Liu’s phone call

Anything Steve can do, Lenovo can do better?

Liu’s phone call

Liu (minus mock turtleneck)

It’s the tale of a tech geek who leaves the computer firm he founded. In his absence the company flounders. So he returns with a new plan to recapture its former glory. After a stunning turnaround in computer sales, he turns his attention to making an innovative new ‘smart’ mobile phone. He’s hailed by his peers as a comeback king and a visionary.

Sound familiar so far? All we’re missing in our hero is a taste for mock turtleneck sweaters and a reputation for a fiery temper.

Although most of the story sounds like the all-too-familiar tale of Steve Jobs and his resurrection of Apple, we’re actually talking about Liu Chuanzhi and Lenovo.

Since Liu returned to the helm at Lenovo, he has turned around the Chinese PC maker’s sales. He has also helped it recover some of its mojo with innovatively designed new products such as a laptop with a detachable tablet screen.

Now Liu is reprising Jobs again, this time by pinning hopes on his firm’s debut mobile phone. Lenovo’s management expects to be selling more handsets than PCs within five years, says Communications World Weekly.

Enter LePhone: Lenovo’s first smartphone, which starts selling next month and is based on Google’s Android operating system. Unlike other Android-powered gadgets, LePhone doesn’t come preloaded with Google applications. Instead, it is pre-populated with applications developed by Chinese firms like Sina and Tencent. The phone’s preloaded search engine is Baidu instead of Google.

Like Apple’s iPhone, LePhone is built on a touch screen platform. It comes with front and rear cameras, and a nifty keyboard. Lenovo says its product can multi-task, or run multiple applications at once, and includes “push”, a main feature for the BlackBerry that delivers emails without any action on the users’ part.

But will LePhone grab market share from Apple’s iconic device (a tough ask: a recent survey in the UK by Phones 4u even found that 54% of women were more likely to date a man with an iPhone)?

Liu admits it looks like a battle between David and Goliath: “So far there isn’t a smartphone in China that beats the iPhone, and only Lenovo has tried to take down the giant. But it is a battle that must be fought. We are now ready for a fight with the iPhone.”

Some analysts are sceptical about Lenovo’s mobile-internet ambitions. The view is that, although the LePhone is well designed, it will struggle to challenge Apple’s brand recognition and reputation for innovation.

Tech blog concurs. “The phone [LePhone] itself is certainly responsive – very similar to the iPhone – and our initial thoughts are that it’s a very impressive device, albeit not as appealing as the iPhone.”

Still, critics say Lenovo’s first smartphone will win loyal fans in China. Although pricing for the device has not been revealed, Lenovo has said that it will be “affordable”. Industry observers forecast something under Rmb3,000 ($439), significantly cheaper than the iPhone which costs Rmb4,999 on a China Unicom package.

The first batch of LePhone sales will run on China Telecom’s WCDMA but Lenovo is already working on later versions that will support the other two 3G standards in China, including the locally developed standard TD-SCDMA.

For the moment, however, the smartphone will not be sold outside the country. Lenovo president Rory Read said the company will concentrate on “winning in China first” before launching the LePhone in other markets.

The timing of Lenovo’s new push into mobile-internet coincides with recent speculation that the company may have been looking to buy Palm, the US handheld computing company.

But the rumour turned out to be a false alarm, with Silicon Valley-based HP anouncing on Wednesday that it is acquiring the one-time tech icon for $1.2 billion.

Lenovo may have decided that the best path to growth lies closer to home. After all, when it bought IBM’s PC business five years ago it was betting on international growth. But the acquisition was not quite as successful as initially hoped. In fact, Liu has steadied the ship by refocusing on the home market.

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