Android's share of the mobile market might be growing rapidly, but if it really wants to generate Apple-style levels of consumer excitement, it could learn some lessons from the legion of iPhone copycats that are all the rage across China.
By Bobbie Johnson, GigaOMIt’s no secret that Google is desperate for its Android software to become the dominant platform for mobile phones. But while it’s making inroads both in the U.S. and worldwide, there’s still one area it’s lagging in: genuine, unbridled fan lust. So it must be exciting for executives in Mountain View to see pictures like this one: a huge gaggle of people queuing excitedly for the new M9 handset from Chinese manufacturer Meizu. It’s the kind of image we usually associate with Apple launches and major console game releases. So what secret sauce does the M9 have that’s causing such excitement? Well, it’s got lots of good features at a competitive price: just $409 for a 16GB SIM-free model. But the real selling point seems to be one that Google would be less pleased to trumpet: It’s unashamedly borrowing from the iPhone. Despite the Android underpinnings, Meizu’s notorious for finding more than a little inspiration from Apple products, including interface elements that would seem eerily familiar to iPhone users. The similarities were even more obvious on its previous model, the M8, which was so closely modeled on the iPhone 3G many users would find it hard to tell the difference at a glance. All this is a result of China’s huge “shanzhai” industry of pirated goods. Shanzhai companies, which specialize in mimicking elements seen on more expensive rivals, have an approach to manufacturing and design that’s both controversial and fascinating. I’ve been interested in the phenomenon for some time, and even spent a few weeks in China last summer exploring it for a piece on shanzhai in the UK edition of Wired magazine. You can buy shanzhai handsets all over the developing world, but among Western consumers, they have a pretty poor reputation. They’re seen as unremarkable, derivative low-cost imitations. But is that a fair description? In some cases, yes, but Meizu proves it’s not always accurate.