Huawei launched its new flagship smartphone in Sydney last night, the Ascend Mate7. It’s a nice bit of kit. This Chinese company is now the world’s third-largest smartphone manufacturer, and overall the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer. But can it make significant inroads into the Australian smartphone market, even more dominated by Apple and Samsung than elsewhere?

Huawei’s story began in 1987, when an ex-People’s Liberation Army (PLA) engineer decided to produce modern telephone network switching equipment through indigenous research and development, rather than technology transfer and joint ventures. By 2010, the majority of the world’s top telcos were using its equipment in some way.

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In 2011, the company revealed its ambition to become one of the world’s top three mobile phone vendors in three to five years. It succeeded, hitting that target just two years later, in 2013 — helped in part by the implosion of Nokia and the decline of Taiwan’s HTC during its patent battle with Apple. In that same year, Huawei’s head of devices, Wan Biao, reportedly said the company is now aiming for the No. 1 spot.

Huawei’s smartphone sales have grown from 3 million units shipped in 2011 to an estimated 80 million in 2014 — compared with Apple’s estimated sales of 170 million iPhones in 2014. Huawei’s last quarterly results reported a 26% year-on-year growth in units shipped. In Australia, growth was 47% year-on-year, though presumably from a relatively low base.

Last night showed that Huawei knows the consumer product launch playbook. Swank venue? The Star casino. Celebrity MC? Channel Nine sports presenter Erin Molan. Shock-and-awe sound-and-light show intro? Check. Plug your sports sponsorship? Canberra Raiders! Presentations from two company executives, one about how good the company is and one about the product? Oh yes.

Howard Chen, managing director of the Consumer Business Group at Huawei Australia, riffed nebulously off the company’s slogan, “Make it possible”.

“It’s not just a slogan, it’s a mantra for us at Huawei. It’s not about claiming to do the impossible but the magic that is created when we used our imagination and expertise to push the limits. ‘Make it possible’ is about creating the amazing,” he said.

Jephix Liu, head of portfolio management, ran through the Mate7’s features. There  are all the features you’d expect in this season’s flagship models. With a six-inch screen, the Mate7 is pitched against Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4, and it compares well.

Most striking for me were the power management features. The Mate7 has an eight-core processor, four larger ones running at 1.8GHz and four smaller ones at 1.3GHz, activated in different configurations depending on the need. That’s combined with a 4100mAh Li-Polymer battery, compared with 2915mAh in the iPhone 6 Plus, and 3220mAh in the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. For many users, that could be decisive.

Liu also delivered the alarming news that we spend up to 30 hours a year unlocking our smartphones — 150 times a day — so the fingerprint reader will be our saviour. I’m not convinced.

The initial consensus among the tech journos I spoke to was that the Mate7 had the potential to do good things for Huawei. The company has also hit the bottom end of the market with a $99 smartphone and a range of devices in between.

As for the negatives, Huawei has continued to face allegations that its network equipment allows access by the Chinese government and the PLA. Both American and Australian authorities have indicated that they have evidence, although Huawei’s global cybersecurity officer, John Suffolk — one-time chief information officer and chief information security officer of the UK government — has described the comments as “tired, unsubstantiated, defamatory”.

Either way, security doesn’t seem to concern consumers — and any smartphone running Google’s Android operating system is equally vulnerable to the threats against that platform.

Huawei certainly has a range of products to rival Apple, Samsung and, in fourth place, Microsoft. The rest will be down to their marketing strategy and the vibe.

Disclosure: Journalists were told that they did not have to return their Ascend Mate7 evaluation units.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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