Huawei wants to change your mind about its smartphones, and it's working

The Chinese company has become a world leader in smartphones in recent years, eschewing its humble, budget-phone-centric roots.

Based in China's electronic hub of Shenzhen, Huawei has long aimed to be a global brand, and over the last few years has worked hard to shake off first impressions from its early budget phones.

The company started off as a telecoms equipment provider, as well as a maker of Wi-Fi dongles, before entering the phone market with cheap handsets. But the last few years have seen Huawei impress with premium flagship devices like the dual-camera Huawei P9 and the Nexus 6P, which it collaborated with Google on.

And it's found great success, toppling foes like Xiaomi and Lenovo to claim the number one position in China, as well as clinching the number three spot in global rankings, according to a report by IDC Research this year.

"We don't want the consumers to just love our price tag, we want our consumers to love our product," Clement Wong, Huawei's VP for global product marketing, said of the company's move into the premium space. "We're quite solid, we may not take a rocket to the moon, but we're focused on making the product good."

The company certainly has made strides to differentiate itself in a competitive market. For instance, it partnered with Leica, a prestigious photography brand out of Germany, on the aforementioned P9. Huawei had to battle accusations it was just licensing the Leica brand name -- both companies issued statements denying this -- and had to deal with botched social marketing efforts, but the result is undeniable. The dual-camera device takes some of the best photos CNET has seen a smartphone take.

"One of the keys to the company's revival has been a big change in Chinese consumer perception -- Huawei's phones are no longer viewed as embarrassing cheap low-end products, but instead as higher-end devices," said IDC's Bryan Ma.

Big in the world

Huawei employs a large amount of staff -- over 176,000 globally, with 40,000 foreign employees located around the world. The company invests plenty of cash, to the tune of about $6.4 billion, in research and development centers, although many of these are devoted to its telecoms business.

This 1-kilometer-long building is Huawei's research and development center in Shanghai which opened in 2010.

Huawei

These international investments seem to have paid off, with Huawei finding a second home in Europe. According to IDC's Ma, the bulk of Huawei's shipments are in China, accounting for around 60 percent, but the next biggest region is the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa), where the company ships 20 percent of its phones.

Huawei currently has a market share of around 18 percent in Spain and 19 percent in Finland, and the company is looking towards the growing Asia Pacific market as the next battleground.

"The Asia Pacific is critical for us to be successful, the top markets there to grow are Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines," said Colin Giles, vice president of Huawei's consumer group. "We've done well in Myanmar, too."

The former Nokia and Motorola exec told CNET that besides Southeast Asia, India was another market that the company is looking at. That's no surprise, as India is the biggest market for Chinese companies after China, and Huawei isn't shy about trying to take on current leader Samsung and homegrown champion Micromax.

Unfortunately for the company, the US remains a tough nut to crack. Huawei doesn't have the best relationship with the US government, with lawmakers in the country banning the company from selling smartphones in 2012 due to its background in Chinese telecommunications. But Huawei is confident it can overcome this, and leverage its carrier relationships to help move devices. Alternatively, it's not afraid to offer smartphones without contract. The company wants to make it as easy as possible for US consumers to see the proof in the proverbial pudding.

As Huawei continues its new path of global dominance, pushing aside favourites such as Xiaomi, the next big thing may not be a $60 billion startup, but an almost 30-year old telecoms company that seems to have finally found its groove.

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