Huawei, Blackberry - and the battle for third place

 

Chinese company Huawei claims its new product is "the world's fastest smartphone"

In a baroque palace near the Barcelona seafront, hundreds gathered to sip wine, eat tapas - and watch what could be the next superpower of the mobile phone industry unveil its latest product. And if I were an executive at Blackberry or Nokia who had sneaked into the Huawei event at Mobile World Congress, I might have sleepless nights about the threat to my business from the fast-growing Chinese company.

While Samsung and Apple have run away into the distance in the smartphone race, with 52% of the market between them in the last quarter of 2012, the rest are scrapping for third place. And who managed to sneak ahead of the likes of Nokia, Blackberry and HTC? Huawei, the telecoms infrastructure giant - virtually unknown as a phone brand in many parts of the world.

The company knows that may change next quarter as the jostling for the number three spot gets more intense. But the scale and tone of its Barcelona event underlines its ambitions. The phone unveiled - the Ascend P2 - looked much like any other high-end device on the market, though the company made big claims about its capabilities. It is apparently now the fastest 4G smartphone on the market, capable of supporting download speeds of up to 150Mbps.

That will be nice when the networks capable of delivering those speeds are up and running - but I'm sceptical about whether "specs" really sell that many phones. It's the fact that Huawei has the resources to cut margins to the bone and offer a top-of-the-range experience at a mid-market price which may prove more important.

Huawei describes its Android-powered Ascend P2 as the world's "fastest" smartphone

But rather than the avalanche of statistics rolled out by the head of the consumer business Richard Yu, it was the presentation by the global brand director Amy Lou which really made an impression. "Today is the day Huawei really grows up," she said, before going on to say that the company aimed to make its brand as well-known as any on display in Barcelona this week.

Nokia and Blackberry are two of those famous names, and they face a different challenge from Huawei - reviving brands that have very quickly gone out of fashion. At a preview event, I interviewed a Blackberry executive Carlo Chiarello, who had got off the plane from Canada just a couple of hours earlier. He insisted his firm was well placed to grab the number three position, seeming confident of winning back the deserters: "We've got a large base of loyal customers, we're concentrating on bringing Blackberry people back."

When I asked about the mood at the Waterloo headquarters since the launch of Blackberry 10, he described it as "ecstatic" - which seemed a bit excessive. But at least the company which had been drifting for years now has a story to tell - if only its executives can learn to put it into plain English.

With Android and Apple so dominant, you might think there was no room for another operating system, whether it was Blackberry or Windows Phone. But tell that to Mozilla, which held a press conference unveiling progress with its Firefox OS mobile operating system. Seventeen mobile operators have signed up to sell Firefox phones made by Alcatel, LG, ZTE - and soon Huawei.

The smartphone landscape was looking pretty settled but perhaps we are about to see everything change once more.

 
Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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