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two cellphone launches, side-by-side
Oppo (left) invites a bold comparison with Apple (Image: Archi Banal)

BusinessNovember 1, 2023

Inside Oppo’s audacious, improbable fight to topple Apple and Samsung

two cellphone launches, side-by-side
Oppo (left) invites a bold comparison with Apple (Image: Archi Banal)

It often feels like the big technology battles are already won and lost. But a week in Singapore made Duncan Greive wonder whether that’s necessarily true.

Brazilian football legend Kaká is on stage in an industrial area in the east of Singapore’s main island, running his fingers over the space age plastic which makes up a new Oppo foldable phone. “Really nice”, he says, with a slightly nervous grin. Later he’s shown a picture of himself taken on the same device the previous day. “Really nice,” he says. He looks like generative AI made a sports star, ageless and almost cartoonishly handsome. Really nice.

Kaká has been flown in for an event to debut a pair of new devices, the Find N3 and Find N3 Flip, each pricey but very highly specced. They represent the year’s most important event for Oppo, a Chinese cellphone manufacturer that has become a force in much of Asia with a range of serviceable devices which have achieved huge sales at the budget end of the market since debuting in China in 2004. Yet their ambitions stretch far beyond that, and the company has steadily built momentum to regularly be the top-selling brand in China, and among the top five worldwide. These new devices are a new frontier though, technically astounding and aggressively targeting consumers who default purchase the latest Apple or Samsung product.

It’s an ambitious goal, and to achieve it they’ve flown in media from around the world. There are perhaps 500 people gathered in an aircraft hangar adjacent to Singapore’s enormous Changi airport. I’m there as part of a contingent of 20 or so from Australia and New Zealand, a mix of Oppo staff, publicists and reporters. It’s all expenses paid and no expense spared, yet there is none of the usual negotiation around coverage ahead of time. Oppo’s profile is low compared to the incumbents; these devices and this trip are part of an effort to change that, the company understands it will take years and is prepared to wait.

It’s a multifaceted project. Oppo sponsors big sporting events, including the Champion’s League and Cricket World Cup, along with forging ambassadorial relationships with the likes of Kaká. His appearance caps the end of a highly choreographed 90-minute event which features multiple senior executives talking about these new devices. They stand in front of an enormous tennis court-sized screen, following the Apple product launch playbook, even down to the stark Helvetica type on a white background.

The comparison seems ludicrous: Apple is the largest company in the world by market capitalisation. The product vision of its founder Steve Jobs essentially created the modern world, from hardware to media to technology. What is a relatively small Chinese company doing tilting at the most powerful force in global capitalism? 

Photo: Duncan Greive

Playing a very long game

The presentation does a pretty good job of explaining. Oppo might not be a household name, but it is putting in work. For the last four years, it has been among the 10 most vigorous filers of patents in the world, alongside behemoths like compatriot Huawei and South Korea’s Samsung and LG. It has placed an enormous, company-sized bet that foldable devices will be a major part of the future of personal electronic devices, reasoning that versatility and compact size will prove irresistible to consumers over time.

But taking your standard rectangular device and having it fold – either in half, to a typical wallet size in the Flip’s case, or outward to double in size, as with the new flagship Find N3 – is a fiendishly difficult engineering problem. Hence all the patents. Samsung, which was never mentioned by name and only referred to as “our main competitor”, was the first big manufacturer with a foldable. Yet Oppo believes it now has a substantial lead, and reeled off a series of stats to burnish the case.

The first telephoto lens in a foldable… 500% stronger… 255% more dynamic range… Lighter than its competition. Its flagship is the Find N3, which folds out into a square the size of two iPhones, a pocket-size tablet. Its most substantial innovation is Apple-esque and more conceptual than technical – an infinite screen meaning multiple apps can be open and moved beyond the visible area. It’s a direct competitor to Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold5, with each retailing for around $3,000. But despite Samsung’s huge marketing spend, Oppo appears to have taken the technological lead. Ray Shaw, a writer for independent Australian tech site Cybershack, which publishes ultra-deep reviews of all major devices, puts it simply: “Samsung loses on every aspect.”

I’m not a consumer tech critic, but most other media on the trip are, and they seem convinced that this device represents a very sophisticated piece of hardware. The company takes technology very seriously – over a drink afterwards, an exec tells me the company made four foldables before ever releasing one, deciding they were not ready for primetime. With the Find N3, it’s extremely confident. Still, China has a complex history with technology – the last manufacturer making waves around the world was Huawei, which saw its brand and market share cave after questions were raised about Chinese government access to its 5G equipment in 2018.

