The next generation of mobile technology is still at least five years away. But when it arrives New Zealand could be among the first countries to get it. The telecommunications industry still hasn’t nailed down a detailed plan for 5G, but Alex Wang, Huawei vice-president of wireless marketing, says his company is determined to play a leading role in its development.
Speaking at Huawei’s leafy 2sq km Shenzhen campus, Wang says 4G is now mainstream mobile technology. It works well but there’s already a need for something more.
Wang says the earlier move from 3G to 4G meant moving from networks made for voice calls to networks optimised for data traffic.
Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of the Huawei P8. Soon Huawei’s brand will be as well-known and the name as easy to pronounce as Nokia or Samsung.
Huawei is already well-known in telecommunications circles. It builds most of the world’s phone networks. In New Zealand it works with Spark, 2degrees and Chorus.
Now Huawei’s P8 Android smartphone aims to put the company’s name on the map with consumers.
Is the Huawei P8 for you?
If you’ve already decided against an iPhone or Windows Phone your choices come down to price, taste and whether you like what a phone maker does with Android.
Huawei scores on price. We don’t know what the P8’s official NZ price yet, elsewhere it sells for around NZ$700 to $800.
That’s a mid-range price for a flagship phone.
Like any modern smartphone worth considering, the Huawei P8 is slim, light and looks great.
It resembles an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus and comes with a software overlay making the software look and feel as near to iOS 8 as Android can.
If you love Apple phones, but can’t afford one, the P8 could be just the ticket.
Apple-like, Samsung beater
Despite the Apple-like looks and Huawei’s long-term ambition, the P8 poses more of a threat to Samsung.
Sit the Huawei P8 next to the iPhone 6 plus and you immediately spot the physical resemblance. Both phones are aluminium and glass slabs.
The P8 has a 5.2 inch (132mm) screen packed in a smaller 144.9 x 72.1 mm case. The screen and the phone are a little smaller than the iPhone 6 Plus. Both have 1920 x 1080 pixels.
The P8 is the thinnest flagship smartphone to date. It’s just 6.4mm thick. That compares with the iPhone 6 at 6.9mm, iPhone 6 Plus at7.1mm and the Samsung Galaxy S6 at 6.8mm. While the difference between the S6 and iPhone 6 is too small to notice in practice, there’s no question the P8 is thinner.
At 144g, the P8 is a heavier than the 129g iPhone 6 or the 132g Samsung Galaxy S6 and lighter than the 172g iPhone 6 Plus. It’s unlikely anyone will notice the difference in weight, all the phones feel fine in the hand.
There’s no question the Huawei P8 is flatter than its rivals. There are no annoying bumps around the camera. From a carrying-the-phone-in-your-pocket point of view that’s an advantage.
Huawei doesn’t have anything resembling Apple’s Touch ID. That’s a pity. While Touch ID may look like a gimmick, it makes a huge difference in daily phone use. Not having to type in or remember alphabet soup passwords removes a burden.
It’s normal to write about the chips driving a smartphone. Inside the Huawei P8 is a octa-core 64-bit HiSilicon Kirin 930 processor and 3GB Ram.
The Kirin is Huawei’s own chip design, so the only meaningful comparison is to talk about how fast it works in practice. Although we could run benchmarks, most people find the,m meaningless.
What you need to know here is that in terms of raw performance the P8 is on a par with every other flagship smartphone. The P8 handles almost everything you throw at it, so do iPhones and Galaxy S6s.
Geeks tell me the graphics processor isn’t as fast as the one found in the Galaxy S6. Perhaps. Unless you play demanding action games you’ll never know it. Or care.
More important, everything seems smooth and the phone doesn’t get hot in the hand.
Given the size difference between the P8 and the iPhone 6 Plus the battery life seems on a par. The battery fills much of the extra space in the 6 Plus, so Huawei is doing something smart here.
Both phones go for almost two days on a single charge when in normal use — at least the way I use phones. Tweak the settings, use the phone sensibly and you should get two full days use from both.
One compromise you make with the P8 is the standard phone comes with only 16GB of storage. Most rival Android models now start at 32GB.
This brings the price down. It is also where Huawei has done something clever. There are two Sim slots in the side of the phone. If you travel overseas and prefer a local pay-as-you-go account over roaming you can add a second Sim. Or do the same if you need to keep one account for work and another for play.
The second slot doubles as a microSD card slot, so you can use it to add more storage. The bad news is that you can’t do both at once.
Huawei hasn’t gone overboard on screen pixels. At 1920 by 1080 it lags the Galaxy S6 which boasts 2560 by 1440. While this may look like a negative on paper, Huawei consumer boss Richard Yu points out your eyes can’t see the difference, but the higher resolution display will drain the phone battery faster. It’s a smart compromise.
