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ARM's idea of 'China speed' helps explain why it's so hard to compete with Chinese phone makers

ARM's idea of 'China speed' helps explain why it's so hard to compete with Chinese phone makers


How do you say ludicrous in Chinese?

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Huawei Mate 9
Huawei Mate 9
Photo by James Vincent / The Verge

The most vibrant and competitive market I know is that for smartphones in China. Companies come seemingly out of nowhere and, just as Western journalists get used to pronouncing their names properly, disappear into a similar void, to be replaced by the next, even more aggressive contender vying for people's yuan. The breakneck pace of change and innovation in China's mobile market was recently given a name, which I find exceedingly appropriate: China speed. It comes from ARM, the company responsible for the architecture of the vast majority of mobile processors today, and it describes a method for designing and engineering phones that's fundamentally different to what has come before.

Huawei took only eight months to release a chip that’d usually take a year

Ahead of this week's unveiling of the new ARM Cortex-A75 and A55 CPUs, ARM hosted a preview event at its hometown of Cambridge, England, where its representatives talked about the changing demands for processor power and how its new designs would address them. It was there that I first heard Ian Hutchinson, director for channel marketing at ARM, talk about "China speed" and what it means for his business. The Huawei Mate 9, he pointed out, was released with Mali-G71 graphics just eight months after ARM delivered that graphics processor design to its partners. The typical time taken to go from the raw design to a full retail product is at least a year, according to Hutchinson, so Huawei chopped a full third off the turnaround time.

Shenzhen's OnePlus aggressively replaced the OnePlus 3 with the slightly better specced OnePlus 3T within the space of a few months last year, and it will soon have an even better OnePlus 5 on sale. China's current rising stars, Oppo and Vivo, have built their sales up through a comprehensive network of rural outlets (whereas Huawei is more focused on urban centers) and an unyielding commitment to adding more enticing features like dual cameras, larger batteries, and thinner screen bezels. And that's to say nothing of almost anonymous brands like Doogee and Maze, both of which are now touting phones with almost bezel-less displays.

When asked about how and why Chinese manufacturers are able to achieve such acceleration, ARM claims that Chinese vendors aren’t doing any less testing or due diligence, they just compartmentalize and anticipate more aggressively. Which is to say, they’ll start on a design expecting certain thermal and power requirements from the upcoming chip, and when the chip arrives they’re already well underway in designing for it. That’s obviously risky if they miscalculate, but competing in China’s smartphone market is already a borderline-irrational pursuit. Lenovo CEO Yuanqing Yang has said as much, and the evidence of Xiaomi's rollercoaster fortunes and Lenovo's up-and-down sales only underscores the point.

Chinese tech consumers are growing both in number and in their willingness to buy new phones, as Accenture’s latest data indicates. But their rationale when shopping for a new device is firmly rooted in old school utilitarianism: get the widest and deepest set of features for the lowest possible price. It becomes imperative, therefore, for local device makers to have the most up to date spec sheet the whole year round — there’s no room for once-a-year releases like there is in the more mature Western markets. Even Apple, which enjoys luxury brand status in China, has been struggling with steadily declining sales in the country.

China’s version of "move fast and break stuff" might be called "move fast and make stuff"

I have heard from multiple people familiar with how Chinese companies operate that their prevailing business culture is one of utmost speed. Decisions that would take American and European companies weeks, if not months, turn into action and engineering prototypes within days in China. That's partially down to the shorter physical distance between the decision makers and the manufacturing facilities, but more than that, it's an expression of a particular Chinese version of the "move fast and break stuff" attitude endorsed in Silicon Valley.

Taking risks is a necessity for anyone trying to survive in a field as competitive as China's smartphone market, and so it's no wonder that companies like Huawei are trying to capture a lead by doing some educated guessing. Also inherent in this faster cadence, though, is a shortage of time to optimize and refine every aspect of a design — I've found Huawei's industrial design regressed in 2017 with the Watch 2 and P10, neither of which improved on its great 2016 lineup.

But perhaps, in a world where sticking with a phone for the full two years of your contract is becoming increasingly rare, "China speed" is the right cadence. Carriers are serving up deals to tempt people into upgrading early, all-glass designs are making devices more fragile, and ARM itself is promising a "50x improvement in AI performance over the next three to five years," which is likely to catalyze yet another round of upgrades.