Tech Transformers

Could Chinese handset makers steal the show at MWC?

Mobile World Congress is normally dominated by Samsung headlines, but this year, Chinese smartphone makers are angling to steal the limelight, reflecting a shift in the global market.

The rise of the Chinese smartphone maker has been rapid and in the fourth quarter of 2014, three domestic players - Huawei, Xiaomi and Lenovo - were among top 5 vendors in the world, according to market research company IDC.

Xiaomi made a splash last year, knocking Samsung off the top spot in China, and seeing 178 percent year-on-year shipment growth in the final quarter of last year. Chinese companies have made a name for themselves by offering high-spec smartphones at low prices.

"We have moved past the Chinese companies being followers to being leaders," Michael O'Hara, chief marketing officer at MWC organizer GSMA, told CNBC by phone. He added that Chinese electronics giant Huawei has one of the biggest stands at the event.



Major Chinese companies like Lenovo, Huawei and ZTE, are all set to make product announcements at the show in the hope that this will help them tap the European market. Lenovo will be there in more than one way after its $2.9 billion acquisition of Motorola's mobile phone unit last year.

However, industry-watchers say that despite a large presence in Barcelona, Chinese manufacturers are still "underrepresented" compared with their "importance in the handset market".

"Shipments are still going into the China domestic market and that is why they (Chinese smartphone makers) haven't ramped up MWC coverage," Ian Fogg, head of mobile at IHS, told CNBC by phone.

"But as they look overseas, we will see more China-based players making big announcements at MWC."

China is the world's largest smartphone market and Xiaomi sells over 90 percent of its devices there. But Chinese companies have hinted at European expansion, though this might not necessarily come through their own brands, analysts said. These companies could launch new brands to tap the European market.

Lenovo, for example, has Motorola under its wing, while a device called OnePlus, is part of the wider Chinese electronics company Oppo. The Alcatel One Touch smartphone, which is marketed at the low-end European market, is owned by China's TCL Communications.

"MWC will be an essential place to be for China's companies but they won't use the same brand internationally as they will in China," Fogg said.

'Next wave' of players

Xiaomi a Samsung strangler?

As well as China's smartphone titans, other companies lesser known to Western audiences will also be hoping to make a name at the Barcelona showcase.

Gionee – the company that claims to make the world's thinnest smartphone – has a new device launch scheduled, while Meizu, the tiny device maker that Alibaba pumped $590 million dollars in will also be present.

China's smartphone market has been slowing in recent months, with the number of units sold in the fourth quarter remaining flat compared with the same time the year before, according to data from Gfk.

Neil Mawston, executive director at Strategy Analytics, said established players Xiaomi and Huawei have peaked, and it's the up and comers to keep an eye on.

"Xiaomi looks like it has peaked, Lenovo looks the same and are in a stage of facing off the competition. The best days of growth are behind them," Mawston told CNBC by phone.

"You are looking for the next wave of Chinese players coming up."