This is how Honor can thrive now it’s no longer part of Huawei

Huawei / Honor / WIRED

After several years as Huawei’s budget brand, Honor has been sold by its parent company. Last month, Honor released its first post-Huawei smartphone in the form of the China-only Honor View 40.

Honor has the potential to make a big impact on the market – filling a sizeable hole left by Huawei when the US introduced sanctions against the Chinese telecoms firm. Huawei’s market share has been in decline ever since and growth has fallen significantly from +16 per cent to -21 per cent. That’s a slice worth fighting for if Honor can claw some of those sales back and, who knows, possibly more. It won’t be easy, though. Here’s why, and what it must do to succeed.

Get Google back

Honor has already secured a deal with major chip makers and component suppliers including Microsoft, Intel, Samsung and Qualcomm independent of Huawei – a crucial step in its own right. However, a bigger step for Western markets would be Honor securing the return of Android and Google Play Services to its phones. Unless you’re Apple, having Android is a pretty essential requirement – with Huawei Mobile Services’ range of apps having flattered to deceive and no other feasible alternative on the horizon.

The return of Android and the Google Play Store to the latest Honor phones would remove the stumbling block that dissuaded consumers from buying Huawei and Honor phones over the past year. Such a return has yet to be confirmed by Honor or new owners Shenzhen Zhixin. It’s a venture co-founded by a Shenzhen government-owned entity and technology dealers, a fact that could complicate Google coming back to Honor devices, given the ongoing friction between China and the US.

“There is no reason to impose restrictions on a very normal consumer electronics firm,” Honor CEO George Zhao said recently. Reports from Russia claim Honor has, in fact, started work on a line of Google services-sporting phones.

Stand out in the mid-range

Despite losing access to Google services, both Huawei and Honor still launched strong mid-range devices. But these handsets have since been undercut by sub-£400 phones from the likes of Realme. Things got even more crowded by the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE (£599) and Google Pixel 5 (£599).

There’s likely no foolproof strategy should Honor choose to tackle these rivals in the mid-range, and a lack of brand recognition could prove to be a high hurdle. Neil Shah of market research firm Counterpoint says that it’s not going to be easy especially with “competition that’s stronger than ever” from the likes of Xiaomi, Oppo and Realme. Importantly, Shah says that Honor will now lack the benefits of the vertical integration strategy it had with Huawei, creating supply chain challenges and a requirement for marketing investment to gain name brand recognition in the West.

Another key challenge is building a product that can stand out from the rest. Alongside the launch of the View 40, Honor stated it would be committing more than 50 per cent of its 8,000-strong workforce to research and development at over 100 innovation labs worldwide – an essential area of investment when it comes to standing out. But it’ll be where this money goes, and the products created, that will count.

Honor could look to its past for inspiration. Honor and, in particular, Huawei often received praise for impressive camera capabilities – challenging what Apple, Google and Samsung had to offer. If there’s one thing that many cheaper phones lack right now, it’s quality photography – shoddy macro cameras abound. The reasonably priced phone with a decent camera is certainly a less crowded market, with only the Pixel 4a truly fitting this brief.

Take on Xiaomi

The challenges of a reinvigorated mid-range aren’t to be underestimated, but Honor’s biggest issue comes in the form of one company – Xiaomi. While standing out with cutting-edge features, like an impressive camera, could work for Honor in creating a better user experience than Xiaomi, the latter has got a strong foothold in the West during Huawei’s absence.

While Huawei and Honor’s market share declined year-on-year, Xiaomi went the opposite direction, with its Redmi 9, Redmi 9A and Redmi 10X establishing the brand and accounting for much of its European growth. The company’s global market share increased three per cent and its own year-on-year growth leapt from five per cent in 2019 to 17 in 2020.

Honor is keen to tout its investment in R&D, but Xiaomi is going large in this department, too. At the end of 2020 Xiaomi announced that it would be doubling the number of engineers at one of its research and development centres in Japan, and it has its sights set on improving its position as the world’s fourth-largest smartphone maker – closing in on Apple and Huawei.

Follow the MagicBook blueprint

While having a full suite of phones like Xiaomi might be the prestigious play, a Huawei-backed Honor has already found success being a little more targeted. Along with looking to its smartphone past in the West as inspiration for future focus, Honor should be buoyed by the success of its laptops, too.

The wisdom of buying a Huawei or Honor phone right now may be in question, but their laptops have gone from strength to strength – in particular, the Huawei MateBook D 14 and Honor MagicBook 14. Both devices, which are very similar, have no restrictions placed on their usage of Windows 10 – working like any other Windows laptop – and both cost less than £600.

Unlike many mid-range laptops, the Honor MagicBook 14 looks great – taking a cue from Apple’s MacBooks, but at a more reasonable price. The keyboard is great, the display crisp, and, with AMD Ryzen processors, the performance is top-notch, too. Rather than launching a range of products, Honor nailed one standout laptop. It’s a trick it could repeat with its smartphone business.

While Huawei has been more prolific in the number of laptops it has released, the MagicBook 14 took centre-stage for the Honor brand, with only mild variations like a larger 15-inch model and then a MagicBook Pro coming later. Yes, all devices looked similar but the focus was on beating the competition on design at this price point while maintaining performance.

When it comes to phones, laptops or accessories like earbuds, Honor should find a unique selling point to perfect and go all in.

Clean up Magic UI

If Google services do return to Honor then it’s an opportunity for the company to improve upon the user experience this time around. However, depending on its financial situation and in line with some unsavoury industry trends, Honor may seek to make an easy buck.

With Samsung getting flack recently for placing ads on your shiny new Galaxy S21, Xiaomi having done the same for several years and other manufacturers intrusively pre-installing apps (e.g. OnePlus 8T coming with Facebook installed. This kind of behaviour should act as a warning to Honor, but, also, an opportunity. Honor could choose to swoop in and offer a clean but customisable version of Android, similar to OxygenOS on OnePlus without its recent divergence.

Honor’s own Magic UI was its skin of choice for its version of Android when it was last selling phones in Europe, and it still is for the Honor View 40 over in China,. Magic UI wasn’t all that bad, changing the basic Android look and feel less than many other manufacturers, but it did feature a rather unpleasant amount of bloatware.

With the Honor View 40 using a chip from MediaTek, a supplier of processors for traditionally budget phones, shunning integrated ads and ditching bloatware could go some way to making using Android on a new Honor phone feel unhindered and swift – even with modest specs.

Honor may attempt to differentiate and stand out in its post-Huawei future or simply follow the template of other smartphone brands. Ultimately, the company’s plans will likely be determined by financial strategy. Reintegrating Google and returning to dominate the mid-market would make for the most exciting Honor 2.0 for customers, but is such boldness feasible without the Huawei monolith behind it? Or is this even an issue? Rumours have already emerged about a return to Huawei ownership further down the line.

Adam Speight is a product writer at WIRED. He tweets from @_adamspeight

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