With Huawei out of the picture, Chinese smartphone rivals take the spotlight at MWC

The Oppo Find X5 series on display at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.
Ryan Browne | CNBC

BARCELONA — Huawei’s pain has been fellow Chinese smartphone makers’ gain at the biggest mobile trade show of the year.

Smaller Chinese smartphone brands such as Oppo, Honor and Realme made a splash at Mobile World Congress this week with a slew of new device launches and aggressive international expansion plans.

Oppo launched its new flagship Find X5 Pro, a high-end device that features a white ceramic back with a sleek bump that houses a camera unit developed by Swedish manufacturer Hasselblad.

The Oppo Find X5 Pro starts at a price of 1,299 euros ($1,445), while two more affordable models the Find X5 Lite and Find X5 will retail at 999 euros and 499 euros respectively.

“Oppo is well positioned to take Huawei’s position as a leading Android challenger to Samsung,” said Ben Wood, chief analyst at CCS Insight.

“The company now needs to double down on its marketing to drive consumer awareness of its brand and products.”

Filling the void left by Huawei

Huawei is a shadow of its former self. The company’s smartphone division has shrunk significantly as a result of U.S. sanctions that blocked the company from sourcing key semiconductor equipment and software, including the licensed version of Google’s Android operating system.

That’s given domestic rivals like Oppo, Honor and Realme a chance to shine in Europe and other international markets that promise fast growth and sizable audiences for alternatives to Apple’s iPhone.

Realme this week launched the GT 2 Pro, its first debut of a premium smartphone beyond its home market.

Developed in partnership with Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa, the handset is made from a bio-polymer material that’s meant to feel like paper and, according to the firm, is environmentally friendly.

The GT 2 Pro will retail for $800, while a standard version will cost about $600.

Smartphones on display at Qualcomm’s MWC stand.
Ryan Browne | CNBC

“In the European market, as well as any other market, we position ourselves as providing affordable phones with outstanding performance and trendy design,” Realme CEO Sky Li told CNBC last week.

Both Oppo and Realme are owned by Chinese tech conglomerate BBK Electronics. They’re competing with fellow Chinese firm Xiaomi, which did not launch a new flagship at this year’s MWC, as well as Samsung and Apple.

Honor, meanwhile, launched the Honor Magic4 Pro, a new flagship device which the firm says can reach a full charge within 30 minutes.

The Magic4 Pro will start at 1,100 euros, while a less expensive Magic 4 will cost 900 euros.

Honor was recently split off from Huawei as part of a divestment deal aimed at protecting it from the fallout of U.S. sanctions on the Chinese tech giant.

The likes of Xiaomi and Oppo gained ground on Apple and Samsung in 2021, as Huawei slipped down the ranks of the world’s top smartphone makers.

Xiaomi sold 190 million handsets globally last year, up 31% from 2020, according to Counterpoint Research, while Oppo grew its shipments by 28% to 143 million units.

Xiaomi’s Mobile World Congress exhibition.
Ryan Browne | CNBC

Honor is also regaining market share in China, becoming the third-biggest player in the sector domestically for the first time in August, according to Counterpoint data.

To be sure, Huawei still makes its own phones. The company recently launched the P50 Pocket, a clamshell-style folding phone, in international markets. However, its sales performance outside China has been heavily diminished.

On Tuesday, Huawei’s rotating chairman, Guo Ping, said the company remains committed to its overseas markets.

“Will Huawei retreat from the international market? Our answer continues to be ‘no,'” he told MWC attendees in a pre-recorded speech. “We will continue our globalization strategy, in standards, talent, supply chain, and more.”

– CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report

Sophie Tremblay

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