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Smartisan OS, China’s War on Apple, and the Hype Train

C. Custer
C. Custer
9:30 am on Mar 29, 2013

1364403052860Yesterday, China’s Hammer Technologies announced a new mobile operating system called Smartisan OS. At a big, showy press conference that ironically looked a lot like some of Apple’s announcements, CEO Luo Yonghao hyped the system, saying, “Our objective is to kill off Apple eventually,” and promising that the company would launch its own handsets as well to complement the OS.

The news has gotten a lot of attention in the Chinese press, mostly because Luo is a well-known figure (he’s the founder of Bullogger and also a well-known English teacher and author), but has also attracted attention from the English-language press (like Atlantic partners Tea Leaf Nation) because it seems to have echoes of China’s state media attacks on Apple.

In actuality, though, as an Android ROM, Smartisan OS is not particularly unique. Many Chinese companies have released their own Android ROMs (the best of them is probably Xiaomi’s MIUI). Nor does it really resolve any of China’s concerns about its reliance on foreign operating systems, because as an Android ROM, Smartisan is still Google software at its core. (Related: Why China can’t make its own mobile OS.) For all the bluster about Apple in the state press, Google and Android is what the Chinese government is really worried about when it comes to the world of mobile. After all, Apple users make up just 12 percent of China’s smartphone market. Android users, in contrast, account for 86 percent of it.

So why is Smartisan CEO Luo talking about Apple? One word: hype. Like it or hate it, just speaking the company’s name gets attention. And in fact, Luo is just following in the footsteps of Xiaomi, China’s most successful Android-based OS developer. As you may recall, in the days leading up to Xiaomi’s first handset launch, Apple’s name came up repeatedly. First, Lei Jun talked about how everyone was waiting for Apple founder Steve Jobs to die and then after Jobs actually died, the official Xiaomi weibo account tweeted a tasteless joke about him. The company later denied that Lei had actually made the aforementioned comment about Steve Jobs and the employee responsible for making the inappropriate joke on weibo was disciplined, but the incidents got Xiaomi a fair amount of attention, and there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Luo’s approach with Smartisan seems, in a lot of ways, to be inspired by Xiaomi. But can it capture the attention of the Chinese smartphone-buying public? The launch event got a lot of attention, but it seems like very little of it was positive. In a front-page poll conducted by Sina Tech with more than 11,000 respondents as of this writing, for example, users overwhelmingly responded to the Smartisan reveal with apathy or total disinterest. For example, one of the OS’s main selling points is meant to be that it’s uniquely designed to fit Chinese users’ lives and habits, but when asked what they thought of the OS after the event, here’s how Sina Tech’s readers voted:

(Note that Sina Tech’s poll is ongoing and as such these results may change over time as more readers respond.)

When asked if they’d give the OS a shot, most users were similarly dismissive or hesitant:

And even fewer people were interested in Smartisan’s announced hardware:

Which just goes to show that all the hype in the world is no replacement for a solid product. Whether Smartisan OS is solid or not remains to be seen — it will be released in beta this June — but from what we’ve seen so far, it seems many observers have come away unimpressed. I must say I count myself among them, as while I’m generally a favor of clean, stripped-down aesthetics, I think Smartisan has taken things a bit too far. I may not be the mobile OS’s target demo, but I’m guessing Sina Tech’s readers are, and it looks like they’re not ready to bite this hook yet, either.

Update: This post was updated on Sunday to correct a translation error in the first chart; “Seems like a copycat” was changed to “Too easy to copy.”

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Have Your Say
  • http://www.wandoujia.com Kai Lukoff

    I was stunned at how many of my colleagues were tingling with excitement about this launch, even buying 300RMB+ tickets to the “launch” event. So I watched his ‘keynote’ from last year, but was completely unimpressed: complete disconnect between the talk he talks and the walk he walks.
    No surprise here that his “Apple-killer” is shaping up to be a flop.

  • Leonard

    Sounds like PR stunt to me but dont mind buying a smartisan phone to try :)

  • Dino

    I doubt the authenticity of your research. Smartisan OS just released on March 27. How could you collect so many feed back in two days?

    As far as I know. This OS has been one of the most popular topic in China. There’s no reason for not want to even trying . And it’s not charged now.

    If you check the newspaper on MARCH 27 , almost all has Smartisan’s banner, even hotter than MIUI.

    Tell the truth man, be Honest.!

  • http://www.techinasia.com C. Custer

    @ Dino: Read more carefully, the poll was conducted by 新浪科技, not me. 爱信不信,自己看看去就知道了.

    And as for the newspapers, I’m sure you know as well as I do that it’s easy for companies to buy news stories if they want to. Smartisan certainly wants us to believe it’s “hotter than MIUI,” but I highly doubt it will make much of a splash when it’s actually released.

  • Dino

    Thanks for your reminding. I found the original poll. I have to admit it’s easy to buy comments. But in this case , I would rather believe you are the one been bought over.

