First Read

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Huawei Wants to Be America's Next Big Smartphone Company

The company is aiming for U.S. consumers with more products, longer warranties, dedicated support and chutzpah. That could be a winning combination.

Huawei smartphones

NEW YORK—At a press gala here for its new $249 unlocked P8 Lite smartphone for U.S. consumers, Zhiqiang Xu, the president of Huawei Device USA, made a very bold statement.

His mission, he told the 75 or so journalists in the room on June 2, is "in the next five years [to] reach the position as a top three player in the U.S. smartphone market." Well, that's pretty interesting and I bet Samsung, Apple and Lenovo, the top three today, are listening intently.

Why is that so, you may ask? Why would Samsung, Apple and Lenovo worry much about a company like Huawei, which is little known in the U.S. even though it has been selling its own branded and white-labeled smartphones around the world for about a decade?

Because when a company builds something worth buying, consumers do start to get interested, even if it comes from a Chinese company that has been struggling to crack the U.S. market due to suspicions and intrigue about buying electronics from a Communist nation.

Having just perused, held and tried out a new P8 Lite smartphone while attending the New York event, another long-ago marketing scenario popped into my mind as I stood in the room. In the U.S., right after World War II, a war-tired nation began buying Volkswagen Beetles starting with only two cars in 1949. By 1973, millions of Beetles were driving on American roads—all from a nation with which we had been at war only a few decades before.

My gut feeling at the moment is that Huawei could be another Volkswagen, introducing an affordable line of products with good reliability, good performance and just the right combination of luck and savvy marketing.

Xu said his company is committed to being in the U.S. and that it plans to launch more unlocked phones and other products—it will certainly be interesting to watch.

Avi Greengart, a mobile analyst for research firm Current Analysis, told me at the event that Xu's goal of being a top three player in the U.S. market within five years is ambitious and aggressive, but one worth watching. "In five years, anything could happen," said Greengart. "If they'd have said two to three years I would have laughed out loud. Five years? Who knows? They've got the resources and they are clearly paying attention to the local market."

Greengart said he was impressed that Huawei doubled the standard industry warranty to two years on the new P8 Lite and that it is promising U.S.-based support and service to calm the worries of buyers. Also wise, he said, is that the devices will be offered through trusted retailers like Amazon.

"They are addressing U.S. consumer fears of buying something from a Chinese company that they've never heard of," said Greengart. "That's not just smart, but it shows they are attempting to show what the issues are and trying to resolve them."

We'll have to see how this turns out.