Yet another non-standard Android
When you first look at the P8 screen, you’ll see something that looks a lot like iOS 8. That’s deliberate. Huawei has tweaked its Android overlay to give an Apple-like look and feel.
No doubt this will offend Android die-hards. That won’t be the only thing they’ll get upset about.
Huawei uses Android 5.0 Lollipop overlaid with its Emotion UI software. One of the features of Emotion UI is that all the phone apps sit on the home screen, just as they do on iOS.
Because the phone is Android you can tweak the look and feel to your own taste. Most of the options are not much of an improvement on the stock look and feel.
Huawei went to great lengths at the phone launch to emphasis the P8 camera. Or should that be cameras? There are two.
The main camera is 13 megapixels. That’s less than the Samsung S6’s 16 megapixels. In practice you’ll struggle to notice much difference.
Huawei makes up the gap with optical image stabilisation which helps the camera take better pictures in poor light.
The camera uses four colour sensors, not the usual three. That’s red, blue, green and white. Huawei says this means you get whiter whites, blacker blacks in images. In practice this appears to mean sharper images too.
There’s a front facing camera with eight megapixels which Huawei says is for taking better selfies.
Huawei’s photography software is another department where it has followed Apple, not Samsung. There’s an iOS-like camera icon on the lock screen and the camera app controls are iPhone-like.
Many of the standard digital photography controls and settings are there. Huawei has added a few of its own. There’s a gimmicky light trails mode, a nice trick but most people will only use this once or twice.
More practical is the Beauty mode which softens skin tones. That’s hand for taking more flattering pictures of people.
High-end phone, mid-range price
Overall, you can’t walk past what marketing people call the value proposition. The Huawei P8 is a high-end Android smartphone on a par with the Samsung Galaxy S6.
Should, as Huawei hints, the P8 cost two-thirds the S6’s asking price, Samsung should be scared
Huawei may struggle to get noticed in a market where the Samsung brand is well known. It has a programme to replace broken screens which may interest some buyers.
If Huawei gets the marketing right and the carriers get behind the P8 it will sell well.
Thinner, lighter smartphone with metal and glass case
5.2 inch display
Eight-core processor. Fast.
Two Sim slots. One doubles as a microSD slot.
Android 5.0 Lollipop with Huawei’s overlay.
Powerful, long battery life
High resolution display
Great camera and software
Non-standard Android could irritate
Limited 16GB storage in standard model
Some software rough edges
Bill Bennett travelled to Shenzhen and Singapore courtesy of Huawei.
Instead of extravagant claims, Huawei Consumer Business Group CEO Richard Yu used a post-launch press conference to outline Huawei’s ambition.
Huawei aims to beat Samsung, challenge Apple
Yu wants his phone brand to go all the way. Huawei plans to zoom past Samsung and challenge Apple’s market leadership.
That’s impressive considering until 2011 Huawei’s phone business was mainly churning out low-cost mobile phones sold with a cell-phone carrier brand.
Yu says Huawei got into the smartphone business through the back door. The company is the largest maker of the network equipment used by mobile carriers.
When those carriers approached Huawei to find low-cost starter phones to get customers hooked on 3G data services, it obliged.
Third largest smartphone brand
Five years ago the first Huawei branded models appeared. By last year it was the world’s third largest mobile phone brand behind Apple and Samsung.
Admittedly Huawei is still a fair way behind the leading brands, but innovative new phones like the P8 should help it close the gap.
Huawei is already ahead of well-known names like Nokia, Sony, BlackBerry, LG and HTC.
Yu says the short-term goal is for Huawei to move to second place. That means selling more phones than Samsung.
Last year The Wall Street Journal reported Huawei’s market share was 6.9 percent. There’s a lot of catching up to do. At the time Samsung was on 25 percent. But Huawei saw sales jump 95 percent in the second quarter while Samsung sales dropped almost 4 percent.
Huawei keeps Samsung awake at nights
Huawei represents Samsung’s worst nightmare. The P8 directly challenges the Samsung Galaxy S6. Both flagship phones run Android.
During the formal launch Yu reeled off comparisons between features on the two phones. In each case Huawei offers more than Samsung. The two ranges are on a different release cycle, but at first sight Huawei’s flaghip phone is every bit as good as Samsung’s, possibly better.
At the time of writing Huawei has yet to announced the New Zealand price of the P8.
In Singapore, where the local dollar is on a par with the NZ dollar, the phone costs S$700. In that country the Samsung Galaxy S6 is S$1000. It’s likely the ratio between the two prices will be similar in New Zealand.
Samsung’s phone business barely breaks even, it has little room to move on price.
