Wednesday, June 15, 2011

China's Cell Phone Pirates Are Bringing Down Middle Eastern Governments

From Fast Company

In 2004, a Taiwanese electronics firm named MediaTek unveiled its latest product--a cell-phone-in-a-box aimed at manufacturers, equipped with everything they needed to make the guts of a working phone on one chipset. Write some software, add features, and snap a plastic case on the front and you've produced a new model. It was an immediate hit with China’s notorious counterfeiters, the shanzhai [..]

The key to the cheap phones was the combination of MediaTek’s chipsets and the vast component bazaars of Shenzhen. While MediaTek’s engineers focused on adding software features such as touchscreen recognition and instant messaging to their chips, shanzhai tricked out basic models with speakers, telescopic photo lenses, and flashlight-strength LEDs. Before long, “Nckias” and “Blockberrys” began appearing across Shenzhen and Shanghai.

With their tiny production runs, shanzhai could manufacture a thousand phones, seed the local markets, see if they caught on, and then crank out some more [..]

Today, the shanzhai market has moved beyond China, and even India [.. L]ast fall, The National--the state-financed newspaper of the United Arab Emirates--warned “some analysts believe China’s bandit phone makers may now be targeting the GCC region,” referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council and its members: the UAE; Qatar; Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Bahrain.

A few months later, half its members were embroiled in the turmoil of the Arab Spring. Although no one has drawn a straight line between the appearance of shanzhai phones in the region and the protests that followed, The National presciently noted at the time that “these cut-price clones are not only saturating markets such as India [..] and are thought to be being targeted at the Middle East region, too, which has large numbers of consumers in cities such as Cairo as well as high-end users in countries such as the UAE.”

And while they’re not equipped to run Facebook or Twitter, the current list of features for MediaTek’s phone includes everything else a budding revolutionary needs to evade or expose government repression, including video cameras, Skype, and Bluetooth--just the thing for sharing government crackdown videos over your State Department-sponsored mesh network--all for as little as $50.

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