicon chips, but does Huawei actually make any product design decisions for Honor devices?

Zack Zhang: No, Honor has it’s own product team. So Honor will design the common hardware, right? The basic technology is the same. So everything will share the same technology. If one will acquire some new technology, it will be shared. So, like you mentioned, the chipset, we share the same one. The HiSilicon one. And we’ll share the platform on the Emotion UI, but it is still different. The Emotion UI for Honor is different from the one for Huawei.

Mario Serrafero: The platform is the same, but tweaked to each demographics’ preferences.

Zack Zhang: Yeah, when we acquire the technology, like the fingerprint sensor, or any new technology, it is placed in the “pool”. There is a of pool this technology, and either Huawei or Honor devices can use that technology, they can pick it up by themselves. But the decision comes from  the design team. When the design team is designing the device, they are using the shared resources — but the design of the devices come from separate teams.

When we acquire the technology, it is placed in the “pool”. There is a pool of this technology, and either Huawei or Honor devices can use that technology

Mario Serrafero: That’s a really good way to put it. They share the resources, and they can pick and choose. Ok, so moving on to a bit of a more controversial topic, as far as the product goes, people love Honor hardware. It’s unequivocally good. It’s objectively good hardware, especially for the price. HiSilicon chips are some of the fastest as far as CPU goes, and the GPU is catching up as well. The camera is great. It’s a really compelling piece of hardware… but what I’ve noticed, and what I’ve also criticized myself is the software. And much of this criticism comes from enthusiast communities, which are more used to (and often prefer) stock Android approaches. How would you say that Honor interprets that criticism?

Zack Zhang: We see that. I actually am always using my own name to sign into the XDA community, and go to the forums to answer some of the questions by consumers. I see that many people are complaining about that, because they are not familiar with the UI. I can understand that, because people already have certain habits, it can be hard to change them. I can currently give you some news: for the new Emotion UI 5.0, there will be a lot of change, like how we are adding the application drawer because a lot of people requested it.

Mario Serrafero: Ok. And how about the system UI? Like the notification panel. Will that be able to be modified to more closely resemble stock Android?

we are trying to have a deep cooperation with the developer communities.

Zack Zhang: Well, I can tell you that we are trying to have a deep cooperation with the developer communities. And we’ll be creating some testers for Emotion UI 5.0 for the Honor 8. So if you’re a really interested individual, you can give us your info, and we’ll give the preview version to you. And remember, this is a preview version, it is not the final one.
 So we are sending this preview version to various communities and get some testers for it. So when they are trying it and doing the testing, if they find any issue or suggestions, they can let us know and we will try to make it better in the final version of Emotion UI 5.0 for the Honor 8.

Mario Serrafero: Great. Has Honor considered making a stock Android ROM for the devices that is developed in house, and offered on the side? I know that some other companies like OPPO and Sony have offered, or at least attempted, those kind of projects. Whether they have succeeded or not is another story. But has Honor ever considered a project like that?

Zack Zhang: Ok, so this part I’m not so sure, but I think that Emotion UI 5.0 can offer more to consumers.

Mario Serrafero: Is there a timeline for Android 7.0 Nougat and Emotion UI 5.0 for the Honor 8 and the Honor 5X?

Zack Zhang: The final version for Nougat will come together with Emotion UI 5.0.

Mario Serrafero: And can we expect that before the end of the year?

Zack Zhang: I’m not sure. I don’t think it can be that fast because when we do the preview version, we will collect some requests from the consumers and based on the opinions we see, we will change it again… and then do some other tests, and then there will be the official launch. Because when we push it to everybody, we need to ensure that it will be stable.

Mario Serrafero: Would you consider an open beta?

Zack Zhang: Maybe there will be an open beta, but we’ll see how it’s received by enthusiasts first, as communities like XDA’s are more professional than the general consumer. We are afraid that when we do an open beta test, maybe something will go wrong. Because it is really a first try for us in the U.S. to do this kind of a preview version. We will need to have a look at what will be the outcome, and I cannot say when the final version will release. If there are a lot of new suggestions that come from the community, we will consider it.

Mario Serrafero: What has Honor learned from its first two US focused devices, the Honor 5X and the Honor 8? How has the reception been? What kind of feedback have you gotten? How are you planning to fine tune the next device for the Western Market?

Zack Zhang: What I found is that generally for both devices, the Honor 5X and the Honor 8, there have been a lot of very good reviews and feedback from the media and consumers, especially on the hardware. I think most people are thinking that the Honor brand is a solid brand which makes a very solid device.

many of the complaints are that people don’t know how to use the Emotion UI.

