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Is ZTE falling into the same trap as its competition once did?

By Taylor Martin February 26, 2014, 7:14 pm

If you asked me last year if I would have ever considered using a ZTE smartphone as my daily driver, I probably would have chuckled, realized you might actually be serious, then answered with a solid, “No.”

It’s not that ZTE is a bad manufacturer. But it has never been known for high-end flagship smartphones, something I’m admittedly a sucker for. Instead, ZTE is globally known for its prepaid and budget smartphone offerings.

In fact, as recent as one year ago, ZTE was in a close fight for the position as third largest smartphone manufacturer in the world.

It has since been surpassed by Huawei and fallen behind both Lenovo and LG. But make no mistake, ZTE is a formidable force in the smartphone market, and it’s only gaining steam.


Its portfolio this year is broad, and it has some devices worth keeping an eye on, such as the Nubia 5S and the Nubis 5S mini. But that’s only the beginning of the new devices from the Chinese manufacturer. At CES, the company revealed the Grand S II, Iconic Phablet (now known as the Boost MAX, which we recently reviewed), and the Sonata 4G. At the same time, ZTE announced a prototype smartwatch and the aptly named Projector Hotspot, an LTE hotspot with a 1080p projector crammed inside.

ZTE Grand Memo II LTE (3)

We learned earlier this week, however, that ZTE isn’t quite done. At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, ZTE announced three more devices: the Grand Memo II, the Firefox OS-powered Open C, and the Blade Q mini. And the smartwatch finally got an official name: Grand Watch.

In an attempt to push its global reach to new levels, ZTE is making a very hard push into the vicious U.S. smartphone market. That started with the Nubia 5, which we reviewed late last year.

For those keeping count at home, ZTE has now announced nine new smartphones in the last six months – eight of which were announced in the last month and a half. And there’s at least one in the bunch I’d like to get my hands on for some review and unboxing treatment, the Nubia 5S. And in a turn of events, it’s a phone I could see myself carrying, despite its slimy build.

That said, I keep having flashbacks to the days of yore in the mobile space – especially those which include HTC and Samsung in the making of Android smartphones between 2009 and 2012. In 2010, HTC released 17 different smartphone models, seven Windows Phone 7 devices and 12 Android phones. Samsung also released 11 Android smartphones and two Windows Phone 7 devices in 2010.

Granted, not all of those HTC and Samsung smartphones were released in the same markets. But the problem was that many of the devices were redundant, and it made things rather confusing for customers.

Those were the days in which Android OEMs were building smartphones to individual carrier’s specifications. For instance, HTC released the Inspire 4G for AT&T in 2011, followed by the similar – yet still very different – ThunderBolt 4G on Verizon. The similar Sensation made its way to T-Mobile shortly thereafter, but was followed-up with the Amaze 4G just six months later. And in the summer of 2011, the EVO 3D landed on Sprint with similar specs, but a different design and a 3D camera.

The life of the Galaxy S and Galaxy S II on U.S. carriers was even more confusing headache-inducing.

This approach to providing a customized expedience for each carrier and releasing over a dozen phones each year didn’t help Samsung or HTC. It may have worked for a short while, but consolidating the branding and launching fewer, more precisely targeted devices helped the Galaxy S brand become a household name.


The third-generation Galaxy S smartphone, launched globally as the Galaxy S III, was a turning of the tides for the mobile industry. It quickly became one of the most popular smartphones of all time. And the Galaxy S 4 only pushed the brand even further.

It gave consumers something much easier to follow and understand. And now, with the Galaxy S 5, Samsung is expected to sell more phones than ever before. In fact, it’s already set record numbers for T-Mobile, with over 100,000 people pre-registered to learn more about the device once it’s available.

In 2012, HTC aimed to focus on quality over quantity, but failed to break from its old ways. It released the One X, One S, One SV, One V, One X+, One XL, DROID DNA, EVO 4G LTE, DROID Incredible 4G LTE, Desire X, Desire C, Desire V, Desire VC, Desire SV, Desire VT, Windows Phone 8X, and Windows Phone 8S.

HTC One Bench

Last year, however, it released significantly fewer smartphones: One, One mini, One max, and a few comparable Desire models for various overseas markets. Now the HTC One branding is far stronger, globally, and HTC’s worldwide presence isn’t diluted beyond recognition.

I can’t help but think ZTE is quickly heading down the path HTC and Samsung were stuck on for the first three years of Android’s existence – making countless handsets with no clear direction. There are three ZTE brands that are being pushed so far this year for ZTE’s Android offerings alone: Blade, Grand, and Nubia. And its Firefox OS smartphone brand will seemingly be simply Open. And even I can’t begin see what its endgame is.

Without doing research and jotting down notes, I don’t know which phone is headed where, which one I should be excited over, or which ones even apply to me or the US market.


The Nubia handsets are all pretty intriguing, and the Grand S II, as expected, is comparable to other flagship handsets. But having such diluted brands isn’t helping ZTE’s efforts to expand globally. It’s attention is divided between a handful of brands and literally dozens of handsets.

I’m no expert on international business and marketing, but it doesn’t take rocket appliances to see what has worked tremendously well for Apple, Samsung, HTC, and more recently Motorola, with its most successful smartphone ever, the Moto G.

I really want to get behind ZTE. No doubt, the company has the capacity to be a competitor in the space. And the imaging software and viewfinder Michael and I saw on the Nubia 5S at CES was seriously impressive. But, at the end of the day, the company needs to pick a brand to get behind 100 percent if it wants to take from the likes of HTC, Samsung, and now Lenovo.

We’ve seen it more than once in the last two years: less is more.


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