Huawei’s Struggles Are Making China’s Smartphones Better

Hey, this is Vlad in Tokyo. When the dust settles on the Trump administration’s legacy, one of its key lasting impacts will be the trade restrictions that dismantled what was briefly the world’s largest smartphone maker.

Before stumbling under the weight of Trump’s sanctions campaign, Huawei Technologies Co. had overtaken Samsung Electronics Co. last year to deliver more smartphones than any other company globally. But the company’s supremacy lasted just one quarter, according to data analytics firm Canalys, before Samsung and then Apple Inc. again surpassed it. Huawei’s smartphone shipments tumbled 22% in 2020.

Now, a small army of rival Chinese smartphone makers are racing to fill the Huawei-shaped hole in the market. Companies like Xiaomi Corp., Oppo and Vivo saw double-digit growth in smartphone shipments last year. As a Bloomberg tech editor, and gadget reviewer in a past life, I’ve been trying many of these companies’ phones as they’ve been released, and I’ve come to an inescapable conclusion: They are extremely good—and getting better.

Apple and Samsung might have breathed a sigh of relief after Huawei’s pressure subsided, but these Chinese upstarts are behaving even more aggressively. China’s habitual mid-market players each made major leaps forward this year in the design and cameras of their devices—competing with ferocity and ably filling the void left by sanction-stricken Huawei.

Some specifics: Xiaomi’s Mi 11 Ultra has the largest camera sensor I’ve seen in a phone since 2012’s Nokia 808 PureView. It makes for a chunky device, but unmatched photographic firepower. OnePlus, which is now the third-largest player in the premium segment of the U.S. market, has partnered with Hasselblad V on photo processing and co-developed its own image sensor with Sony Corp. Oppo has put not one but two top-tier sensors in its latest Find X3 Pro. Vivo, meanwhile, is working with respected German lens maker Carl Zeiss to refine its images.

It’s old news to say that cameras and design are priorities for smartphone buyers. But it’s still a little startling to see that some of the best of them are coming from the likes of Oppo—which until very recently was messing around with clumsy pop-up cameras but whose latest model now sports an undulating design with world-class fit and finish. Or how about Xiaomi, the company that defined the iPhone clone in many people’s eyes? It might well offer the most powerful camera system in the world right now.

One encouraging sign going forward is that the rising big three of China’s domestic market all have a roughly equal slice of the pie. Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo are each hovering around 20% share and have been regularly exchanging the title of China’s leading phone maker. Their breakneck pace of expenditures will likely slow down eventually, but in the meantime consumers are benefiting from their pace of competition.

Ironically, it was Trump’s assault on Chinese tech companies that may have provided the spark. While Huawei may have dragged down overall smartphone shipments in the country in 2020, innovations in smartphones has been a bright spot.—Vlad Savov

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