Mobile

Life After Huawei: Honor Bids to Become 'Iconic' Global Phone Brand

Honor's Magic 4 Pro is its first high-end flagship phone.
Honor/CNET

What's happening

Breaking free of Huawei has allowed Honor to resurrect its partnerships with Qualcomm, and to make its first high-end flagship phone: the Honor Magic 4 Pro.

Why it matters

After already seeing growth in China, Honor is hoping the Magic 4 Pro will help spur similar growth in Europe, helping it along the road to becoming one of the biggest phone makers in the world.

Formerly youth-focused phone brand Honor is "back," according to the company's CEO, George Zhao. But the Honor that's back is looking a little different from the company we knew before.

Once a subbrand of Chinese tech giant Huawei, Honor parted ways from its parent company in November 2020, when it was sold to Shenzhen Zhixin New Information Technology. Under increasing pressure from US trade sanctions that prevented it from buying American components and using Google Services, Huawei turned to the sale in a bid to keep both Honor and itself from becoming twin sinking ships.

But the decision to sell Honor was about more than just guaranteeing Honor's survival. Setting the company free also has allowed it to stretch its wings and try things it never dreamed of before.

In an interview with CNET, Zhao said his goal is to turn Honor into an iconic global brand.. "The most important thing for us is to develop the flagship product, and the experience should be better than today's most popular smartphone."

That product is the Honor Magic 4 Pro, unveiled last week at MWC in Barcelona. A high-end Android flagship with an intriguing ring-shaped multicamera setup, the Magic 4 Pro is the kind of ambitious device the Honor of 2020 or earlier would never have had the freedom to produce. Breaking free from Huawei has liberated Honor from its original directive, which was to appeal squarely to a youthful audience with the pocket money to buy budget and midrange phones offering value for money. 

For Zhao, independence meant the opportunity to show what he and his team were truly capable of. "Now we are free to enter any area and any price segment."

That doesn't mean Zhao will attempt to make Honor big in the US straight off the bat. For now his target is to grow in Europe, the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Latin America. Only later, when the company has scaled up its R&D capability will it try to crack the ever-tricky North American market.

Foldables and beyond

Already, Honor has made significant progress in China. According to Counterpoint Research, it went from having the fifth largest market share in the country at the beginning of 2021 to claiming second place (jointly with Vivo) by the end of the year.

Its next big challenge will be to replicate that leap in the European market, where it's not even in the top six. Winning customer support through the Magic 4 Pro and other Honor products will be key to making the "double-digit growth" Zhao expects to see this year compared to 2022.

Zhao's first big decisions for Honor as an independent company were in product development. He set his team working on developing its first foldable phone, the Magic V, to show the industry that Honor not only could compete in this product category, but do it better than others.

It'll face challenges. Innovation within the mobile industry has reached something of a bottleneck, said Zhao. The question he's been mulling is how to break out of it. His approach so far has been to value customer needs as highly as technological innovation. He's hoping this will allow Honor to break through that ceiling.

Despite acknowledging ing they're "the most difficult product" to make, Zhao firmly believes that foldable phones will at some point become mainstream – a belief that's creating the demand he said Honor has seen for the Magic V. The phone has a water-drop hinge that Honor says is "the slimmest compared to similar products in the market" and allows the inside tablet screen to be "creaseless." Demand for foldables is pushing Honor to bring them to a wider audience and making the company aspire to be the industry leader in design.

Zhao is also excited about the possibility of virtual reality, augmented reality, AI and other emerging technologies that can be integrated with smartphones. Honor is starting to think about a mixed reality and metaverse-ready product, said Zhao, but the tech isn't mature enough yet. For him, it's all about timing, and for now he's focusing on dominating in existing product categories.

Honor didn't stop at the Honor V last year. It also released a range of phones, tablets, PCs and accessories. All were part of Zhao's bid to prove that "in each area, we can compete with industry leaders," he said. 

With the Magic 4 Pro, his team wanted to show they could offer display, photography and gaming performance similar to that of the iPhone 13 Pro. It's this team, rather than the company's sales or products, that Zhao most is proud of since the company's independence.

"They always pursue the best in class," he said. "They say, Honor can solve these challenges, these difficulties, these problems. This spirit and attitude really is the future [of the company]."

Rekindled relationships

One such difficulty Zhao's team has navigated is the global chip shortage, which has affected all phone makers. The situation has improved, said Zhao, and continues to do so. In the short term, it means Honor had to focus on very specific markets, such as Europe, in order to deliver phones. But as chips become widely available again, the company will be able to cast its net more widely to scoop up market share elsewhere.

Another major benefit of parting ways with Huawei is that Honor can once again join forces with external companies that offer the cutting-edge tech necessary to compete at the top end of the phone market.

Huawei tried its damnedest to wean itself off relying on third-party companies – partly out of desire, partly out of necessity. For many years it exclusively used its homegrown Kirin chipset in its phones. When that supply ran out, it was forced to switch to Qualcomm's Snapdragon chips – although it was restricted to using the 4G versions. The US trade ban that prevented it from buying parts to keep making Kirin also prevented it from continuing to offer Google services, an essential component of any Android phone.

Zhao doesn't have to replicate Huawei's strategy of trying to do everything in-house, nor is he trying to. "Honor will rely on global ecosystem partners," he said. 

Not only are Google services back on Honor phones, but also its high-end flagship Magic 4 phone series is one of the first to be powered by Qualcomm's latest 5G Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 chip. No longer obligated to use Kirin, Honor has resumed its working relationship with Qualcomm, with the companies' R&D departments working more closely together than ever.

Qualcomm President and CEO Cristiano Amon offered his congratulations to Honor on the unveiling of the Magic 4 Series last week. "We're so thankful and proud of the strong collaboration between our two companies, which has led to the development of truly amazing devices," he said in a statement.

If, as it hopes, Honor has harnessed its Qualcomm and Google partnerships to ensure the Magic 4 Pro is one of the most exciting Android phones to be released in 2022, this could be a banner year for the company. Zhao knows he has set his team a difficult challenge, but he believes the rewards are worthwhile. "When we give out a product that's highly praised by the end consumer or by the industry, this feeling is really amazing," he said.