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Meet Obi: Ex-Apple CEO's new smartphone brand

Obi Mobiles

Obi Mobiles, the new kid on the smartphone block, was launched by co-founder and former Apple CEO John Sculley in Singapore on Thursday as part of the brand's global rollout.

With devices priced between $70 and $200, Obi aims to capture a market ignored by Apple, but served by several low-cost Chinese manufactures including Xiaomi and Lenovo: youth in emerging markets.

While the Android-powered handsets, which are made in China, offer similar specifications to other budget phones available in the market, Sculley says Obi will differentiate through distinctive design, branding and an extensive distribution network globally.

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Obi Mobiles has recruited several Apple alumni for its design and marketing teams including Robert Brunner – the former director of industrial design at Apple and chief designer behind Beats Electronics.

"We are very focused on the younger (13 to 24 year old) consumers - many may aspire to an iPhone because it's a beautiful product, but they may not have hundreds of dollars," Sculley said.

To address needs of the youth, top-quality audio and extended battery life will be key features of Obi devices, he said.

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Obi phones are currently available in India and the Middle East, and will be sold in Singapore via e-commerce site Lazada on November 11. The company aims to complete the rollout of its brand in the rest of Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America by mid-2015.

Launch timing 'perfect'

Obi's launch comes amid intensifying competition in the smartphone market, but Sculley says the timing couldn't be better.

"The reason we're excited about Obi is that right now in emerging markets around the world smartphones are seeing very high growth adoption [as consumers] go from feature phones to smartphones," he said.

At the same, the technology for mobile devices is becoming commoditized, so the ability to offer high quality products at a very affordable cost "has never been better than it is right now," he said.

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Analysts aren't quite as convinced on the timing, however.

"I would have been more confident a year ago, if they had come with the same strategy. Now there are many options available at [a similar] price point, and consumers are spoilt for choice with options available from local, global and Chinese players in the market," said Kiranjeet Kaur, senior market analyst at IDC Asia/Pacific.

Nevertheless, John Sculley's backing helps strengthen the credibility of the brand, just as Hugo Barra lends a strong brand name to Xiaomi, Kaur said.

What would Steve Jobs say?

When asked how Apple's late founder, Steve Jobs would have reacted to Obi, Sculley said, "for Steve Jobs, nothing was ever good enough he was the toughest critic of his own work as well as anyone else's."

"But I think the idea of making products that are incredibly affordable is something that he would have respect for, as long as they were well designed," he said.

Sculley was at the helm of Apple from 1983 until 1993, when he was forced out by the company's board. Since then, he has been an active investor and director in several high-tech companies.