    The original poll says “it’s easy to copy.” instead of “Seems like a copycat”. It’s totally different meaning , OK?

  • http://www.techinasia.com C. Custer

    Why would someone pay to plant an anti-Smartisan article on an English language blog the vast majority of China doesn’t read? That makes no sense. But if you’re really wondering, feel free to read our ethics page. We don’t take money from anyone for stories, period. Ever. In fact we don’t even take 车马费 or anything like that.


  • Dino

    I just want to point out this poll is not objective enough. So far there’re only 13,394 people vote that. Compared to Luo’s weibo, he has nearly three million fans, each post is usually shared 200 times. This poll , again, it not that convincing .

  • NCMag

    Hey, C Cluster, don’t fudge the question as it was a complete mistake (btw misleading type of mistake) in translation. My guess is also that you were paid to write. Even if you weren’t paid, obviously you are not objective, and trying to influence the readers in such obvious wrong choices of wording. Reading your article gives me an impression that there’s no way a person with such competence in English should make this type of a rudimentary mistake.

  • http://www.techinasia.com C. Custer

    @ NCMag: The graph translation was an error on my part, and I have already fixed it. I was not paid to write the article, but I was also not trying to be objective. Parts of the article are quite obviously my opinion and I think any intelligent reader can discern that quite easily. And even if you were too stupid to figure that out from reading the article, this post is filed under OPINION and is in the opinion section on our site. If you’re expecting to find objective pieces with no personal opinions in the opinion section, I don’t know what to tell you.

    As for “your impression” after reading my article, I really don’t care what you think. You couldn’t even be bothered to spell my name right and you somehow failed to notice that it was an opinion piece; you’re obviously not a very careful reader.

  • Cultural Imperialist

    So now even companies have 50-centers trolling the comments sections on foreign websites? Damn!

  • njren

    I wouldn’t trust the validity of that Sina poll either, and it seems the comments here prove it. Luo Hongyao is a polarizing figure, for sure. Subjectively, he seems like a crude blowhard. More objectively, I’m pretty sure he’s ticked off the entire Meizu fan community by picking a fight with Meizu founder Jack Wong. Any others? One can only assume how that might be reflected in the “voting” on Sina. As for Smartisan, if the article on Tea Leaf Nation is correct, Luo must be batsh!t crazy for attempting to sway Xiaomi and Meizu users to switch to his ROM. Xiaomi and Meizu feature the two most heavily customized and re-imagined Android builds among Chinese smartphone companies, not to mention their millions of dedicated followers who put the “fanatic” in the word fan. Forget the boutique manufacturers, he should be building for the gazillions of Mediatek-powered smartphones now washing across the globe.

  • njren

    Luo Yonghao, sorry. I’ll probably get trashed for that. : )

  • NCMag

    Firstly, whether I am a careful reader or not has nothing to do with your post, or my question of your intention on the issue.

    Secondly, my point was not whether you’re objective or not. My right word of choice is intention.(There’s oobjective, subjective than there’s intentional). Therefore, my point was that you had an intention, that you were either paid to do this, or somehow have a personal intention to influence its readers on this issue rather than just trumpeting your own “opinion”.

    Thirdly, I’ll state that again, your English competence is far beyond that simple mistake.

    My conclusion is simple, you wrote that piece of “opinion” with an intention to derogate the product, or you have financial gains from it.

    btw, plz choose your words wisely, I might not be a careful reader at this time, but creative enough at using inappropriate languages.

  • NCMag

    To Cultural Imperialist

    I don’t think it is a wise idea to categorize ppl that simply. Look at me, although I posited that this opnionist who wrote this piece a “50-cents”, it’s not the only possibility. I placed him in at least 2 broad categories.

    May be techinsia takes its own stand on things or have backings directly from Smartisan’s competitive opposites, thus its “opnionist” need to say or warp some facts to justify their own cause.

    There are all kinds of possibilities, than your simple “50-cents”, you know.

  • NCMag

    The more I read, the more mistakes appeared on your reply, Mr. “opnionist”. Let me go through each one of your fallacies. I missed on my first reply.

    You wrote:
    Parts of the article are quite obviously my opinion and I think any intelligent reader can discern that quite easily.

    I reply:
    How do you assume your articles are fully read by anyone who replied? And it is worth noting that almost every argument of yours is backed up by either statistics or factual events, yet, you are not trying to be objective? If you are taking facts to build your own stories than objective ones, then I would seriously question your motives.

    You wrote:
    And even if you were too stupid to figure that out from reading the article, this post is filed under OPINION and is in the opinion section on our site.

    I reply:
    I don’t really read this Techinasia website, and the only reason why I am here is from an outside search engine, so congratulations. Please be enlightened by the fact that not everyone reading your piece has to enter from the Opnion Section.

    You wrote:
    As for “your impression” after reading my article, I really don’t care what you think. You couldn’t even be bothered to spell my name right.
    I reply:
    That’s how much I cared, but I do await your replies at this time.