The quality and the hardware, everything is OK. But as you mentioned, many of the complaints are that people don’t know how to use the Emotion UI. Because it is totally different from Google’s UI, because there is more customizability compared to a lot of other competitors. But I think it is different tastes. That’s not to say that Emotion UI is not a good UI, but actually, Emotion UI is quite successful in China and in Europe. Emotion UI is one of the best already. But we understand that people in different areas have different tastes and different styles. So we’re really looking into how to better localize it for each market. And that’s the reason that I say that with each step we look at our consumer ideas and what we can do about it. To make it more adapted to the local market. That’s one part. The second part is that we think that Honor is a bit of an open brand, unlike the other big ones. So as we say that we are for the young people, so we are trying to incorporate it with some small, not small, not big sized (not like app companies like Facebook, like Twitter, Google), but other middle sized app companies, and we have deep cooperation with them. Launching some fun things and interesting services for the consumer. And this is also another trend. And we hope that these kinds of interesting things will bring more value to the young people. They like to try new things. They like to experience different things. So this is what we are doing. 

Mario Serrafero: Great. As far as the applications, do you mean like pre-installed applications for the device? Such as the type that is commonly referred to as bloatware? Or do you mean stuff available for the Huawei ecosystem for those that choose to opt into…

Zack Zhang: For example, currently we are cooperating with Leap, but we are going with Leap together to US companies to offer more interesting things to students in university. We also make some discounts for them, and we provide multiple choices for them to enjoy some fun things. This is still just the first step. We are coming with more and more of this kind of cooperation, to really give them young people some fun things. And we’re also cooperating with some films. With Doctor Strange they are very deep corporations [Dr Strange is using an Honor 7 when he crashes his car]. Actually, we are the official co-sponsor for the premiere of the movie, last week. We will have more and more local events, local cooperation with local companies and resources and content, to give more choice to the consumers.

Mario Serrafero: Going back to the developer community, the Honor 5X came with a Qualcomm chip, and this made it really easy, or at least easier, for people to develop for it. To find easy ways to root and set up customer recoveries for it. But also, develop custom ROMs, particularly stock Android ROMs, and CyanogenMod, and all these things that tinkerers and enthusiasts really love. With the Honor 8, it was different because it had the HiSilicon Kirin processor. Was there a particular reason that the Honor device came with a HiSilicon chip, other than the fact that it is made by Huawei? Was it a matter of performance, of price, a combination, or was there some other particular reason why you avoided other chips, like the Snapdragon 820 or any other flagship chipsets for example.

Zack Zhang: I think that our strategy for the chipset… Kirin chipsets give us more choice compared to the Qualcomm chipset, because it is an in-house brand. For in-house chipsets, it always add a lot of convenience to customize and optimize the battery use because we make the chipset ourselves. So it’s a lot easier to make adaptations in the use of the chipset itself. And you are right, for the Qualcomm chipset on the Honor 5X, a lot of consumers liked it, and developers loved the Honor 5X because of the Qualcomm chip. But for the Kirin chipset between us and the XDA Developer community, we’re trying to open more resources from our side. I think it would be a very interesting thing, and we are really willing to be more open on the Honor brand. We are willing to have more cooperation with the community, and the developer community. Currently we are discussing with XDA Developers to see what would be the scope. How we can work with each other. I know that it still has a long way to go, but personally I am currently pushing very hard on this part. Because this will be a very interesting thing, that we can do together. Both the XDA community and Honor have plenty of resources for developers. I think that to develop something on the Kirin chipset would be interesting for many developers. A lot of them are wondering, because we are already a top three smartphone brand [Huawei]. Every year there are 120 to I think 140 million smartphones we sell in the overseas market [Huawei]. I think that to develop something on the Kirin chipset would be very interesting for many developers.

Both the XDA community and Honor have plenty of resources for developers.

Mario Serrafero: Yeah, and I think this is really important too. I think it’s really important for both Honor and Huawei to put pressure on HiSilicon to release chipset sources, because of course between Honor and Huawei, there is a huge market share, and a big portion of this shared marketshare is on the Kirin platform. So opening up the Kirin platform to developers. To people that want to not just customize their devices, but also use these devices as development platforms, I think would make both Huawei and Honor phones even more compelling. Especially when you look at the makeup of the processors. Qualcomm has arguably lost some ground, particularly on the performance side where it isn’t the leader anymore. And of course Samsung seems like they are never going to open up the Exynos chips. So having the Kirin platform be more open would really strengthen the appeal of Honor and Huawei devices to enthusiasts, to developers, and to a lot of people that are hungry for alternatives. For options.

Zack Zhang: Yeah, we are step by step opening the resources, and that’s the reason I say that I drive the program with XDA together. To see how we can work with each other, step by step. I think that it is because Huawei is more global, and Honor is more focused on a younger crowd, so we are very open. We can take the first step with the Honor brand to have the cooperation with developers. And then we can expand to the whole family for the Huawei group. And this is what we are working on.

