In 2012 I attended a Huawei smartphone launch at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. I don’t remember which device it was; what I remember was the bullish forecast Richard Yu, CEO of the vendor’s consumer business group, put on device shipments and the response from the assembled throng.
The Huawei devices chief was, as it happens, a little optimistic. He was aiming for 60 million smartphone shipments in 2012: in fact it took Huawei until 2014 to reach this milestone. However, the vendor kept going ever since, shipping 139 million smartphones in 2016.
Some of the less internationally minded press seemed to be unimpressed the majority of its shipments would come from its home market, as if shifting tens of millions of units in China was easy. It is a tough market, with a number of aggressive home-grown competitors battling with global players – and Huawei is still driving on.
My nostalgia was prompted by attending the company’s Chinese unveiling of its MateBook line during CES Asia 2017. Although these are not Huawei’s first computers, and even though the devices saw the light of day a few weeks before, the event was significant for the company as it moves into another tough segment.
The computer market is not for the faint hearted, with rivals such as HP, Lenovo, Dell, Acer and Apple all staking claims on what is far from a high-growth sector.
Despite the fierce competition, Wan Biao, COO of Huawei’s consumer unit (pictured, left), sees an opportunity. In a briefing with journalists, he said the laptop market “lacked innovation”, which means there are few products capturing consumer attention. This contrasts with the smartphone market, where annual product refreshes mean vendors typically push forward with new flagships.
“I believe in the future, various innovations and new technologies including AI, AR and VR will see the laptop market take off again,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, he was keen to point out the advantages Huawei has to hand, which arguably only Apple can rival across the PC and smartphone sectors.
“We believe with the introduction of new technologies, and the sharing of capabilities between different smart devices, we will have big opportunities,” he said.
He noted integrated fingerprint sensors, circuit design, power control and Wi-Fi technology as examples of areas where smartphone learning can feed into the laptop segment.
“Huawei’s capabilities in network equipment, including always-on connection capabilities in the 4G and 5G era, as well as all the capabilities we accumulated in developing smartphones, can all be used in laptop build,” Wan continued.
Of course, the new portfolio of MateBook products is not Huawei’s first foray into the laptop market, and the executive would not be drawn on the performance of its first generation devices beyond stating they “met our performance expectations, be it from the perspective of word of mouth, or the acceptance level from consumers”.
Interestingly, he also said that unlike in the smartphone market where Huawei started out mid-tier and pushed up to become a viable top-tier competitor, its laptop focus is firmly at the high-end.
“We want to play a leading role in the global market. But we aren’t trying to do so by selling a product at a very low price to guarantee a very big market.”
What I learned in Barcelona in 2012 is that Huawei’s devices business has high aspirations and, while sometimes the timings are a little awry, the desire to achieve its goals is unyielding. Huawei spent time and money to get to the top-tier of smartphone vendors, and there is little sign it is losing momentum.
With this in mind, it seems short-sighted to peg it as just another also-ran in the tough PC market – but it is going to be a long, and difficult, journey.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.