U.S. consumers are getting familiar with the names Alibaba and Tencent as China's Internet giants expand westward. Huawei is the next Chinese tech powerhouse hoping its products soon find their way into the American psyche by way of retail shelves.
Long known for its ongoing battles with Cisco and Alcatel-Lucent in networking and infrastructure, Huawei has spent the past four years building a smartphone business using Google's Android operating system. In fact, Huawei was the third-biggest global smartphone vendor in the third quarter of 2014, with 5.3 percent of the market, according to Gartner,
But while consumers in Asia and Europe may know the brand, Americans have seen little of Huawei. The U.S. market is dominated by Apple and Samsung, and includes a number of devices from Motorola, LG and even BlackBerry. Huawei's presence has been limited to white-labeling under carrier names and selling its branded phones through small carriers like Cricket Wireless.
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The Shenzhen-based company expects that to change. While it's not saying which of the top service providers will jump first, Huawei says this will be the year that its own branded smartphones reach one or more major U.S. phone companies. Additional phones from Huawei's discount Honor brand will also be sold.
"We had to prove ourselves," said Bill Plummer, Huawei's vice president of external affairs, in an interview. Plummer, who's based in Washington, D.C., said the smartphone push is part of an overall investment in U.S. branding and marketing. "The company is coming of age in terms of building a brand. That's a huge priority."
Huawei's approach to the U.S. is very different from the strategies pursued by Alibaba and Tencent. Those companies have been acquiring or investing in start-ups that give them access to the U.S. market, or partnering with businesses that can help with distribution. For example, Alibaba announced a deal last week with LendingClub to help U.S. small businesses get the credit necessary for purchases on Alibaba.com.
Smartphones are a tough business. In addition to the price war that's making devices ever cheaper, success requires forging tight relationships with the big carriers, who handle much of the promotion and shelf placement in their stores.
And Huawei is not alone among Chinese vendors trying to tackle the U.S. Xiaomi, often described as the Apple of China, is neck and neck with Huawei in terms of global shipments and is also said to be preparing a run at the U.S. market. In 2013, Xiaomi hired Hugo Barra, who was a vice president in Google's Android unit, to run the company's global division.