Huawei’s Thomas Mason: ‘Innovation will get us to number one’

14 Dec 2018

Huawei Ireland consumer director Thomas Mason. Image: Huawei

In the past year, Huawei has gone from being the number four smartphone maker in the world to number two, pipping Apple, and surpassing Samsung is within sight. Huawei’s Thomas Mason talks to John Kennedy.

The lessons of smartphone history are not lost on Thomas Mason, consumer director at Huawei Ireland. While many remember how, more than a decade ago, the iPhone came along and demolished the cosy fortunes of Nokia and BlackBerry, Mason also knows from his time at Motorola how failing to push the dial on innovation can dismantle even the best legacy.

“With the Razr Motorola, [we] had a game-changing product but the problem was, there wasn’t a game-changing product afterwards,” he recalled.

‘It’s about trying to do innovation for a real user case as opposed to innovation for the sake of innovation’

And, when it comes to mobile fortunes, we exist in interesting times once again. In August, Huawei became the world’s number two smartphone vendor after shipping 54m handsets in the second quarter, overtaking Apple’s 41m units. Not only that but another Chinese phone maker, Xiaomi, has bounded into fourth place. If the present momentum continues, Huawei could be in reach of becoming the world’s number one smartphone vendor in terms of shipments.

However, the recent arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou, daughter of the company’s founder Ren Zhengfei, in Canada at the behest of the US for allegedly breaching sanctions on the sale of equipment to Iran has shook the global business world, and China is not happy about it.

Not only that but Chinese tech manufacturers such as Huawei and ZTE have been facing an uphill battle to get their products sold in the US, and scaremongering over security risks has seen governments such as Australia, the UK and Japan urge telcos to remove these companies’ equipment from their networks.

But is this is due to genuine security fears as part of a greater geopolitical narrative, or simply down to the fact that when it comes to smartphones and 5G networks, Asian tech companies are surpassing their Silicon Valley rivals?

In an interview with Mason just days prior to the arrest of Meng, he said: “The philosophy for us is simple: we have many, many partners in the world who are open to doing business, and that’s where our focus is at the moment. We won’t shut the door on any market but, essentially, our focus is the huge amount of business happening currently and in the future with the huge number of partners we actually do have.”

Iteration and improvement

Hero shot of two new Huawei smartphones.

The Mate 20 Pro. Image: Huawei

If you do not already own a Huawei phone, it is likely you are a Huawei user either way because most broadband modems in Ireland are made by the company. Huawei is also a significant employer in Ireland, with close to 200 people engaged in a range of business and R&D activities in Dublin, Athlone and Cork.

If you study the company’s strategy, each generation of device – from the P6 to the present P20 and Mate 20 Pro – represents a generational shift in innovation and capability, not just a few tweaks on performance. And it is through this strategy of incremental improvement and word of mouth that Huawei has been steadily gaining market share over the past five years.

The latest flagship devices, the Mate 20 and the Mate 20 Pro, push the dial on innovation in areas from AI to wide-angle camera photography to such an extent that the best way to think of the Mate 20 Pro is to imagine the best of the latest iPhone XS and Samsung Galaxy S9 blended into one.

The Mate 20 Pro comes with a horse of a battery – 4200mAh – that can also charge other glass-backed smartphones wirelessly by simply holding them together. It boasts a 7nm Kirin microprocessor with formidable AI capabilities including translation, up to 256GB of internal storage and a 6.3in screen.

In terms of camera, its Leica triple lens camera – with a 40MP wide lens, a 20MP ultra-wide lens and an 8MP telephoto lens – puts it alongside Google’s Pixel 3 in terms of the best smartphone cameras in the market that I’ve seen so far this year.

But, with all the ructions around security and the arrest of Meng, how likely is it that Huawei will make it to number one in Q4?

Mason is confident that Huawei will close the gap with Samsung. “Innovation will get us to number one. In the Q3 numbers, we are only five or six points behind Samsung, so the gap is closing. We are still growing volume quarter on quarter. At the end of 2018, we hope to have shipped in excess of 200m devices or handsets. I think the challenge really was how to take a relatively unknown brand and grow it, and the second challenge was to create a premium brand –  so they were the two biggest challenges locally and globally.”

The catalyst for change, in Mason’s view, had been the P series and the company’s successful partnership with iconic camera brand Leica. “One of our greatest assets, particularly in Ireland, was word of mouth. With the design and the technology, people have been proud to take it out of their pocket and show it off.

“I think, certainly, the real cut-through in terms of technology … would be that we’ve gone from a follower to a leader. If you look at the latest set of products, particularly Mate 20 Pro, it has the best battery in the industry. To the average user that doesn’t mean anything, but in terms of the technology it will last longer than anything and will charge quicker than anything. Just 70 minutes to a full charge.

“It’s about trying to do innovation for a real user case as opposed to innovation for the sake of innovation.”

It is clear that Mason and his colleagues are taking the long view on the current geopolitical impasse, and believe that innovation and technology will win the day.

“Look, the company has been around a very long time, almost 30 years since the initial day of two or three employees in Shenzhen. If you look at [the] global market at the moment, we currently have 170-plus countries where we operate. From our point of view, our focus is to focus on the markets that are open and will partner with us. We still believe with the opportunities we have that, at the moment, we can achieve number one status. Our steadfast ambition … in terms of the global vision, it is to be number one.

“But we want to do that really through amazing products. We have, even in Ireland, flipped the volume play and the value play. Now, we are selling more P20 Pros than €120 handsets and that’s a testament to the buy-in, particularly from our local partners in the operators. They’ve been fantastic to us, and just consumers in general.

“If we look at the IPSOS brand tracking data, our awareness has never been higher, and particularly the consideration to buy has never been higher, so it has increased double in the space of 12 months.

“Huawei as a company wants to connect the world through devices and people. We have a product pillar where we want to be best in battery, best in camera and best in AI – that is really resonating with people on the ground,” Mason said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years