PARTNER CONTENT: HONOR CEO George Zhao used his keynote at MWC23 Shanghai to articulate the company’s long-term strategy to reinvigorate its smartphone innovation cycle.

In a Q&A with GSMA CEO and director John Hoffman on Day 2 of the event, Zhao argued current smartphone technology and innovation faces many challenges, forcing all vendors to consider how to break through the bottlenecks and discover the next big thing.

Handset makers today may make changes, for example, to the finish, colour, design or camera modules, he stated. “There are some improvements, but from my perspective, that is totally not enough.”

He declared companies can no longer go the traditional way, urging changing the philosophy toward innovation, finding new reference points and injecting totally new ideas to revitalise innovation.

“We have to change the way we design the smartphone by looking at what the customer needs, taking a human-centric approach. We can’t rely too much on today’s technologies or today’s smartphones.”

Idea generation
Zhao suggested looking for inspiration from adjacent sectors as well other industries for new ideas, designs and materials.

By not previously working in the device and tech sector, Zhao believes he has fewer boundaries than executives who have spent decades working on phones.  Before moving into handsets, he worked in infrastructure, with experience in the UK, Switzerland and Germany.

“Each industry can offer fresh ideas and solutions. You cannot just focus on the things in front of your eyes.”

Advancements in energy technology are just starting to take off, he noted, which will of course support slimmer phones and enable new designs for foldables. “But they should be even more compact and slim.”

He said HONOR was the first to introduce silicon-carbon battery technology.

Boasting about the battery capacity of its Magic Vs model, he noted that despite its slim profile, the battery life is equal or longer than that of traditional designs on the market today.

R&D boost
The company devotes more than 60 per cent of its workforce of 13,000 to R&D. Zhao claimed its R&D investment intensity ranks sixth amongst companies in China.

HONOR has research centres in Beijing, Shenzhen, Xi’an and Nanjing, and Shanghai.

The company also has facilities in Japan conducting research on materials and optical components and in Europe, concentrating on telecoms and camera technologies.

Zhao noted China’s R&D expertise is broad across most sectors, which aids HONOR in combining various capabilities into its products.

In terms of building brand loyalty, he said all vendors and brands want to build their own ecosystem to follow Apple’s path, but it takes a holistic approach.

He tells his R&D team, sales and marketing, and even its manufacturer to build a link with the customer day by day. “For the customer there are so many levels of complication. After they use the product, they tell us what is okay and what is not good. We then consider how to make improvements.”

Next-gen launch
Zhao unveiled plans to release its next-generation foldable model, the HONOR Magic V2, at an event in Beijing on 12 July. He said the new device will set “a new milestone for the smartphone industry”.

The CEO is bullish on the growing segment, stating foldable phones are the future. He predicted the format will go mainstream and become more popular than traditional form factors.

“They can revolutionise innovation. Having three screens, for example, can provide some special new experiences.”

Asked about competitors, he noted “we challenge each other. Competition makes our industry healthier. It helps HONOR and others to develop faster”.

Zhao, however, questioned how the industry can break Apple’s dominance in the high-end segment, adding “As a challenger, we want to catch Apple,” but acknowledged it needs something pretty new.

“I believe there will be some newcomers emerging on the horizon.”

Looking ahead
While many in the industry believe VR and XR technology is the future, the CEO is less effusive. “To be frank, the user experience is still not convincing.”

Apple has given some direction to the sector with its Vision Pro, but Zhao believes  “it still has some ways to go” on elements such as the display, battery and the computing platform, to make it more convenient for consumers.

The CEO said he is “very optimistic” about the future. “I think the obstacles everyone in the industry faces are driving us to jump ahead. Difficulty means opportunity.”

His challenge is to encourage the HONOR team to think in a different way and be sensitive to changes in the industry and to customer needs. By solving the difficult problems, Zhao believes HONOR will rise to a new level, enabling it to compete better than competitors.