How to make your own fake iPhone in China

News that a group of enterprising Shanghainese individuals had been caught cobbling together fake iPhones from genuine parts and flogging them off on the streets of China reminded me of my days sourcing cellphones from this part of the world.

A few years back I was engaged in a project to buy cheap mobiles from a group of State Owned Enterprises and ship them off around EMEA, where they’d be bundled for sale with VoIP network minutes.

My mission was to find the best featurephones on offer and reconfigure them to provide alternative network calling via some clever little application layer hacks. My objectives were: a) secure the best phones at the lowest cost; and b) ensure that the SOE did all the development work for free. This all took place in an age before touchscreen smartphones, a time when the coolest app you could buy was Worldmate for Symbian UIQ .

As the vendor was a group of SOEs spread throughout the South and East of China I spent a lot of time traveling to many and various R&D centres and OEM factories. At each one I would be shown a range of mobiles and run a gamut of sales directors, account managers and engineers keen for business. Eventually I’d establish a shortlist of suppliers, then settle down with each one to thrash out some kind of deal.

Naturally this devolved into a battle of wits where I sought the lowest position for the stakeholders I represented and the SOEs fought for the highest possible price to maximise their own profit (and no doubt recompense the unwieldy chain of agents and middlemen who had made ‘introductions’). These meetings were painful and lasted many hours.

By way of preparation, perhaps the most useful ammunition to obtain in advance of negotiation was the Bill of Materials. Knowing each and every component and its associated cost was a surefire way to establish a reasonable Factory Gate price for a device. In most circumstances, short of bribery, there’s no easy way to come by such intel.  Fortunately, buying large shipments of cellphones in China there is one great shortcut that can help the novice negotiator discover the base manufacturing cost of a mobile: go out and make your own copy of the phone.

Guangzhou has a great wholesale mobile market located down by the river in the old town, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of hooky goods. I like to think that this is the place the expression ‘fell off the back of a factory’ originated. Because the models that I was interested in were generally in mass production and available in the local mobile and electronic malls it was no trouble to walk into the market with a sample and say, “Hey, I want to buy every component of one of these, enough to make ten pieces please.”

It was the laziest form of reverse engineering you could imagine.

An hour later I’d be on the way back to the hotel clutching a couple of plastic bags stuffed full of boards, housing, screens, chipsets, keypads, ribbon connectors and batteries; a few hundred dollars lighter perhaps but happy in the knowledge that I could sit down and work out a rough BoM list from the materials in my possession.

Before the first contract meeting with one of the OEMs I’d pack up an unassembled mobile in a ziploc bag and make sure the opposing Account Manager saw it, maybe over some tea and cigarette glad-handing. He’d know I had a well-informed idea of the per piece price and we could all forget about any Fresh Off the Boat Foreigner shenanigans.

Many Tier One and Tier Two Chinese cities have a mobile market like the one in Guangzhou. Though prices might vary, stock doesn’t. I haven’t been to one of these places for a few years but on my last visit it was still possible to buy each and every component for each and every late model mobile phone that was manufactured locally. Heck, Nokia chipsets could be bought on a roll.

If you feel like an adventure, I’m sure you could go and make your own iPhone.

Image: Canton365

Putting innovation in the too hard basket

Mobile Industry Review’s Ewan MacLeod posted a good early-morning thought today. Following a 4:00AM pick-up call from a taxi driver he wondered why it was not possible for his mobile network to provide him with contextual information about an incoming call rather than a caller’s number, or worse, the Withheld announcement:

“..surely there’s a way of easily plugging this stuff all together? The fact that I approved the call? The fact that the taxi firm HAVE my mobile details — couldn’t they be ‘approved’ to be able to display status and context to my phone, rather than the default number?

Is a call even necessary? Couldn’t the phone just turn green? Or flash red? Especially if the device knows I’m awake and operational, I certainly don’t need an interruption beyond ‘your taxi is here’. Like a growl update.

And if you do need to interrupt, do it with some kind of contextual information rather than a phone number.

Alas, I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like this from the mobile operator — despite the operator playing the role as the ultimate trusted party in the value chain.”

This is a great thought though not a new one. Ewan is not the first person to highlight the lack of mobile operator support for useful calling features, one wonders why such value-adds have not been delivered in IMS-RCS deployments, context aware caller info seems to be a perfect use case for the Rich Communication Suite.

I suspect this has a lot to do with being ‘too hard’ from a legal perspective. First comment on Ewan’s post (from someone in the banking industry) immediately flags up compliance issues and I can imagine that this mindset has a very loud and influential voice in the offices of many mobile operators. Shame.

Of course it’s also hard to build such a feature into off-net calls where a third party is used for terminations – not an insurmountable problem, but certainly a crunchy one.

However, an all IP comms network with some sensible opt-in rules might find that adding contextual information to calls becomes a useful and popular feature, maybe this is something that Skype should have implemented an age ago.

If this feature is not part of your Unified Communications strategy, think again.

Image: GreenSmith Consulting

What is a Mobile Ecosystem?


I don’t know who first used the term ‘ecosystem’ to describe a technology platform and its dependent products and services but in my view this triumphant buzzword does a considerable disservice to the customer. Allow me to climb up on my battered soapbox for a minute or two and explain my thinking.

