Smart guy

Dissatisfied with existing smartphones, Luo Yonghao designs a new one

Smartisan w

Luo’s Smartisan handset

I n 2011, when Luo Yonghao thought his fridge door wasn’t shutting properly, he made several complaints to Siemens, the manufacturer (see WiC132). When the German firm said that it didn’t see any problems, Luo brought the fridge to the firm’s head office in Beijing and smashed it to pieces with a sledgehammer. It’s one way to make a point…

But when Luo decided that China’s smartphones weren’t up to scratch, his response was a little more constructive – he decided to design a model of his own.

Last week Luo unveiled the Smartisan (‘smart’ and ‘artisan’) T1 smartphone. Luo describes it as “the easiest-to-use smartphone in the Eastern Hemisphere” with “the best screen” and “the fastest mass-produced mobile CPU”. It runs on Smartisan OS, a variant of Android, Google’s mobile operating system.

Unlike Xiaomi, a domestic smartphone maker with a reputation for low-priced handsets, Smartisan’s T1 doesn’t come cheap. The basic version starts at about Rmb3,000 (about $480), which is high-end by Chinese standards. Xiaomi’s Mi 3 – which has a slower processor (1.8 Ghz vs. Smartisan’s 2.5Ghz) – is priced from Rmb1,700.

“If you can’t afford it, it just means that you’re not our target customer,” Luo told the Beijing Times.

Industry commentators havebeen sceptical about Luo’s ambitions, asking how a former English teacher has been able to design and manufacture his own brand of smartphone. But Luo isn’t unique in braving a completely new industry. “Xiaomi’s charismatic co-founder Lei Jun had little or no background in smartphones, and his company has become one of the hottest names in the area in the last two years. So perhaps there’s some hope for Smartisan,” says Doug Young, author of Young’s China Business Blog.

How Luo is funding his new ventire isn’t clear but he hasn’t been working alone. The T1’s minimalistic and sleek design was conceived by Apple’s former lead designer, Robert Brunner, who now runs Ammunition in San Francisco (the same studio that designed the Beats headphones). Even the packaging box for the T1 is custom-made, by James Cropper, a 169-year-old fine paper specialist from the UK.

Engadget, a tech blog, is impressed by Luo’s efforts: “We can go on and on with the list of features. What’s certain is that an insane amount of thought has been put into both the hardware and the software, making the T1 a truly unique and passionate product,” it commends.

China Science Daily is also a fan. “Smartisan fully embodies the ‘artisan spirit’. Every detail of the phone and small innovation demonstrates the thoughtfulness and hard work of Luo and his team,” it gushed.

But will consumers buy the T1? Phoenix Technology has reported that two days after Luo’s launch presentation, Smartisan had already sold more than 50,000 handsets, about a tenth of its sales target.

Perhaps the sales goal is feasible if Luo can convince a reasonable proportion of his 6.8 million followers on Sina Weibo to buy one. “The target customer of Smartisan is undoubtedly Luo’s loyal fan base,” says Caijing. “Even at Rmb3,000, he believes that there are enough like-minded people who would pay the price”.

TechWeb, another tech blog, agrees, believing that many Smartisan buyers are paying a premium less for the handset design and more out of “idol worship”.

But Hong Bo, an IT analyst, says that the T1 still has to prove itself through extended usage and is probably overpriced by as much as Rmb2,000. That could be more of a factor if Luo follows through with plans to launch it overseas where, unlike in China, he is virtually unknown.

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