[Column] Chinese Ophone Not Just iPhone Imitation

Nov 10, 2009
Yasushi Uchida, Nikkei Electronics

"Did they copy again?"

To be honest, I thought Chinese people made an iPhone look-alike again when I heard about the "Ophone," a smartphone platform announced by China Mobile Ltd, a Chinese mobile-phone carrier, in August 2009.

However, as I researched on the Ophone, I found that it is not just a copy of the iPhone but based on a solid strategy. Of course, it is the success of the iPhone that made China Mobile decide to develop the Ophone. But the company had the following thought.

"A mobile-phone carrier cannot turn out much profit by selling the iPhone because Apple Inc has the platform for selling applications. We should rather develop a smartphone like the iPhone and operate a Website to sell applications for it."

Therefore, China Mobile decided to revise Android, Google Inc's software platform for mobile devices, to support local standards such as those of mobile TV broadcasts in China and add a user interface similar to that of the iPhone to it. The company sells applications via its online store "Mobile Market."

China Mobile employed Android because it enables to develop a platform at low cost in a short period of time. In other words, it made a smartphone by using the merits of Android and the iPhone. The software for the Ophone was developed by BORQS, a China-based venture firm.

In China, seven Ophone-based smartphones will be released in 2009, and about 20 models will hit the Chinese market in 2010. China Mobile intends to call for the adoption of the platform by mobile phone manufacturers all around the world, promoting the commoditization of smartphones, and this movement is represented by Dell Inc's adoption of the Ophone.

Japanese handset makers have seemingly been developing Android-based smartphones for some time. But Takashi Nakahara, president of Cathay Tri-Tech Inc, which allies with BORQS, said, "They can develop smartphones much faster if they employ the Ophone platform, for which supply chains including parts makers and EMS companies have already been established."

I had the chagrin of hearing his remarks, but I also felt threatened. China Mobile is the mobile-phone carrier that has the largest number of subscribers in the world (500 million). And the number of potential buyers of the Ophone is expected to be 200 million at least.

Taking advantages of economy of scale and the speed in dealing with change, the Ophone might shake the global smartphone market with its penetrability.