From the Editor's Desk: Showmanship, branding and a $1500 smartphone
Of course the $1500 Porsche Design Huawei Mate 9 is ridiculous. That’s the whole point.
Except for when things go spectacularly wrong, we don’t often analyze individual launch events. But Thursday’s Huawei Mate 9 shindig turned out to be an important milestone for the Chinese firm. In a lot of ways, it’s now finally finding its groove. The Mate 9 itself looks to improve upon the generally solid P9, with a much-needed software overhaul and industry-leading specs. And the Munich-based press conference provided a good balance of showmanship — mainly thanks to CEO Richard Yu, who drove on stage in a Porsche 911 and kept up that level of panache throughout — and information. And it did so without being over-the-top, boring or cringey.
Aside from a somewhat anticlimactic reveal of the phones themselves, Huawei’s presentation was pretty sharp and well-paced. It was a far cry from April’s marathon P9 event, which dedicated almost half of a three-hour presentation to the camera, overstaying it’s welcome by a good hour or so in the process. (Even a cameo by Superman couldn’t stop many journos from walking before the end.)
In Munich, Huawei took aim at Apple and Samsung, the number one and number two smartphone makers, as it looks to advance up the rankings from third place. Things got a bit technical at times, but the most effective demo from a phone nerd perspective was the video showing a Mate 9 alongside a Galaxy S7 edge after a few thousand hours of simulated use. Bit rot on phones is something everyone can relate to, as is poor battery life. Without pre-empting our review, I can already say the Mate 9 nails the latter (how does eight hours of screen-on time sound?), and if it can address the former too, that’s another powerful unique selling point.
As anticipated, we got two Mate 9 variants on Thursday. The big surprise came in the form of the Mate 9 Porsche Design edition, which took the place of the Mate 9 Pro we’d been expecting based on online leaks. (Who knows if that’ll re-emerge at some point.)
So here’s the deal with the Porsche Design edition: You basically get a Huawei-made Galaxy S7 edge lookalike with Mate 9 internals, a polished metal back, a smaller (5.5-inch 2K) display, 6GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. And a whole lot of Porsche branding. And a €1395 ($1550) price tag.
The Porsche Design Mate 9 is deliberately dangled just out of the reach of most consumers.
If you’ve followed the various Porsche Design BlackBerry phones over the years, this is very familiar territory. You’re paying for the brand, of course, not the actual technology or materials. As Richard Yu said in the press conference, this is supposed to be an exclusive device, and what’s going to exclude most people is the price tag. It’s high for the sake of being high in order to maintain the value of the Porsche name, and dangle it just out of the reach of most consumers.
I’m not going to categorically state that the Porsche Design Mate 9 is for a certain kind of rich, middle-aged man who probably doesn’t know any better when it comes to technology, but if you said that I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you. The Porsche Design model is nice, but it’s not that nice. The pitch black anodized metal feels tackier than the regular Mate 9, and the oversized Porsche Design logo looks like it’s trying too hard. Just about everything else can be had in the regular Mate 9 for half the price.
But again, let’s not feign surprise that you’ll end up paying hundreds more for the model with a major luxury brand attached. That’s how brand names have always worked — it’s pretty much Branding 101.
Aside from actually selling product to the few people who’ll stump up the cash for a Porsche Mate 9, the purpose of this model is to build prestige by associating Huawei with a top-tier Western brand. (That’s surely an important part of the Leica camera partnership too, by the way.) It’s also likely that an “aspirational” model like the Porsche Design Mate 9 will create a halo effect around its more attainable sibling.
It’s ridiculous and overpriced, but that’s precisely the point.
Other odds and ends on a working weekend:
- Look for a “first impressions” review piece on the Huawei Mate 9 later this week here on AC. The devices media have in-hand right now are running pre-production software, with a few bugs and glitches. We’re told these will be resolved in an OTA going out to all review units in the next couple of weeks. (Any “full” reviews you see for the next week or so will be based on what Huawei itself says is non-final code.)
- I’ve attended two phone launches this past week which have poked fun at the Galaxy Note 7. (First Wileyfox in London, then Huawei in Munich.) After detailing how safe and cool his company’s new fast charging tech is, CEO Richard Yu quipped “no explosions!” to chuckles from attendees. Samsung’s exploding smartphone is still a joke, and people are still laughing.
- Then there’s the air travel angle. All of the 10 flights I’ve taken in the past month (yeah… it’s been an unusually busy month) have had some sort of Note 7 safety warning, either onboard the aircraft, at check-in or at the gate. Now consider that commercial airlines carry around 3 billion passengers each year. Those unmissable Note 7 announcements are likely to continue until at least the end of 2016, which means hundreds of millions of potential consumers being hammered with the “Samsung phones are unsafe” message throughout the life of this thing. It’s hard to quantify that sort of impact.
- But hey! GS7 edge in coral blue looks pretty hot.
That’s it for this weekend. American friends, don’t forget to vote this Tuesday!