Just Because Something's Fake Doesn't Mean It Can't Be Innovative

from the is-this-the-future-of-business? dept

The term “shanzhai” literally means a fortified mountain village, and originally meant those places in China that were outside government control, and hence not subject to its law. Today, by extension, it refers to Chinese outfits producing counterfeit goods that ignore intellectual monopolies like patents.

Here’s a great 2009 post from the hacker Andrew “bunnie” Huang about the shanzhai world:

The contemporary shanzhai are rebellious, individualistic, underground, and self-empowered innovators. They are rebellious in the sense that the shanzhai are celebrated for their copycat products; they are the producers of the notorious knock-offs of the iPhone and so forth. They individualistic in the sense that they have a visceral dislike for the large companies; many of the shanzhai themselves used to be employees of large companies (both US and Asian) who departed because they were frustrated at the inefficiency of their former employers. They are underground in the sense that once a shanzhai “goes legit” and starts doing business through traditional retail channels, they are no longer considered to be in the fraternity of the shanzai. They are self-empowered in the sense that they are universally tiny operations, bootstrapped on minimal capital, and they run with the attitude of “if you can do it, then I can as well”.

As Techdirt noted a couple of years ago, precisely because they are not bound by traditional legal constraints, shanzhai companies are often highly innovative. Here’s a more recent example of a company going well beyond the product it is copying:

The designers behind this Shanzhai Nokia N9 smartphone have completely gotten around the problem of which operating system they should use and have opted to use 7 different UI?s!

Ok then this clone of Nokia?s top of the range smartphone doesn?t actually run Meego, iOS 5.0, HTC Sense, Symbian, Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry and even Smasung?s TouchWiz, but has been given optional skins to make the installed OS look like one of the popular mobile operating systems.

Obviously, that’s not something traditional companies could try, but that’s the point: the laws that are supposedly promoting innovation actually hamper it in significant ways. In his post, Huang wrote that shanzhai “may have something in common with Hewlett and Packard or Jobs and Wozniak back when they were working out of garages”, and went on to suggest that the future of business for much of the world could lie in these modern kinds of fortified mountain villages:

I always had a theory that at some point, the amount of knowledge and the scale of the markets in the area would reach a critical mass where the Chinese would stop being simply workers or copiers, and would take control of their own destiny and become creators and ultimately innovation leaders. I think it has begun ? these stories I?m hearing of the shanzhai and the mashup they produce are just the beginning of a hockey stick that has the potential to change the way business is done, perhaps not in the US, but certainly in that massive, untapped market often referred to as the “rest of the world”.

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Comments on “Just Because Something's Fake Doesn't Mean It Can't Be Innovative”

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Rikuo (profile) says:

“Ok then this clone of Nokia?s top of the range smartphone doesn?t actually run Meego, iOS 5.0, HTC Sense, Symbian, Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry and even Smasung?s TouchWiz, but has been given optional skins to make the installed OS look like one of the popular mobile operating systems. “

So your example of innovation that is being blocked by stupid patent/trademark laws…is a bunch of skins for a smartphone?
Just so you know, I do agree with the message of your article; but please, in the future, provide a better example. If the phone was actually capable of all these different OS’s, that would have gotten me excited.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

For lots of people that don’t actually install anything on those shanzhai phones, only the non-buggy UI matters.

Who knows what the underlying system is as long as they looks and touches the same.

I’d argue that for people who don’t use their phone as gaming platform, as long as the preinstalled software is enough, there little temptation to download more elsewhere.

out_of_the_blue says:

"not bound by traditional legal constraints" -- Barbarians, then.

They might do anything. Adhering to reasonable constraint of laws is the emblem of civilization, as is requiring others to. I’m sure you who style yourself “pirates” will say they’re only opposing UNreasonable laws, but I take not “traditional” as implying these guys are far outside common law.

And “individualistic … innovators … celebrated for their copycat products”. — Self-contradictory nonsense.

You pretty much define them as mere grifters on name-brands, then. — And where do you go to get your money back when these gadgets are imperfect or break?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: "not bound by traditional legal constraints" -- Barbarians, then.

not really, its the same logic they use in Louisiana to not teach kids about Sex. Instead they rely on abstinence programs.
Their logic is, if kids learn about safe sex, they might do anything with that knowledge like…have safe sex.
Logic is great

dwg says:

Re: Re: Re: "not bound by traditional legal constraints" -- Barbarians, then.

Your argument, though, was that because someone refuses to adhere to one law or set of laws, one “might do anything.” Your Louisiana example states only that someone taught to do something might do it. Your reductio argues that someone who refuses to do one thing is a potential berzerker. See how those don’t line up, you know, logically?

Something else: your use of “might” is a give-away. Someone taught about safe sex might have safe sex. He or she might also have unsafe sex, or abstain. Someone who disobeys certain laws might disobey others, or might obey all others. You’re really not even making an argument, even though you seem to be trying to. The fact is that these people have disobeyed certain laws and that’s all you know about them. So…this story is not a good poster child for the coming of anarchy, even in tiny pockets of China.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "not bound by traditional legal constraints" -- Barbarians, then.

“where do you go to get your money back when these gadgets are imperfect or break?”

Your dealer. Usually, you do not get your money back, but your dealer has heard your complaint. Due to the lack of IP laws driving up the price, the devices are ridiculously cheap. When they break, and they will, you just go buy the latest model. The glorious free market will get rid of the defective products, as a natural part of its operation. The dealers in these products do not want to handle bad products, so they are subject experts. So anybody making bad products soon finds themselves unpopular amongst the dealers, then the bad maker is doomed.

This is the thing that the stupid politicians do not understand. Then they foolishly hand out monopoly privileges, which puts a spanner in the gears of the free market. Free commercial competition, that is what will get your economy singing. Monopolies are bad and will damage your economy. Yet the politicians keep claiming they want jobs, while killing jobs by handing out monopolies and spending money like drunken sailors. Vote the bums out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Because it address the customer’s need. There is a reason why Win7 skin for WinXP is popular, because people got feel it’s amazing this way.


Talking about selling products, usually the more you add to the visible part, the greater difference the sales you make.

The look of UI is one of the most visible part of mobile phones. And now no matter what your habit of using the system is (the Symbian way, or iPhone way), you don’t need to learn a new way to switch to this mobile.

Got the point?

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