  • http://www.techinasia.com C. Custer

    @ NCMag:

    Honestly, your comments make very little sense. Objective and subjective are ways of describing statements; an objective statement is demonstrably true and based on facts or other evidence of some kind and a subjective one is not and is open to interpretation.

    Parts of this article are subjective, yes. And to support my subjective points, I have used objective facts like the data from Sina Tech’s poll and the similarities with Xiaomi’s marketing tactics. This causes you to “seriously question my motives”? Would you prefer that my opinions were based on lies, then? Any rational human being bases their opinions (subjective) on facts and evidence that’s available to them (objective). So in any opinion piece like this, subjective statements will be supported by objective evidence. Frankly, you should be questioning the motives of people who don’t do this — if someone tells you they dislike something but they can’t provide any objective reason why, they’re probably trying to sell you something.

    To put it in terms of a simple example, let’s compare two sentences. Sentence number 1: “I don’t like Hitler because he sucked and I hate him.” Sentence number 2: “I don’t like Hitler because he was responsible for genocide and a brutal war, among other things.”

    Now, both of these sentences express the same subjective judgement: Hitler is bad. That’s my opinion, and it’s the same in both sentences. But the first sentence doesn’t contain any objective evidence to support that sentiment. The second sentence, however, does contain evidence. Hitler was responsible for a war and a genocide; those are proven facts that help the reader understand why I am saying I don’t like Hitler.

    So, let me ask you: which of those sentences do you find more convincing? Which do you think offers more value to the reader? Assuming you’re a normal human, your answer will be “the second one,” and that’s why opinion pieces like this one (if they’re any good) always base their subjective conclusions on objective evidence. It offers more value to the reader than just saying “I don’t like this because that’s how I feel,” which is really pretty meaningless and doesn’t tell the reader anything other than what some random stranger feels.

    As far as “intention” goes, I’m not sure what you mean. Yes, I wrote this article intentionally as opposed to by accident. I didn’t just sneeze on the keyboard and have this pop out. Every article on every website ever was written intentionally. If you’re saying that this article is trying to convince readers of my point of view, yes, of course it is doing that. That is the whole point of any opinion piece.

    If I were not trying to be convincing, and if I wasn’t using objective evidence to back up my subjective conclusions, the piece would not be interesting. It would also be utterly pointless. Who on earth would want to read an opinion piece that contained no supporting evidence and that wasn’t attempting to be convincing? I honestly can’t even imagine the kind of piece you seem to be suggesting I ought to have written, as I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything like that.

    With regard to the translation error, the problem is not my English ability, it is my Chinese ability. I do make mistakes from time to time, especially when I’m reading quickly. If I had mistranslated that intentionally, why would I link directly to the Chinese original, making it extremely easy for anyone who reads Chinese to discover the error (which, as you are aware, happened quite fast)? Moreover, if I were intentionally mistranslating things to smear Smartisan, why would I pick such a small and rather irrelevant bit to mistranslate? It’s not like people thinking the OS isn’t unique and can be easily copied is any better for Smartisan than what I had before. If I were out to smear Smartisan, do you really think that this is the harshest article I could come up with?

    With regard to this post being labeled an opinion piece, as I said, anyone who reads the post and has a functioning brain could figure that out. If somebody doesn’t read the entire post but wants to comment on it anyway, that person is an idiot. If you can’t even be bothered to read the whole article, how could you possibly assess its argument and respond intelligently? I’m sure some people don’t fully read my articles, and that’s their right. But if they have half a brain, they should be aware that not reading the full article likely means they don’t fully understand the article, and that means they shouldn’t draw conclusions about it.

    I hope this clears up your questions. Furthermore, I hope that next time you’ll read more carefully before casually accusing someone of fraud and corruption. Suggesting that I was paid to write this article is a very serious accusation, and not only do you have no evidence to support it, you seem to know nothing about me or our website and indeed haven’t even bothered to fully read the article! So I’m sure you’ll understand why I’m quite angry about this.

  • NCMag

    That’s a little long, I guess since each of your contains many errors, I may have to break it down and run through each bit by bit.

  • NCMag

    ok, anyway, I see where this is going. I think we can go on all day, on one hand, I’d really love to continue this argument, coz it is really interesting to debate with someone who actually has a reasonable train of thoughts. But on the other hand, since you typed about 1K of words, I guess if we do this for another round, it’ll be a few more Ks at least, and it’s a complete waste of time. Whatever your motive is, it doesn’t matter to you, or to me, to Smartisan or any other smart phone makers. So I give up. G’day C.

  • Shane

    All English articles I have read on this ROM public event did not touch usefulness of the ROM (basically an UI on top of CM, I believe). I think Mr. Luo was trying to solve some annoying problems current smartphones have. Although he did not present on this, I would think they could have this feature: prevent phone from accidentally unlock or call out while it is a pocket or bag using proximity sensor. Personally, I would love to have many features he presented in my phone.