Two weeks ago, to build buzz for the Android smartphone it announced today, Chinese tech company Letv turned to Hitler. A poster teasing the phone shows Hitler giving the Nazi salute while wearing an armband marked with the Apple logo. Apple, explained Letv CEO Jia Yueting in an accompanying post on Weibo, is an "arrogant regime" that has embraced "tyranny."
Jia quickly apologized for invoking Nazis to shill electronics, saying he meant only that "open-ended technology ecosystems are more beneficial to consumers." More beneficial than, say, Apple and Hitler, which respectively adopted policies requiring in-house vetting of mobile apps (in Apple’s case) and the systematic genocide of millions (in Hitler’s). As a brand disaster, Jia’s comments were unfortunate, but as content marketing they had their desired effect. Thousands of people around the world were introduced to fast-growing, loose-talking Letv, and anticipation for the company’s first smartphone shifted from nonexistent to "let’s see how it compares to Hitler."
Brand disaster as content marketing
At an event Monday evening in San Francisco, Letv (pronounced "L-E-T-V") introduced itself to the United States in the same awkward, lost-in-translation style it had used to bash Apple. A group of American and Chinese journalists gathered in a half-empty conference space in the Financial District, where an Letv-branded television delivered a stilted video transmission from Jia himself. "Hello US," he said. "Letv is coming."
So what is Letv? Listening to Jia wasn’t much help; he described his $12 billion company as "an open, vertically integrated ecosystem for how content is distributed and experienced." So ignore that and instead think of Letv as a kind of Chinese YouTube that went public instead of selling to Google. Now imagine that YouTube had opened its own movie studio, and started manufacturing connected TVs so as to better market its video content. And then told you it was going to make an electric car and call it "the sixth screen."
A name previously reserved for French roller discos
And finally, just as you were wrapping your brain around that, imagine YouTube threw a party announcing its arrival in a large foreign market, though none of its products would be for sale there for many months to come. That’s Letv in a nutshell. Its new device is called "Le Superphone," a name previously reserved for French roller discos of the late 1970s, and it’s going on sale in China today and America later this year.
Mark Li, a Letv vice president, and JD Howard, a former Lenovo executive who is running Letv’s international expansion, were tasked with introducing Le Superphone to America. "The smartphone industry is getting a little stale," Howard lamented. "It’s a little same-old, same-old." Ever since a certain never-mentioned smartphone re-fashioned the industry in its image, possibly using a combination of arrogance and tyranny, the world had delivered only incremental improvements.
Enter Letv. With 400 million monthly users of its streaming-video service, the company has "the experience, the creativity, and the ambition to disrupt in this space," executives told us. I girded myself for the knowledge bombs about to drop. "We’re not trying to be like everybody else here," Howard said. A slide behind him flashed a single word: Innovation.
The innovations mentioned on stage numbered three: a different kind of USB connector, a display with enhanced colors, and improved sound reproduction. They sounded like the sort of incremental improvements that Letv had just spent 20 minutes complaining about, but there were no phones to be seen, so I reserved my judgment for a while. I’m not a tyrant.
"We're not trying to be like everybody else."
A Q&A followed, and I asked Li if he cared to elaborate on the similarities between Apple and Hitler. He declined, referring me instead to Jia’s previous apology. Instead, Li talked about opening a new office in Silicon Valley, from which Letv will seek content deals with American companies. A short while later, we moved to a second room to see Le Superphone — which I mentally pronounce in a cartoon Parisian accent — in action.
When a Letv employee puts it in my hand, I first think it’s an HTC One: similar polished aluminum finish, similar gray borders on the rear, similar placement of camera and fingerprint sensor. Le Superphone has similar rounded edges and a large screen, though weirdly no one can tell me the exact size other than to say there will be three choices. (The displays all appear to be hovering within a fingernail or two of 5.5 inches.) In keeping with fashion, the phone has a thin bezel, though not so thin I couldn't rest a thumb on the home button.
Le spec sheet of Le Superphone largely meets your expectations for a flagship Android phone these days: it runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 chip, has a high-resolution display, and offers a 21-megapixel camera. It’s billed as the first Android phone to use a reversible USB Type-C port for charging and data transfer, and includes a custom sound chip to offer enhanced audio. (We didn’t get to try it.)
An Instagram filter for your operating system
And yet the whole thing feels, as they say over at Letv, a little same-old, same-old. At the hands-on area, I asked Howard to explain it to me. Where’s all that innovation? He proceeded to show me a Superphone feature that lets you change the default color settings of your phone to make them more or less saturated — like applying an Instagram filter to the entire operating system. I had never given any thought to the color settings of my phone, and never will again, but if you’ve ever looked at your iPhone and wished you could make everything look vaguely red, you may want to book travel to Beijing.
I pressed Howard on Letv’s US ambitions, and how its core asset — millions of hours of Chinese-language video — would be of any use to it here. The United States has an estimated 2.9 million Chinese speakers, the company says; Apple sells eight times as many iPhones in a month. Howard tells me that Letv’s core skill lies in building up libraries of content and finding lucrative ways to distribute them; eventually, he says, Letv could offer Superphones localized to many different ethnicities, all tied to language-specific content libraries.
The since-deleted teaser poster for tonight’s event showed us two worlds: one that embodied "arrogance [and] tyranny" (Apple, supposedly) and another that represented crowdsourcing and "freedom." But we never saw any crowdsourcing tonight, and Le Superphone doesn’t strike any obvious blows for freedom beyond its wackadoodle color settings. Arrogance, though — there was plenty of that on display. And it wasn’t Apple's.