When two years ago, Luo Yonghao announced that he was to make “China’s best smartphone”, some called him a braggart. Those who were skeptical about such grandiose claims seemed to have good reasons – Luo had little experience to boast of in phone design and manufacturing.
Following a successful stint as an English test tutor, Luo started his own school in 2008. Yet his celebrity has little to do with him being an education entrepreneur, but rather, owed much to his witty commentary, which he made in his lectures as well as on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service. His uncompromising idealism, agile mind, and a flair for jokes, led to a cultish following among the young Chinese. In 2011, when images of Luo and his friends smashing Siemens fridges in a protest over defected products went online, his fans lauded him as a national hero who single-handedly took on a powerful Western company. For them, Luo is a symbol of social responsibility and the willingness to defy the status quo.
This is perhaps why whether Luo would deliver his promise or not carries more significance than many would think.
The moment of truth came last night. Luo’s Smartisan T1 made a splashy debut at the National Conference Center in Beijing. Aside from over 5,000 audiences who attended in person, the event was broadcast to hundreds of thousands Internet users in real time.
Did Luo clear his name as a braggart?
Many are quick to point out many similarities of iPhones and the new Smartisan T1. Indeed the shadow of iPhone is too strong to ignore – from the positions and shapes of sensors to the double-glass exterior design, from mechanical home control buttons to the great efforts that go into the text fonts. As a commentator remarked: Luo has packed Android into an iPhone.
Luo made no effort to hide his imitative inclinations. He called Steve Jobs his “idol”, whose great attention to detail he wanted to bring to his own T1. Luo joked that the last way he preferred to die would be having pancreas cancer – it would give his critics the satisfaction to call him a complete imitator. For the rest of his three hour-long speech, that kind of references would be made several more times. At one point, Luo called his T1 the “best from the eastern hemisphere”, a subtle tribute performed in a comically self-aggrandizing fashion.
However, imitation alone couldn’t take the merits away from a great product. Isn’t Steve Jobs the one who said that “great artists steal”, after all? Copycatting aside, Luo is more ambitious than making another Chinese iPhone clone.
T1’s customized Android system demonstrates a level of innovation that goes beyond the superficial – redesigned interface and icons. Some new features address real problems and have the potential to become new industry standards. For example, it provides an ingenious solution that makes one hand handling possible on the phone’s 4-inch screen – the very challenge that made Apple stuck to the smaller 3.5-inch. Through a swipe of finger, the content would be squeezed to the lower half of the screen, putting all control buttons comfortably within the range of the user’ thumb – this is only one of the many improvements.
It is worth mentioning here that Luo’s global vision makes him quite unique for Chinese entrepreneurs. Unlike most Chinese phone makers, who often prefer in-house design to save costs, T1’s design was outsourced to Ammunition, a LA-based design studio founded by Robert Brunner, former Apple designer succeeded by Jonathan Ive. Aside from the design partner, Luo mentioned in his speech several other international solution-providers whose help he enlisted to bring T1 to the market. If that is not enough to prove Smartisan’s global pedigree, Luo announced that the over one million yuan of ticket income of the event would be donated to Maryland-based Open SSL Foundation, a non-profit mobile security solution provider.
Will the phone sell?
Hard to tell.
Priced to start at 3,000 yuan (USD 480), T1 is nearly twice the price of Xiaomi M3, the best-selling Chinese Android phone. Compounding to the disadvantage, there have been signs indicating weakening domestic demands for smart phones in general. The release date, scheduled in early July, may put T1 in a head-on collision with the new iPhone 6. But that is not to say that T1 doesn’t stand a chance to grab a share from its competitors. Its positioning as a quality phone, an iPhone alternative providing better looks and superior user experience than most competitors, may fill in the market gap. All the innovations, small as they may be individually, can make a difference when packed together. That said, it will take time for a newcomer to prove its worthiness, which I am sure many are watching with keen interests.