iPhone Cloned

An excellent story, “China’s iClone,” in Popular Science on the Chinese cloning industry, which uses the miniOne, an iPhone clone that runs on Linux and offers improvements such as the ability to run on any phone network and a replaceable battery, at about half the price of the iPhone, as a point of departure.

What made the iPhone vulnerable? Its margins (cloners target highly profitable products), Apple’s decision to delay its launch in foreign markets, and the fact that the touch-screen technology was developed in China.

The article is very much worth reading in its entirety, since it recounts in considerable detail the technical sophistication of China’s knockoff artists and the difficulty of combating them.

From Popular Science:

The little gadget was bootleg gold, a secret treasure I’d spent months tracking down. The miniOne looked just like Apple’s iPhone, down to the slick no-button interface. But it was more. It ran popular mobile software that the iPhone wouldn’t. It worked with nearly every worldwide cellphone carrier, not just AT&T, and not only in the U.S. It promised to cost half as much as the iPhone and be available to 10 times as many consumers. The miniOne’s first news teases—a forum posting, a few spy shots, a product announcement that vanished after a day—generated a frenzy of interest online. Was it real? When would it go on sale? And most intriguing, could it really be even better than the iPhone?

I made a hastily arranged flight to China to find out. Ella Wong, a marketing manager at Meizu, the Chinese company building the new phone, had invited me to come to the annual Hong Kong Electronics Fair only days before it began this April. We had been trading e-mails for weeks, negotiating access to the miniOne and the operation that produced it. Meizu cloned Apple’s iPod Nano last year, establishing itself as a significant force in a music-player market far larger than Apple’s: international consumers who had little access to either Macintosh computers or the iTunes music store. The miniOne was going to be on display at the fair, and Jack Wong, Meizu’s CEO, would also be there. If I made a good impression, I would be invited to the company’s headquarters and research facility on the mainland. “You’ll be warmly welcome,” Wong wrote me.

My journey was more than a pilgrimage born of techno-lust (though there was an element of that as well). Nearly every type of product can be—and is—cloned in China, sometimes so well that the ripped-off manufacturers inadvertently service the fakes when warranty claims come in. Cloners make air conditioners with the LG brand name in the country’s remote west, along what was once the old Silk Road trading route. But cloners don’t have to sell their wares under the same brand name: In Anhui province, near the Yangtze River, one of China’s biggest auto manufacturers builds a part-for-part replica of a top-selling Chevrolet model, then slaps a new badge on the car. In the south, one cloning operation didn’t just copy a technology company’s product line—it duplicated the entire company, creating a shadow enterprise with corporate headquarters, factories, and sales and support staff.

But the miniOne represents the vanguard of this cloning revolution. Meizu isn’t aspiring merely to copy the designs of a Western manufacturer on the cheap. The company plans to give the miniOne capabilities beyond the original. Does this signal the start of something bigger in China—the years of reverse engineering serving as a de facto education for the engineers who will soon transform China into a design and engineering powerhouse? Is China on the cusp of going legit?….

Take, for example, the iPhone. The key to its simple interface is a screen that responds to several touches at once. It makes rapid text entry possible and allows keyboard-and-mouse-type navigation through Web pages and the phone’s built-in applications. The screen is built by a German company called Balda, but the technology itself, licensed to Apple’s supplier, is neither American nor European. It was originally developed to aid in the rapid input of Asia’s huge, character-based alphabets. It comes from China.

Copies of the iPhone are now dividing into two categories: the inspired-bys and the wholesale duplicates. The first category includes work-alikes manufactured by well-known cellphone makers, like HTC—one of the largest manufacturers of smartphones—and Sun Microsystems. HTC announced that it will be bringing its “Touch” model to the U.S. this fall. In May, Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz followed in the footsteps of Steve Jobs (and Meizu’s Jack Wong) by displaying his own one-off version of a touchscreen prototype at a software-developers convention. Sun’s chairman, Scott McNealy, had no qualms about making the iPhone comparison: “We have our own shirtsleeve version of Steve Jobs announcing a phone,” he told the audience.

The number of duplicates is also growing. Although Meizu may have gone silent because of fears of an Apple lawsuit—after my visit in Hong Kong, they stopped responding to my e-mails and phone calls—other companies are moving ahead. A few days before Apple’s launch, an online video surfaced depicting a sleek new product called the P168 [watch the video below]. The phone came in a black box, marked with both the iPhone and the Apple logos. The video showed the phone being unpacked and operated (the start-up screen also featured the Apple branding). There were features that the iPhone didn’t have, such as the ability to operate on two different networks at once; six speakers; and, addressing a major prerelease complaint about the iPhone, a removable battery. I asked my translator if she could find one on the street. They weren’t available in Beijing—yet—but a few weeks later, a friend discovered one in Guangzhou. The manufacturer of the P168 wouldn’t comment for this story, but the hardware was real, and it worked.

Neither the miniOne, the P168 nor even HTC’s model are likely to carry the mystique or quality of the iPhone. But that’s not really the point. Those phones will be available to millions more consumers than Apple’s product, at a lower price. The rest of the world will accept the clones as if they were the original. That will make them no different than a flood of Chinese products—cars, pharmaceuticals, food, appliances—that are emerging from the shadows and climbing the learning curve to the point that they will no longer be clones at all. They’ll be the real thing.

Here is the full article.

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