It would have been unthinkable just four years ago. The brand that no one outside China had heard of, Huawei, has become the flavour of the moment. At this week’s Mobile World Congress, which turns Barcelona into the epicentre of the mobile industry for four days at the end of February every year, the upstart led a mass charge of new phone launches.
Its new Huawei P10 and P10+ handsets drew more than a thousand journalists to a launch event, reminiscent of the jostling crowds at previous Samsung flagship phone launches in the city. Samsung opted for a more low-key tablet launch, having delayed the unveiling of its new Galaxy S8 by a month. That left the field open to the likes of Huawei, LG and Sony to play catch-up or even leapfrog. Even the venerable old names like Nokia, BlackBerry and Motorola – under Lenovo ownership with the Moto brand – were able to make an impact.
Nokia was Huawei’s biggest challenger for attention, thanks to the hype around the relaunched 3310, the best seller from the year 2000. Targeted back then at teenagers and young adults, it sold 126-million units, and was known for its week-long battery life, exceptional durability and – most significantly – allowing text messages more than double the length of traditional SMS.
That made it a youth favourite, and those youths are now in their 30s and 40s. Aside from having more disposable income, it is also the generation that now dominates the media. It was a stroke of marketing genius, then, to reincarnate that particular phone. Even if the new Nokia licensee, HMD Global, does not sell a single unit of the “reimagined” 3310, it has everyone in the industry talking about the brand, and most old fans will now know that Nokia is back. That gives it the runway from which it hopes a new range of Android smartphones will take off.
Despite the operating system remaining fairly faithful to the old Symbian OS created for Nokia feature phones, the new 3310 in bright plastic casings looks more like a toy than a serious device. On the other hand, the Android insides and quality bodies of the Nokia 3, 5 and 6 should give it some traction among more demanding users.
It will not, however, represent serious competition to Huawei. The latter first gave notice of its intentions to move from copycat to challenger less than four years ago, when it launched the P6 as the thinnest smartphone in the world. By the time it got to the P9 last year, consumers had almost figured out how to pronounce its name.
The premium version of that handset, the P9 Plus, was one of the best phones of 2016. It helped create a halo effect that took the full Huawei range to third place in worldwide smartphone sales. Only Samsung and Apple remained ahead.
Both were absent from the smartphone action at MWC, making Huawei the de facto thought leader of the event. As a result, when the Samsung Galaxy S8 is launched at the end of March, it will probably be the first time in five years that the South Korean company will be playing catch up instead of leading the way.
The P10 and P10+ build on the advanced camera technology of the previous edition. Once again, they feature dual rear cameras co-engineered with Leica. For the first time, their front cameras also offer near-professional quality, thanks to incorporating a Leica lens.
The power lies as much in the software, with a Portrait mode that includes 3D facial detection technology and ”professional studio-like effects”, such as re-lighting and a Hybrid Zoom feature that allows one to focus on specific areas of an image.
That is not necessarily what will turn heads, though. The physical design of the phone reveals an ever-evolving metal craftsmanship, as the company calls it. Rounded curves, a “hyper diamond-cut” finish and a fresh suite of colour options set it apart. Huawei collaborated with the Pantone Color Institute, the global colour specailists, to introduce new colours not seen before on phones.
Pantone Greenery, named the official Pantone Colour of the Year for 2017, is applied to a handset with a sandblast finish, giving it a clean look that reflects the eco-friendly symbolism of green. A new deep blue shade named Dazzling Blue, added to the diamond-cut finish, delivers a subtle glow effect that will probably make it the most popular shade.
It is rare that colour options are stand-out features for phones, but Huawei pulls it off with its refreshed palate. It includes Ceramic White, Dazzling Gold, Prestige Gold, Graphite Black, Rose Gold and Mystic Silver.
“With consumers increasingly comfortable using colour as a form of expression, we are seeing more experimentation and creative uses of colour,” said Laurie Pressman, VP of Pantone Color Institute, t the launch. “Colour is truly a medium through which individuals can express themselves to the world around them.”
The Huawei P10 and P10+ phones are expected to be available in South Africa in April 2017.