We’re in Malta for the IFA Global Press Conference, where manufacturers have gathered to showcase everything from refrigerators to smartwatches. As you know, we’re not too big on the appliance side of the scene (Haier’s impressive compressorless refrigeration aside) so we were excited to find ZTE’s Waiman Lam here with a boatload of mobile offerings to showcase, along with a peek into the company’s plans for expansion going forward.
First came the metrics. ZTE currently boasts 60 million active users around the globe, having shipped 100 million total devices in 2014 (48 million of which were smartphones). The company claims to be the only Chinese OEM with a significant market share in the US, with an overall market share of 7% and a number-one position in the prepaid market with a 21% share. T-Mobile and AT&T were specifically called out in Lam’s slides, but the recent stoppage of T-Mobile Zmax sales went unmentioned. The company’s goal for 2016: maintain the 100 million devices-shipped figure while boosting smartphone sales to 60M.
ZTE will also continue pivoting from ODM to OEM in 2015, working to place its own brand on every single smartphone it ships, Lam says. It’s also working with both operators and big-box stores to further its retail availability, and continuing its unique NBA sponsorship by partnering with the New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors, and Houston Rockets. Nothing really new there, but like the Sprint NASCAR sponsorship, it’s always interesting to see technology and sports working together in apparent capitalistic bliss.
The devices Lam showcased weren’t new in and of themselves, but it was nice to get a refresher on some of the interesting new technology ZTE’s bringing to the table here. The ZTE Star 2 integrates an enhanced version of the voice control feature we first saw demoed on the Grand S II, allowing for unlocking the phone with a unique voiceprint and controlling it using commands like “start music” or “take a video.” While we’ve seen similar functionality on plenty of mobile devices, here the feature is network-independent – meaning you shouldn’t have to wait for the device to talk to a cloud server to recognize and execute your voice commands. Indeed, on stage the demo worked flawlessly despite significant distortion in Lam’s voice due to his presentation microphone. The Star 2 is currently available in Germany, spreading to other European and Asia-Pacific regions in the coming months.
In the midrange segment, ZTE’s Blade S6 was also on stage. The Snapdragon 615-powered, 720p 5.5-incher made its eBay debut earlier this month, and what it lacks in specs it makes up for in convenience. The “Smart Sense” suite is built to allow for predefined system functions like playing music or snapping a burst shot with the camera using a simple gesture. Lam used the example of fumbling for a flashlight in the dark: you can either unlock the phone, hunt for the camera toggle, and press a button … or you can just wiggle your device quickly (in Moto X-like fashion) and watch the spotlight flash to life. Again, in a rare show of mercy from the demo gods, this feature performed flawlessly on the first attempt.
ZTE rarely misses the opportunity to remind everyone about its curious Spro 2 pico projector, and the IFA GPC is no exception. The cracker-box-sized Spro 2 sports a 5-inch touchscreen and a full build of Android for controlling the 200-lumen HD projector, which offers autofocus and a throw distance of up to 10 feet. Content can be streamed to the device through its onboard WiFi/LTE/3G radio, or stored locally via MicroSD. It can also double as a mobile hotspot for up to 8 connected devices, with juice provided by a 6300 mAh battery. ZTE says you should be able to stream and entire feature-length movie on the device without running out of power. The Spro 2 launches on AT&T tomorrow for $499 (or $399 on a contract), and our own Jaime Rivera will be taking a look at it for us in the weeks ahead.
Finally, we got a quick look at the Nubia Z9 mini. No specs were forthcoming, but ZTE did remind us that the Nubia line is all about the camera – and accordingly we got a brief look at its viewfinder software. Frankly the interface looks ripped straight from Nokia’s Lumia line, with concentric rings and sliders offering a host of manual controls – a design appropriation we also saw on Lenovo’s Vibe Shot at MWC. Here though, the camera features also include the ability to independently set focus and metering, which ZTE says is an industry first. While third-party apps have long provided this extensibility, it’s still pretty cool to see it offered right out of the box.
ZTE closed its briefing with an eye toward the future. Its 2-minute brand encapsulation video featured people using all manner of translucent devices to connect “man and man, man and machine, machine and machine” … because “tomorrow never waits.” As a Tier-1 provider for LTE devices in China and a strong relationship with all three of that country’s major wireless operators, that’s a tomorrow ZTE sees itself well-suited to cater to, at least in Asia. The interesting part for us will be to see whether it manages to bring its particular vision of the future to postpaid customers in the States as well.