Can ZTE compete with high-end smartphone makers in the United States?

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: December 8, 2011

From the time Android arrived, partner manufacturers have hopped on the bandwagon, without regret, in hopes of cashing in on Google's free yet lucrative mobile platform. Among the dozens of OEMs to join, four have come out on top in the Sates: Samsung, HTC, Motorola and LG. While these OEMs also largely dominate Android sales around much of the globe, there are, however, other phone makers that have made quite a name for themselves as Android OEMs, too, such as Chinese makers Huawei or ZTE.

Between 2006 and last year, ZTE exploded. Thanks to none other than Android's Law, they rose from next to nothing to a globally renowned brand. Between 2009 and 2010 alone, ZTE doubled their global market share and stole Apple's title as the fourth largest mobile phone manufacturer in the world. They are currently selling phones in over 140 countries.

But that isn't good enough for ZTE. They want more – more global penetration. Specifically, they want to enter the US market with a little more force. Currently, ZTE has a decent number of handsets in the US market. As you would expect, though, they are mostly budget-friendly, low-end smartphones or feature phones you will find on prepaid carriers, like the Warp on Boost Mobile or the Chorus and Score on Cricket.

Offering affordable smartphones is exactly how ZTE has made a name for itself globally. That's commendable and respectable as not just any company can rise to the top by making a few, cheap handsets. However, President of ZTE North America, Lixin Cheng, wants to change the company's reputation as provider of cheap smartphones. In an interview in Hong Kong yesterday, Cheng revealed that ZTE intends to bring some more serious devices to US shores. "By 2015, we expect the U.S. to be the largest market for handsets for ZTE," said Cheng.

While I have no doubt ZTE is capable of creating high-end devices, I'm curious as to whether people in the States will open arms to them. Of all the markets out there, the US smartphone market is easily one of the most vicious. Manufacturers and carriers perpetually launch devices and even create competition amongst their own handsets. A perfect example of that is Motorola and Verizon's push for the DROID branding. Motorola has created four handsets for Verizon's DROID lineup in the last six months alone, with two more supposedly on the way.

On top of that, there's brand and manufacturer loyalty to consider. US customers have grown to know and love HTC, Samsung, Motorola and even LG (who got a late start in the high-end smartphone race). But they have mostly stonewalled other companies, like Dell and Sony Ericsson, who have come forth with mid-range devices and simply not enough oomph. Adding another "unknown" to the mix, will customers accept ZTE with open arms? Not likely. Unless, of course, ZTE knocks it out of the park with a few key ingredients: topnotch hardware (not the cheap plastic they're known to use), stock Android with rapid updates and true, high-end specs. These are just some of the areas where Dell and Sony Ericsson have fallen short, and if ZTE does their homework, they could avoid similar failures.

The point is, it's not going to be a walk in the park for ZTE. The US market is a vicious one and there is a lot more to making a smartphone than slapping a spec sheet on it and gaining some carrier partnerships. If ZTE wants to turn the United States into the largest market for their handsets, they will need to steal the attention of loyal fans from other OEMs. To do so, they will have to bring the heat, in the form of many – not just one or two – devices, with specifications equivalent or beyond those of existing handsets in 2012; that means at least quad-core processors, 720p displays, ample memory and ... NFC. All the while, they need to exploit the shortcomings of current handset makers.

Again, all of this is totally doable and ZTE has the cash flow to afford it all, but this is a major leap from what they've been doing for the past couple years. They will have to entirely abandon their mindset for creating low-end phones, which has proven to be difficult for some, and learn how to go over the top in almost every way.

What say you, readers? Can ZTE penetrate the US smartphone market and establish a name for themselves here as well? Or will existing manufacturer and brand loyalty make it impossible for ZTE to gain the proper support? Would you buy a ZTE device if it touted better specs than current devices?

Image via IntoMobile