Mario Serrafero: Great. We’ll obviously keep our readers posted on this. I can say that I know from our end, we provided you guys with a bunch of requests, sourced from the developers that we contacted, and I know that you are obviously trying to get it done on your end too. Hopefully we’ll have an answer either by the end of the year, or during the first quarter of next year.

Zack Zhang: I think we’ll be faster than that. We have already appointed a project team to cooperate with XDA Developers. And we already have the R&D guys, the product design guys already joined the team. So we will begin the discussion with your team members very soon, and you will see the progress. I think that maybe to make some common solution is not that easy, but anyway, let’s begin to have discussions.

Mario Serrafero: Absolutely. Well, on behalf of the XDA community, thank you for your efforts, and I hope that it turns out how we are hoping, and gives us the option to customize these devices. Because again, they’re great hardware for the price. The platform is really fast. The processor is really fast and there is a huge market share for it. So there’s a lot of potential. Speaking of market share and potential, I wanted to touch on the Note 7. The Galaxy Note 7 as you know caused quite the stir when it went up in flames, and had to be recalled from the market. So I wanted to ask two things regarding the vacuum that the Note 7 left in the market. First, how do you guys plan on taking advantage of it? And second, is this going to affect the branding of the Honor Note series in any way because of the shared moniker?

This is one of the best lessons we have learned from the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Zack Zhang: Actually, for Samsung’s… accident… with the Note 7, it’s really… for us we also feel especially that for a consumer business it’s really not an easy thing, and even big companies like Samsung sometimes they will make some mistakes, and it ends up being a disaster.

 So after this happened, we thought very carefully about our own devices. It made us check the details even more thoroughly. To test many many times to make sure that this kind of thing will not happen in our devices. This is one of the best lessons we have learned from the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. We are trying to prevent anything like that from happening with our brand. How? By putting more resources into testing the devices to help detect and prevent any major issues before the launch of a device. And this is what a big company can mean to the consumers. And as I remember to ensure that those devices will not really damage the market. For example, there are a lot of companies when they have an engineering sample or their first manufacturing sample, some will sell it. But for our company, we already destroy them.

Mario Serrafero: Great. Yeah, this is something that I noticed when I interviewed Carl Pei from OnePlus not too long ago, and he also said that it was kind of a reminder that things can go wrong, and when things go wrong, they go very wrong. So it’s very interesting to see that the first thing you brought up in this situation is not a market opportunity, but rather a reminder of how important quality assurance and testing is. So I’m glad your company is increasing their resources devoted to testing.

Zack Zhang: Yes, you are absolutely right. We are increasing resources on that part to help ensure that nothing like that will happen to our brand. Because it really is a disaster. For a small company, it is maybe still ok, like OnePlus maybe that’s still ok, because their volume still not that big, but for companies like Huawei, Samsung, that every year sell around 140 million devices, that would really be a big disaster. Especially when you go to the airport, and you’re seeing everywhere they are saying “Please don’t take out your Note 7”, it’s just really…

Mario Serrafero: One last question, what can you tell us about Honor having in store for 2017. What are you guys planning in regards to your devices and your upgrades for the Honor 8, the Honor 5X, and the Honor Note series?

Zack Zhang: For the Honor devices, actually, there will be more devices coming of course. In China we have just launched the Honor 6X, as the successor of the Honor 5X. That will come to the US, the US market will be a strategic market for us. We’ll try to bring more and more devices to the US market.

Mario Serrafero: And faster, right?

Zack Zhang: Yes, and as for the upgrade you mentioned, we will keep the commitment that we have made. We said that for two years we will update our phones. Especially with the Google security patches that a lot of people are worried about. You already tried the Honor 8, and can see that.

Mario Serrafero: Yes, in fact, just the other week I got an update just after the Big Android Barbeque, so it’s definitely coming along nicely. One last thing, is there anything that you would like to say to the readers at XDA? To the enthusiasts and developers at XDA?

Zack Zhang: The main thing I would like to say is that I really appreciate everyone’s feedback and opinions. I hope that they like us and we always believe that what the consumer recommends to us is extremely important. I hope that in the future, the Honor devices can be more adapted to everyone’s tastes. I know that it’s not possible to be everything for everybody, but we will try our best to be able to adapt to what people want and different local markets require. 

  Visit the Honor Hub on XDA!

About author

Steven Zimmerman
Steven Zimmerman

Steven grew up wishing he could take the internet everywhere with him. His first smartphone was an HTC Legend, and he's been tinkering and playing with Android ever since. With a background in accounting, he strives to bring a unique perspective to the tech journalism world.