The CEO of ZTE USA said connected home electronics and multiple-OS phones may play a much larger role in his future.
There are big phone makers, crazy little startups, and ZTE.
The huge Chinese phone manufacturer has 55 products in its lineup, but it's always willing to throw a curve ball. ZTE's projector hotspot - an Android-powered projector that streams Netflix over LTE - was the talk of CES, and its Phonebloks-like modular phone surprised everyone at Mobile World Congress.
Now, ZTE USA CEO Lixin Cheng tells me that he'd love to see a lineup of phones that can change their operating systems like you change clothes. "My vision is that in the future, consumers will be able to refresh a phone and download different kinds of OSes. I hope iOS will even open up; ZTE would jump on the bandwagon and support that," Cheng said.
The closest parallel would be a Geeksphone Revolution, which switches between Android and Firefox OS, but doesn't bring in Windows Phone or - gasp - iOS. Microsoft announced at Mobile World Congress that Windows Phone would run on some existing Android hardware, though, opening up the possibility for more cross-platform devices in years ahead.
That's a dream for the future, though, as it would be hard to get that kind of phone through the carrier approval processes that have made ZTE a success in the U.S. ZTE is currently No. 2 in wireless prepaid devices in the U.S., thanks to a broad lineup of inexpensive Android smartphones with carriers' stamps of approval.
Building Phones to Last
That U.S. carrier approval helps set ZTE apart from buzzy Chinese upstarts like OnePlus, Meizu, and Xiaomi, which haven't braved carrier labs yet. Dealing with U.S. carriers forced ZTE to raise its game, Cheng said.
"In China, consumers used to only use a phone for six months; when those guys design 'high quality,' they have this kind of mindset. In the U.S., the carrier is the dominant player and they're the goalkeeper for everyone in terms of quality. [Other Chinese vendors] couldn't meet those kinds of requirements," he said.
ZTE has also been assiduous about making U.S.-friendly patent licensing agreements, including with Microsoft for Android devices, which other smaller manufacturers may not have signed yet, Cheng said.
Of course, bowing before the carriers has its minuses. ZTE's lineup is often a version or two behind on Android because of how long carrier testing takes, although the company is working on offering Android upgrades through a U.S. based server, Cheng said.
"Android versions are important to certain folks, but for a lot of folks, it's secondary," he said. "Most customers, when they look at a phone, they say, it's got a big screen, it's got a good camera, it's got a big battery."
So what will ZTE be able to get through U.S. carriers? The company's Concord II, out today with T-Mobile, is an example of what it has done so far - inexpensive, decently specced Android smartphones. Bigger-screen phones are definitely coming; expect more like ZTE's giant 5.7-inch Boost Max. Cheng says that multiple OSes will continue to be on the table, with ZTE pursuing Windows Phone and Firefox OS, but also that the company is looking into connected home electronics.
"A lot of more traditional, consumer electronics wireline kind of features will go to the wireless devices. That's a trend we see, the investment we're going to make, and we have a completed roadmap for the future," he said.
The first steps will be wireless home phones like ZTE now sells with AT&T. But the upcoming 600MHz spectrum auctions will make a lot more data capacity available in the U.S., opening the door for more home wireless devices.
"There's going to be a lot more spectrum available, and we see everything moving to wireless," said Waiman Lam, ZTE USA's senior director for wireless. "It'll be a combination of Wi-Fi, 4G technologies, and 5G" in individual devices.