That leaves branding. Samsung remains a strong brand, especially among Android fans.
At the launch in Singapore and the press conferences after the launch there was talk of promotional campaigns that will boost Huawei’s profile in South-East Asia. We can expect similar here.
Within hours of the launch Huawei’s P8 advertising was noticeable on the Singapore metro system and at Changi Airport.
Huawei’s trump card in the tussle with Samsung is its lead in cellular networks. Yu says: “Our infrastructure business means can can be the first to support new standards when they emerge. We know how to build phones that support the latest technologies. We can make them run at higher speeds and lower latency”.
Away from engineering, Huawei’s close relationship with carriers gives it an advantage. In New Zealand the company has either built or is building networks for Spark and 2degrees.
Yu says carrier relationships help Huawei build better phones. They also help get phones into customer’s hands.
He says Huawei plans to get to the market top spot purely on organic growth. While Yu says he expects most other smartphone brands to disappear in the next three to five years — “globally only three or four brands will survive” — he isn’t in a hurry to buy their assets.
Last year Huawei’s consumer division, that’s the part of the company making phones, had revenue of US$12.2 billion. The goal is to reach US$16 billion this year — Yu says Huawei is on target. He wants that number to reach US$50 billion in four years.
Yu’s audacious Huawei ambition
If Yu’s consumer division follows the growth plan he has mapped out, it will soon become the dominant part of Huawei.
That will change the nature of Huawei. Its core business, telecommunications network hardware, is now at saturation point. After years of expansion any future growth is likely to be sluggish in comparison.
Huawei also has an enterprise information technology division. It’s still small but the overall IT market dwarfs the telecommunications network market. In 2013 the enterprise division accounted for just US$1 billion of Huawei’s total revenue of US$39 billion.
Huawei has an important advantage over its rivals in the network equipment, enterprise IT and smartphone markets. Unlike most other companies it is privately held, the shares are mainly owned by employees.
This means it doesn’t have to chase quarterly targets. Instead it can plan and invest for the long-term. At Huawei there’s a huge emphasis on research and development with up to 15 percent of revenues reinvested.
The company has already proved it knows how to focus on price, quality and customer service in the telecommunications hardware business. It has a patience and a maturity that’s rare in the flash-in-the-pan gadget world.
Huawei has already taken on and beaten the network equipment makers. It has the confidence to go head-to-head with the likes of Cisco, HP and IBM. In comparison tackling Samsung to win the Android phone crown doesn’t seem over ambitious.
Disclosure: Huawei paid for mr travel to Singapore for the P8 launch and gave me a phone at the event.
There was a time when an ambitious New Zealand innovation project would have looked to the UK, US or Japan for an international partner.
Now China is the first port of call.
Yesterday Huawei Technologies signed a three-year, million dollar sponsorship making it the foundation partner for GridAKL.
All such deals are symbolic. There are two messages here. First, China is central to Auckland’s ambition to be an Asia-Pacific innovation hub.
Second, it marks Huawei’s ascendency in New Zealand. The comes just ten years after the telecommunications giant first set up shop here.
The deal signed yesterday will see the Huawei fit out GridAKL buildings with its latest technologies. Huawei will also bring its procurement team to Auckland to meet potential business partners.
Guo Ping, Huawei’s global deputy chairman was in town for the announcement. He said Huawei had already made partnerships with many New Zealand companies.
More symbolism: Auckland Mayor Len Brown and Minister for Economic Development Steven Joyce were on hand to welcome Guo Ping. Both politicians understand the significance of Huawei’s backing.
GridAKL is Auckland’s innovation hub. Ateed (Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development) manages GridAKL. Auckland Council invested $20 million in the project.
Ateed CEO Brett O’Riley say Huawei brings international credibility to the council’s investment in the innovation precinct. He says this reinforces the city’s vision.
Huawei and GridAKL announced the sponsorship deal in the impressive, yet barely finished Lysaight building on the corner of Halsey and Pakenham Street’s in the city’s Wynyard Quarter. Just hours before the announcement workers were removing construction equipment from the building and pulling protective tape off the windows.
Yesterday an official told me he expects the first companies will move into the new building in September. Ateed says there’s already a waiting list for desks and the nearby GridAKL building is already operating at capacity.
When Chinese Premier Xi Jinping visited Auckland last November he joined New Zealand PM John Key to witness the signing of a memorandum of understanding between Huawei and Spark.
The agreement will see the world’s largest telecommunications equipment company use its massive research and development resources to tailor mobile technologies for the New Zealand carrier.
Spark and Huawei were already working together. In 2013 the two formed a Joint Innovation Programme, or JIP, which led to the world’s first commercial trial of 4G, fourth generation, mobile telecommunications using the 700MHz spectrum.