SHENZHEN, China — Attempting to establish a brand that nobody's ever heard of in a market as crowded and cutthroat as the smartphone industry is a fool's errand, but one that Nubia, a newborn sub-brand of China's ZTE, has fearlessly decided to try anyway.
Nubia is ZTE's vehicle to go "upmarket." Its mission is to establish a viable consumer brand and consumer channels -- in both China and the United States.
This attempt represents a significant commitment by ZTE, whose mobile handset business has thus far thrived by building handsets according to operator specifications and selling them through operator channels.
In designing Nubia X6, the company's unannounced smartphone scheduled for launch later this month, Nubia is taking its handset future into its own hands. The company's ace in the hole is its decades of technical expertise in telecom.
Nubia has gone out of its way to find a partner to add a new DSP to enable professional camera-like features on its smartphone model X6. It also negotiated with Qualcomm to open an interface to Snapdragon 800's GPU core, allowing Nubia to use its own protocol to communicate with the GPU. In the X6, Nubia also designed a single handset that can support all modulation schemes in all frequencies -- simply by switching a SIM card.
While the road has been treacherous so far for Nubia, with no guarantee of success for its efforts, Nubia's experience and learning curve could become the template for other Chinese smartphone vendors to follow in years to come.
EE Times caught up with Ni Fei, CEO of Nubia Monday at his office in Shenzhen. It has been a year since we met him for the first time.
Ni openly acknowledged that its Nubia push in the US market since last fall has yielded little results, despite ZTE's strong presence among the US operators and the company's marketing campaign to turn ZTE into the official "smartphone" of the Houston Rockets.
Nubia CEO Ni Fei in Shenzhen.
(Source: EE Times/Junko Yoshida)
Besides selling Nubia smartphones directly to US consumers through Amazon, Ni's plan was to convince operators to carry his company's products. He said, "Our discussions with the US operators didn't go well," largely due to a huge perception gap. While the operators know ZTE for its low-cost phones, they saw Nubia pitching itself as the high-end brand. "There was a mismatch. We couldn't change their mind. After all, nobody knew who Nubia was," Ni said.
But in Ni's mind, this isn't the Impossible Dream. Apple did it by going straight to consumers, he said, without any prior relationships with operators.
And so did Xiaomi, often known as China's Apple, largely by leveraging the power of the Internet and going viral on social networks in China.
However, Nubia is no Apple. Nubia hasn't even won its home front in China. In 2013, Nubia's flagship smartphone Z5 only sold "in very small volume," said Ni. "And very few consumers came to our website to buy our smartphones."
Nubia's break didn't come until much late in 2013, when the company launched its two new models -- Z5s and Z5s mini -- in November through JD.com, China's largest business-to-consumer e-commerce company.
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