We aren’t the world. The most talked-about brands of Mobile World Congress are almost entirely irrelevant to Americans. Some of that doesn’t matter, but the reasons for it are worth talking about.
During the world’s biggest mobile conference, everybody was super excited about the Nokia 3310. I found the whole hullaballoo perplexing. But circa 2000, everybody in the UK owned this phone, and they have a lot of emotional attachment to it. In the US, Nokia—the most talked-about brand at MWC, according to Brandwatch—has been an an irrelevant failure for a decade.
The second most talked-about brand at the show, Huawei, is the world’s largest infrastructure provider and the No. 3 global handset provider. But Huawei sells almost no phones in the United States.
Our Market Is Weird
First, let’s establish that phone brands in the US market are different from everywhere else in the world. Samsung and Apple dominate in the US and overseas. But Counterpoint Research shows LG, ZTE, and Alcatel rounding out the top five. A report with unlocked phones would also put Blu on the list.
Look at IDC’s global mobile phone tracker and you see Apple and Samsung, followed by Huawei, Oppo, and Vivo, none of which sell many products in the US. Skip over to Europe, and Kantar Worldpanel says Samsung and Apple lead, followed by Huawei or Wiko in different countries.
On the floor at Mobile World Congress, I saw a ton of different brands we never get in the US. There were Vestel and General Mobile from Turkey, Noa from Croatia, and Gionee from China (above). Mobile phones are a much more regional industry than PCs. But what about Nokia and Huawei specifically? They’re both reminders of specific ways America is keeping it weird.
Our Carriers Are Weird
If you want to play in the US, you have to play the carrier game. Nokia has been really bad at that. It alienated our carriers 10 years ago by refusing to make customized phones for each carrier. In its Windows Phone days, it made a bunch of unwise exclusivity deals with AT&T, which buried its phones after a short promotional period.
The company isn’t interested in making phones that use the oddball CDMA standard that Verizon and Sprint need, which eliminates more than half the country as potential customers. The 3310 phone isn’t compatible with any US networksat all, so it’s a total doorstop here.
Nokia has zero relevance, from sea to shining sea. It’s a European nostalgia brand making some nondescript low-cost Android phones and hoping to play on emotional resonances that Americans just lack.
For a Nokia to win here, it would need to plant a foot on our shores, listen to what our carriers want, and build phones that conform to their needs. HMD Global Oy, the Finnish licensee of the Nokia brand, isn’t about to do that. So Nokia will remain a foreign curiosity.
Our Politics Are Weird
There’s a more sinister reason for Huawei’s limited presence in the US market.
If you live here, it’s hard to understand what a big deal Huawei has become in the rest of the world. Seriously, it’s huge in every country other than ours, as its packed MWC press conference demonstrated.
But Huawei can’t make any headway with US carriers because it’s seen as the agent of an enemy state. Since 2013, Congress has treated Huawei’s network equipment as a kind of Trojan horse, a potential way for the Chinese government to gain access to and manipulate US networks. (Huawei says that’s ridiculous.) That controversy hasn’t extended to Huawei’s smartphones, but the US carriers, which control about 88 percent of sales here, seem to have shied away because why go chasing trouble?
Huawei’s curse doesn’t seem to have extended to other Chinese smartphone makers, as ZTE and TCL-Alcatel—both Chinese—are doing quite well here, even though ZTE’s networks division is also locked out of our market. That may be because ZTE and Alcatel have spent years building autonomous, US-based organizations able to make decisions on their own, while Huawei remained much more centrally controlled.
For Huawei to win here, it has to shake off its Chinese identity and convince our government that it’s a global, multinational company with a strong American subsidiary. This is entirely possible (as ZTE has shown) but Huawei hasn’t devoted a lot of resources to this approach.
I’d give Huawei more of a chance of succeeding here than Nokia. But neither will be a big deal here any time soon even though they had lots of buzz in Barcelona.