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China's knock-off mobile phones copy, then innovate

By Owen Fletcher
August 17, 2009 11:55 AM ET

IDG News Service - Miniature iPhones, handsets that double as shavers and others shaped like packs of cigarettes are just some of the gray-market devices on sale at Chinese markets.

China is home to a booming, unregulated industry in knock-off mobile phones that is hurting legal handset makers even as it spawns innovation. The low-price handsets have become popular enough to inspire a nickname, "shanzhai," which translates as "bandit" and includes any phone not licensed for sale by regulatory authorities. Included in the category are look-alike versions of well-known smartphones like the iPhone and the Nokia N97, sometimes so close in appearance to the original handsets that the two can be hard to distinguish.

But despite their resemblance, the knock-off phones sometimes lack functions found in the original handsets and can come with malware pre-installed or have safety hazards like exploding batteries.

Fake iPhones were openly sold beside real iPhones smuggled into China during a recent visit to one of Beijing's multistory electronics bazaars. The iPhone is not officially sold in China, but merchants buy the handsets unlocked outside China and resell them inside the country. Local carrier China Unicom is in talks with Apple to officially launch the iPhone in the country.

The shanzhai iPhones came with either a standard 3.5-inch screen or a smaller 2.9-inch screen. Applications were displayed in iPhone-style bubble squares, but the phones could be distinguished from real versions partly by the China-specific applications preloaded on them, such as a popular chat client. "iPhone" was misspelled on the back of some of the handsets as well, engraved either as "AIphone" or "iPhne." Other spelling changes found on knock-off handsets in China include "Nckia" and "Samsang."

Vendors asked prices from 600 yuan (US$88) to 1,200 yuan for the imitation iPhones, and most made a point of calling them "China-made" rather than "pirated" or "fake." Real iPhones at the same stands sold for around 4,000 yuan.

Shanzhai phones have performed well with China's price-conscious consumers. Of the 750 million mobile phones manufactured in China last year, about one in five -- or 150 million -- were shanzhai phones, according to Chinese research outfit CCID Consulting. Some of those made it to other countries, but most were sent to markets across China.

Shanzhai phones probably took a greater share of China's handset market this year, cutting into sale opportunities for both foreign and Chinese handset makers, said Karl J. Weaver, China handset business development manager for Newport Technologies.

"The shanzhai not only have affected the traditional tier-one handset manufacturers, they've also affected the Chinese companies," said Weaver. "I anticipate they lost a lot of money."

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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