Oppo does not operate in that area, and believes that should save it from Huawei’s fate. Yet it’s one thing to create this product, another to convince people to move on from the reliable and familiar. Part of that pitch is this lavish trip: luxury flights and accommodation, dinner at Michelin-starred restaurants, drinks atop the iconic Marina Bay Sands resort. Just being in Singapore is part of the pitch. The city feels like it operates five years into the future – someone pops out to eat lab-grown meat, and I saw three different robots unobtrusively doing their jobs.

Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands resort (Photo: Duncan Greive)

All this research and manufacturing prowess and marketing spend is to try and break the stranglehold Apple and Samsung have on the upper echelons of the handset market. It makes me think about what ties me to my iPhone – why I recently spent $1,500 on a black rectangle which had only one tangible upgrade to my old black rectangle: that of an improved battery life. 

What locks you into the Apple ecosystem is complex. It would be a lie to suggest a large chunk of it is not the power of the brand itself, a default provider so seductive that it’s jarring to see a friend with any other device. Some of that is the residual power of its history of innovation – but Apple hasn’t released anything shatteringly new since Jobs died (and one of its core releases is in danger of being pulled from its biggest market over infringement claims). If I’m truly honest, the attraction is less powerful than the social compliance which says: almost everyone I know has an iPhone, so I feel like I should too.

It wasn’t always this way

There was a brief, golden period when it felt like technology was in flux, highly contested with major innovations happening everywhere. Google’s search, mail and maps wowed us, Facebook opened up a new frontier of connection, Amazon became the everything store. Then Apple made the biggest change of all, following the iPod with the iPhone and app store. 

As swiftly as it started, it stopped. We entered an era of incremental change, and of the technology giants buying competitors before they could challenge them: think Google with YouTube, or Facebook grabbing Instagram and WhatsApp. It started to feel like the competitive energy of the internet had become an oligopoly of tech giants, each with their own impregnable fiefdom. 

Tech slowly changed from a challenging, disruptive force to something that wrapped itself around us in near-suffocating ways. The world began to feel fixed, like the market dynamism essential to properly operating capitalism had been broken by the speed, global nature and conceptual headiness of big technology, with lawmakers around the world paralysed into a giant shrug.

Then TikTok happened. A Chinese company took what Twitter had pioneered with Vine a few years earlier, then supercharged it with an algorithm that still feels almost intrusively powerful. Within a couple of years it became the biggest thing on the internet, and forced Meta to scramble and break its products in response.

It wasn’t just TikTok. After decades as the world’s factory, China is maturing into a nation which moves up the value chain into brand and design. BYD is a classic example – an electric car manufacturer that gives you a lot of what Tesla does for less money. You see a similar thing with Shein’s rise in fast fashion and Temu’s challenge to Amazon.

Everywhere, but not in phones. The moats feel tremendously powerful, almost irresistible. But as I sit in this cavernous space, a long way from home, I start to think about TikTok and Oppo. Both emerging from a China which takes a very long view, and is determined to beat the United States, to prove its system of government is more powerful than its opponent. To do so, it picks champions, and propels them with the jet fuel of a billion consumers much more easily directed than the United States’ more fickle and divided populace. 

Is Oppo next? There is the hint of an opening – Tim Cook’s Apple feels like it has lost its sense of innovation, of fierce wayfinding. It’s still a formidable opponent. Maybe the Vision Pro is the start of it finding its spark again. Maybe it will launch its long-rumoured car and that will make us swoon anew. Maybe the moats are just too wide here – the connective tissue of Airdrop and FaceTime and all those apps you’ve bought before and the fear of having to transfer to a whole new environment. 

Or maybe we’re actually still very early in this thing. Maybe American capitalism really is broken and in decline. The business world, which seemed locked in place before the pandemic, is suddenly in flux again. America’s titans often look slow and bloated compared to Chinese upstarts. A polarised and chaotic America doesn’t have the same brand power anymore, at a country level (even as China has an oppressive authoritarian chill). It’s still a daunting task, competing with the world’s most powerful business. But the world is changing again – Oppo might just have a shot. 

Follow Duncan Greive’s NZ media podcast The Fold on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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