Interview: We sit down with Huawei’s VP of smartphone products and strategy

Interview: We sit down with Huawei’s VP of smartphone products and strategy
A year ago, before CES 2015 started, we met a representative from Huawei’s marketing communications team. During that meeting, we were briefed in broad strokes about Huawei’s plans to make a push into the American smartphone market, as well as firmly place itself with a premium line of devices.

We have heard, and reported on, such messages from a variety of companies before. Just as often as not, the result usually falls short of a perceived expectation. Huawei has certainly delivered on that forecast from a year ago.

Of all the well-known smartphone manufacturers that presented at CES in 2016, Huawei rose above the crowd with its introduction of the new Mate 8, the new MediaPad M2 10.0, beautiful new Huawei Watches – Elegant and Jewel – and dovetailed its already-available Nexus 6P with a snazzy new matte gold color. For the mobile enthusiast, Huawei hit it out of the park.

One of the key figures in this newly visible image for Huawei is Vice President, Smartphone Product Line Strategy Development, Changzhu Li. Mr. Li has been with Huawei since 1996, and has held roles as R&D Director, Chief Engineer, and VP of Sales and Marketing for Huawei’s mobile technology business. Most recently, Mr. Li was the Head of the Technology Planning Department for Huawei Consumer Business Group.

Now that the dust is settling from all the big press events ahead of CES, we got to sit down with Mr. Li and discuss in broad strokes what has motivated the premium product line to-date, what lies ahead, and how Huawei will face competitive and economic challenges ahead.

Design influence

Huawei’s two most recent banner bearers, the Google Nexus 6P, and Mate 8, introduced premium designs that squarely compete with the other major players in the field. That is clearly not an accident. When we asked Mr. Li about how this new design language was influenced, he explained that consumers are drawn to beautiful products no matter the market.

“I noticed that when the consumer enters our store, they [first] pick-up a handset and they will look around it, to check the finish, and the color. They will check the form [factor]. Then they will touch the surface. Does it feel warm? Is it smooth? Does it fit [the] hand? The third thing they will check the screen, check the color. [They] will always go to the beautiful picture, and they will check the color, and check the smoothness [of the UI]. This is a general behavior for global consumers.”

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There are two “directions” or factors, to meet that customer behavior. “A sense of beautiful” is the first as described by Mr. Li, “It must be very beautiful.” While pointing to his Mate 8, it was evident that this series of handset will be the leading line-up for Huawei, and therefore, it shapes the overall strategy for Huawei’s devices. “It must also fit the positioning of the Mate series, because the Mate series is the premium for business [also take to mean as “affluent”] people. When we are considering the balance of our resources, we must consider these directions.”

Next steps in design

So, what do we have to look forward to in Huawei’s future devices? For those looking for details on the next flagship, you will be disappointed. However, you may find some of the ideas being discussed about what lies ahead to be interesting.

Mr. Li broke it down into a few broad areas, or discussions if you will, that are being examined by Huawei. First, and this will probably not be a total surprise, metal will not be the preferred material for smartphones forever. Huawei is looking at other material sources that might continue high quality while offering new ways to make devices. Wholly metal bodies can be tricky to render as devices get more complex.

Then there is function. “Function is also related to the design, and sometimes we have to make trade-offs between design and function. The consumer wants everything,” explains Mr. Li, pointing out that this is an area that Huawei will grow. Accommodating all things to all users is not necessarily a good business case.

How about cameras? Well Mr. Li did not delve into specifics, but he posited that one camera may not always be enough. Two big lenses may not look perfect, but the company looks at ways to try new things while maintaining an attractive aesthetic appearance.

The usage model is also something Mr. Li is very interested in maintaining focus, “[Ease of use] must be visible, relevant, and help people enhance their efficiency, to help them enjoy their lives.” Some of the things Huawei examines are posed as challenges to the designers. For example, Mr. Li shared that three years ago, he approached designers about incorporating four speakers into a tablet, knowing it would be a great feature. However at the time, the designers hesitated on cost concerns, and the capability of technology at the time.

Finally, Huawei wants to continue creating new ways to interact with customers while focusing on distinct product lines. “We will not do everything,” said Mr. Li. Smartphones, and smart watches will be cornerstones of that interaction, but Huawei is interested in partnering with companies that can make best use of those platforms (and other accessories the company is working on). The company will maintain an open architecture to work with developers.

Economics of scale

If you pay any attention to the news, the Chinese economy has been making headlines over the past several months as the world’s second-largest economy contends with the reality of hard asset development to maintain GDP growth. From an economic point of view, Huawei, like China, is highly integrated into the global market. That reality will help the company weather the market corrections underway, and that breadth will benefit the company even if it must re-examine its China-based manufacturing infrastructure.

Farther down the road, Huawei is keeping an eye on Africa, a growing market that has unique customer needs. Mr. Li envisions highly collaborative and integrated efforts between Huawei and carriers, while developing appropriate product lines that consider the real localized needs of consumers there.

The future

As Huawei is also the world’s second-largest maker of telecom gear, an in-house designer of ever-advancing microchips with its Kirin line of CPUs, and clearly competent manufacturer of beautiful smartphones, the company has a breadth that only a few other companies in the world possess, and that gives them an edge when it comes to planning and execution. Given how well Huawei executed on its last big forecast to make an impact in the American market, we expect the company will be able to do the same in many of its future endeavors.

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