Did Cheap Chinese Knockoff Phones Lead To The Arab Spring?

from the butterfly-effect dept

Last year, we wrote about how companies in China were creating really innovative mobile phones and devices, in large part because they were ignoring intellectual property laws, and could mix and match the best of everything out there. I didn't quite know what was behind the scenes as the "guts" of such phones, but Fast Company has a fascinating story, about how the massive revolution in cheap Chinese knockoff mobile phones is a result of a Taiwanese firm called MediaTek, coming out with a "mobile-phone-in-a-box" single chipset that anyone could use to make mobile phones. Buy the chipsets, build a case around it, throw on some software, and you've got a phone. What's interesting is the suggestion that this device may have eventually contributed to the Arab Spring.

Basically, the quick version of the story is that the MediaTek chipsets made it easy for "shanzai" to become massive mobile phone makers and sellers overnight. They would take the chipset, knock off features from other phones, or add a few features themselves, and, voila, a phone. As one person quoted in the article notes, you used to need a giant company to build a mobile phone. "But now, a company with five guys can do it." In fact, these firms would make small batches of all different kinds of phones to see how the market reacted. Talk about rapid prototyping and rapid innovation based on direct customer feedback...

However, with MediaTek not supporting more modern 3G mobile networks, it faced growth limits in China, and moved on to India and eventually to the Middle East, where cheap Chinese knockoff phones apparently became quite popular. The story does appear to be missing any direct evidence that the phones were used in the Arab protests, but does point to reports about such phones flooding into the region in the months before. There's certainly a correlation there, though that doesn't mean a causal relationship by any means. Either way, though, it is a fascinating story about how such a "gray market" came into being and changed markets over time.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 16th, 2011 @ 3:39am

    The better question is "Is the Arab spring a good thing"

    Now granted there will never be anything like a Jeffersonian representative system in any of the arab countries as the religion of peace is way to patriarchally authoritarian to allow for that.

    Will the Muslim Brotherhood end up uniting the Muslim word into a new Caliphate as are their stated wishes?

    What will happen to the rest of the world if they are successful?

    Constantinople, Basque Spain, the fall of representative societies?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    justok (profile), Jun 16th, 2011 @ 3:54am


    So, the Chinese secretly installed bots on the phones to send fake messages which incited and inflamed the riots?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 16th, 2011 @ 5:00am

    You may as well claim that Chinese made BBQ duck neck caused the revolution. Talk about tortured logic to try to find a connection.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 16th, 2011 @ 6:13am

    Fancy That -- Innovation

    Take away the patent lawyers and what do you get -- a burst of innovation. Little companies come out of nowhere and try a whole bunch of things and see what sticks. Where do you think the next burst of innovation is going to come from? Companies in USA held back by patent lawyers? Or companies in China not held back by patent lawyers?

    Read the writing on the wall, Americans. It is time to get rid of the patent lawyers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      DannyB (profile), Jun 16th, 2011 @ 8:00am

      Re: China starting to use the US patent system

      You only gave two choices. I'd like to offer a third.

      Chinese companies not held back by patent lawyers, while using patent lawyers in the US to hold back US companies.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 16th, 2011 @ 8:25am

    "Did Cheap Chinese Knockoff Phones Lead To The Arab Spring?"

    Give me a break, the Chinese phones aren't the cheap knockoffs, the American phones are the expensive knockoffs of the Chineses cheaper and superior phones. China isn't copying the U.S., we're copying them and raising the prices on a worse product.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Jun 16th, 2011 @ 8:36am


      and this is partly (mostly) why products come out in China before the U.S. Companies know that they can release new and innovative products in China without worrying much about patents and so they can try different things until something is a success. Trying different things in the U.S. requires a lot of expensive licensing efforts first because without such efforts, one would get sued. So companies try many many things in the Chinese market. Most of which fail. But if something does good in the Chinese market, that's a good indication that it will likely do good in other markets (as long as it's success isn't culture specific to that market of course). Then, after it does well in the Chinese market and (U.S. or International) companies have determined that it's success isn't strongly culture specific to that culture, companies will be willing to spend the necessary money to acquire the necessary U.S. patents and get the necessary licenses in order to be able to introduce it into the U.S. market and not get sued. But trial and error is too expensive (and risky) in the U.S., since every trial requires acquiring new expensive patents and licenses to avoid being sued and most trials are going to fail, and so no real innovation happens here.

      I used to hear all of these bogus reasons why products are first released in China and elsewhere before they are ever released in the U.S. I heard the excuse "but it's because the U.S. demand might be so high that companies have to make sure that they can compensate before they officially release something in the U.S." and I've heard all sorts of other bogus excuses. This is the true reason that the media doesn't want you to know.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Snidely, Jun 16th, 2011 @ 8:48am

    Success has many fathers

    The short answer to your question is no. The mobile phone penetration in those Arab countries was very high prior to the revolutions so people had lots of phones before the Chinese cloners showed up.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Rich Fiscus (profile), Jun 16th, 2011 @ 2:51pm

    >> Either way, though, it is a fascinating story about how such a "gray market"
    >> came into being and changed markets over time.

    You don't have to look any further than the US to see the affect of Chinese gray market products. DVD player sales didn't take off until cheap unlicensed Chinese players became available. It was around 2 years later when the Chinese government finally brokered a deal for manufacturers to pay (significantly reduced) royalties on DVD players. It's entirely possible that without those cheap players it would have taken many more years for DVDs to become mainstream technology. Or it might not have happened at all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Jun 16th, 2011 @ 7:39pm

    To Those Who Think Taking Up Arms Against The Government Is The Way To Bring It Down...

    Some have claimed that “the right to bear arms” is justified because it gives you protection against a tyrannical Government. Yet history gives the lie to that: the most successful revolutions tend to be the peaceful ones. This is because when the Government fires on unarmed protestors, it is the Government that looks bad. But when the rebels are shooting at the Government, nobody can blame the Government for shooting back.

    Look at Tunisia, look at Egypt, look at Syria; all largely peaceful uprisings, two dictatorships successfully overthrown and the third showing signs of cracking.

    Yemen and Libya are examples of what happens when the rebels are armed. Yemen could yet turn completely nasty, Somalia-style. Libya ... well, that’s an interesting case.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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