Most people only know Chinese telecoms giant Huawei because of its smartphones, which this month overtook Apple to take the number two spot both globally and locally.
They deserve it. Huawei only started making Android smartphones in 2009 and now make superb devices with luxurious materials, excellent quality screens and superb cameras.
But Huawei is a global telecoms giant whose telecommunications equipment and services connect an estimated third of the world’s mobile users to the internet. In South Africa they provide over 50% of telco equipment and solutions, meaning it essentially provides some 70% of our population with a way to get online, according to its figures.
Those handy little cellular modems we plug into our laptops or the clever MiFi hotspots that have replaced them, are made by Huawei. These are the pawns of the cellular chessboard.
But Huawei has always had aspirations of smartphone royalty.
The Huawei Ascend P7 that was launched in 2013 was, at the time, the world’s slimmest smartphone at 6.18 mm. At its launch in London, the first major launch outside of China, much was made of the quality of the engineering, which matched anything the other major manufacturers were producing.
At the launch Carphone Warehouse founder and chairman Sir Charles Dunstone described Huawei as “the most fantastic partner” and “the most extraordinary engineering organisation”. He added: “I think Huawei are going to be a very, very big player in the smartphone market”.
Slowly and surely Huawei has worked its way up the value chain, making increasingly better smartphones. This year’s flagship P20 Pro emerged as the top smartphone with the best camera in a recent test we did in Stuff, beating Samsung which has perennially produced the best pictures.
Huawei are particularly proud of this month’s achievement. They’ve come from nowhere to overtake Apple. That’s no mean feat.
Apple became the first listed company to be valued at $1tn last month and virtually created the smartphone market with the original iPhone in 2007. Interestingly the $1,000 iPhone X – which analysts thought was too expensive had a bumper Q2 and was what pushed the share price over the threshold – was the best-selling smartphone on the first quarter, according to researchers Strategy Analytics.
Huawei’s market share has now reached 15%, an increase of 41% year-on-year from the 38.4m smartphones shipped in Q2 2017 to a “record” 54.2m this year, the research firm said, in part because its “midrange Android models, Nova 2S and Nova 3e, are proving wildly popular across Asia and Europe”.
Samsung retains its top spot with 20.4% (down from 22.1% y-o-y) and Apple has 11.8% market share.
Even though global shipments have slowed as people hold onto their phones for longer, Huawei’s ascension to the global number two spot is a sign of the rising strength of the Chinese smartphone makes, with Xiaomi (9%) and Oppo (8.6%) closing out the top five manufacturers. “Samsung is being squeezed by Chinese rivals, like Xiaomi and Huawei, across major Asian markets such as China and India,” Strategy Analytics said.
There may be concerns about the lack of hardware innovation (the P20 Pro does look like the iPhone X, screen notch and all) and other factors pressuring the smartphone market, but let’s give Huawei their due for becoming a major phone player.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail