Last year at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I was invited into a nondescript small meeting room — probably not even 200 sq. ft. — in the corner of one of the event’s smaller venue halls. A Hong Kong-based PR had invited me, and I had no real idea what I was about to see. And so when I was shown a near bezel-less, all-screen smartphone without a notch, with a fingerprint scanner embedded underneath the screen and a pop-up selfie camera module — all tech that we’ve gotten used to now, but had never before seen then — I was completely surprised. I don’t want to say my jaw dropped, because that is an overused hyperbole, but my mouth was definitely agape, and I made an audible “whoa” sound.
That concept phone was the Vivo Apex, and it stole the show at MWC, generating a level of organic buzz that’s hard to achieve. A video I shot of the device (below), uploaded to YouTube, racked up a million views in just two weeks.
Vivo today will announce a follow-up to the Apex at a press conference in Beijing. And late next month, it will show the phone to a global audience at MWC. It’s safe to say the phone won’t generate the same level of out-of-nowhere shock of the original device because by the time MWC rolls around, the phone will have been in the public consciousness for over a month.
This is merely my opinion here, but I think under normal circumstances, Vivo would have loved to unveil the phone for the first time on a global stage like MWC instead of a local press conference, but these are not normal times.
Smartphone brands right now, particularly Chinese mid-tier ones, are in an all-out war to one up each other and steal each other’s thunder. I first noticed this last August, when Honor and Xiaomi got into a semi-public online war of words about who came out with the idea of an all-screen slider phone first. Honor was so eager to beat to unveil its phone before Xiaomi, it showed off an unfinished device on stage that the media wasn’t allowed to touch at IFA in Berlin. Hours later, likely annoyed that Honor had prematurely shown off an unfinished product, Xiaomi President Lin Bin shared a photo of his company’s slider phone on Weibo. Both of these publicity stunts took place a month and a half before the phones’ official launches in late October
Then, last month, Honor pulled the same stunt when it “pre-announced” the hole-in-screen Honor View 20 in a small Hong Kong event, just to beat Samsung’s launch of a similar phone by two hours. Again, the View 20 “announced” that day wasn’t finished, and the back was completely covered on purpose and couldn’t be seen or touched by the media. Essentially, Honor announced half a phone that day.
This is the type of aggressive one-upmanship Chinese phone brands are engaging now. A year or two ago, phone brands could announce new models, when they deemed ready, in a proper setting. Online leakers were brands’ only concern for lost buzz. Now? Not only do brands have to battle leakers, they have to watch over their back to ensure another Chinese brand isn’t undercutting their buzz.
That’s exactly what happened yesterday when Meizu surprised many by announcing a phone that’s very similar to the Apex 2019. Meizu didn’t even bother holding an event, it just announced the news via an online streaming show. It appeared to be a hastily put together event just to beat Vivo to the news of claiming a “world’s first.” Personally, I’m confident Vivo’s device will be better, but its headlines have been snatched away from it.
The smartphone space was already, in my opinion, the most competitive consumer industry in the world, and 2019 is going to get even crazier. After the battle for the hole-in-screen, and button-less phones, the next objectives will be foldable phones and 5G phones. The race to generate buzz for the foldable phone has already begun, as Xiaomi’s Lin Bin shared on Weibo yesterday a video of a working foldable phone prototype. If Huawei/Honor is indeed working on one, too, I’m sure there will be yet another race to see who can unveil first. Expect more hastily put together “half-unveilings,” social media photos of phones months before it’s ready to hit store shelves, and last-minute online streaming announcements.
This constant battle of one-upmanship between brands remind me of the late ‘90s pro wrestling TV wars between the WWE (then known as the WWF) and WCW that captivated American pop culture. Both wrestling promotions had a live show on Monday night, and officials from both companies would watch each other’s show and think of ways to steal the other’s thunder as the shows were happening. This resulted in what is now widely regarded by wrestling fans as the greatest era of wrestling, producing several stars that are now global household names, chief among them The Rock.
This is what happens when brands go all out to compete — we, the consumers, win.