When I read ‘ecosystem’ what’s most often meant is ‘one-stop shop’ – the idea of holistic service provision – yet the latter phrase is never used because, paradoxically, it is too simplistic. The fact that the sexier of the two terms has been chosen to describe the most complex relationship a customer has had with a technical product (to date) screams of intellectual dishonesty.

This laziness of thought perpetuates the hype unquestioning of implication. The same mindset drives a ten mile round-trip to the Farmer’s Market each weekend to buy feel-good organic produce and then uses Tesco on weekdays because it’s more convenient.

For most normal people ‘ecosystem’ conjures up an image of the rain forest, woodland or the ocean – you know, natural environments – green stuff that’s good and wholesome, a fact not lost on the marketeers. Granted this is not a specific scientific definition and indeed ‘ecosystem’ may be used correctly to describe relationships within human constructs, but that’s not quite what is meant in marketing – in that world it’s a purloined word press-ganged into promotion.

Customers are savvy folk, never better educated and never more connected. The fact that entrepreneurs and corporates alike need to treat ‘revenue-generating users’ with respect should be a truth universally accepted: there has never been a greater need for transparency in offering products and services. Passing off shoddy synergies, solutions and paradigms is held up to ridicule

Fortunately, it has never been easier for technology companies to open up and define benefits in plain, honest terms. Why not try and use them?

Wikipedia entry for Ecosystem

Image: Library of Congress

Android’s achilles heel is legacy devices

At MWC Eric Schmidt announced that Google has 150,000 apps in the Android Market. Impressively, the company is activating 350,000 Android devices a day. The next iteration of Android will bring together Gingerbread and Honeycomb (and  will be known as Ice Cream Sandwich), and following this firmware is moving to a fixed 6 month release cycle.

Here’s a short list of manufacturers who exhibited Android smartphones and tablets at MWC: HTC, Fujitsu, Huawei, ZTE, Sony Ericsson, Haier, Samsung, LG, Motorola, Acer, Lenovo, Archos, Dell, Aigo, Sharp and Toshiba. That’s just reeling them off the top of my head and by no means exhaustive.

Quite a lot of hardware is going to be running Android by the end of the year. Reading through these facts the logical conclusion is that the Android Operating System is an unstoppable robot monster.

Much has been written on the subject of Android fragmentation, this is an ever popular topic and is likely to trend again. Famously, when quizzed on the issue at Google I/O 2010, Android’s Andy Rubin said:

“Some of the press has called this ‘fragmentation’ and that’s probably the wrong word for this. The better word for it is ‘legacy.’ These phones and devices…the iteration…is incredibly fast.”

Many developers would disagree with Rubin, engineering an app for a consistent user experience on a such a vast array of devices is the very definition of fragmentation. But that’s not the key issue here, developers have dealt with that problem for years in Java apps for featurephones, in the old Windows Mobile and even in Symbian iterations (UIQ, S60, ^3).

As a matter of fact, Rubin is right, the key issue is legacy devices. As a developer, with much effort I can get the user experience right on many different mobiles, but will my app be compatible with many different firmware versions of the same Operating System? That is the challenge.

Let’s have a look at the historical dataset that Android publishes at its developer portal. This data is taken from Android devices accessing the Market and shows firmware currently in use:

Firmware versions are shown from Cupcake (1.5) through to Froyo (2.2). The Froyo SDK was released in May 2010. It is running on roughly 60% of devices that use the Android Market. The Gingerbread (2.3) SDK was released in December 2010.  Cnet recently reported that users of the HTC Desire, one of the better selling Android smartphones, will not receive a Gingerbread update until some time in the Spring. Due to hardware limitations, some on market smartphones running Froyo may never receive an update at all.

Firmware updates are delivered over the air and pushed out market by market under the direction of the network operators who subsidise your mobile purchase. There are exceptions to this rule, it’s a sweeping generalisation but for the majority of folk, this is the way it works and this is the way it’s going to work in the future.

So, if I buy an HTC Desire in the UK from Vodafone, I need to wait for Vodafone to push out my firmware over the air (FOTA) upgrade. If I buy a Samsung Captivate from AT&T, I’ll be hanging on for AT&T to update me.

The lifecycle of a mobile phone in the consumer’s hands is 18 to 24 months. Android is releasing to a 6 month cycle. Upwards of 30 manufacturers and OEMs are supplying mobiles to more than 1,200 network operators. There will always be a large number of legacy devices on market, at any moment in time many will be waiting for an upgrade. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is fast becoming an unholy mess.

You have to ask: would Steve Jobs allow this? No, that’s his genius in making the world crave one slowly evolving device and that’s the benefit of a manufacturer controlling the distribution of an Operating System. Less we forget, Nokia have successfully managed FOTA for their network operator and mass market customers for years.

The most important question though is: what will the customer think of this? Will FOTA even matter in the long-run? After all, most people aren’t running nightly builds on their mobiles and perhaps won’t care whether their firmware is the latest available.

Well, remember there is no approvals process for Android Market apps, you just load them up and they’re published right away. Customers might care about FOTA if the cool app they just bought or that awesome app their friend just showed them won’t work on their smart new mobile phone.