November 8, 2009
China is an amazing place in so many ways. One concept I'm especially fascinated with is shanzhai products. Translated directly, this means "mountain village" products, but they're really knockoffs of famous brands. There are shanzhai cars (ones that look like BMW X5s, etc.), shanzhai restaurants (Starbucks or McDonalds copies, etc.) and so on. There are even shanzhai celebrity performances where celebrity imitators will come perform for people who can't afford the real person. People have started using the term to refer to community generated content too (e.g. fan-videos, etc.)
This is a bit different that outright counterfeits (like crap liquor poured into Hennessy cognac bottles); these products don't claim to be the original. They are usually much less expensive but can be very good copies, with even more features than the original.
My favorite category of shanzhai products are the iPhone knockoffs. Products like the HiPhone (or CiPhone as shown here) physically look and feel great -- very close to the original. The software even looks like iPhone software (almost exactly, down to the Highway 280 icon on the maps, even though that has no meaning in China). The one I played with a year ago was just a titch thicker than a real iPhone, but unless you compared them side-by-side, you wouldn't have known it.
The software itself was much slower and clunkier than Apple's, once again reaffirming that the hard part is software. And, of course, it doesn't actually run Apple's OS, so the iPhone App Store apps don't run on it, negating much of the appeal of an iPhone.
Still, the prices are cheap (starting at around USD$70 on my friend's website, lightinthebox.com). What's more, these phones have unique features like dual SIM support, different colors (want a pink iPhone?), different form factors (I saw a HiPhone Nano -- even Apple hasn't shipped one), and even a HiPhone running Windows Mobile 6.1!
While I'm obviously disappointed there's so much copying of valuable IP here, I can't help but be impressed by how quickly and frankly well in some cases the companies here are making shanzhai products. I hope this energy will be applied to more creative endeavors someday.
More on Shanzhai: