ZTE, as we know them today, is a Chinese telecommunications company that began operations in China in 1985. For many of us, ZTE is just that feature phone manufacturer whose devices we find in the pre-paid burner-phone category at our local phone store. It may come as surprise then to learn that ZTE has consistently ranked as high as the fourth largest smartphone manufacturer for global volume and device shipments, and is a major contributor to the 3G and LTE (4G) standards that we enjoy today.
Continuing that tradition and those industry relationships, ZTE is currently a leader in the development of the 5G standards that promise to drastically enhance our connectivity and computing in the future.
ZTE began in China, their primary goal was to provide affordable telecommunications equipment to the undeveloped regions of China. Success in this endeavor led to an expansion into the urban markets of China and eventually to the rest of the globe.
As far as a quick timeline goes, ZTE dove into CDMA in 1999, 3G in 2006 and 4G in 2010. Operations in the U.S. began in 1996, with ZTE signing its first carrier deal in 2007. Further carrier deals came along leading to new handset shipments of ten million units in 2012.
ZTE’s movement into Canada was a little different. Although ZTE was seeing success with feature phones and Android powered smartphones alike, the Canadian market was primarily limited to feature phones, wireless home phones and 3G/4G mobile hotspot routers.
On the business development and operations side of the business, ZTE landed themselves on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in 1997, followed by the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2004. Contributing to global outreach, ZTE branched out, establishing research and development facilities in Europe and North America.
ZTE became one of the main contributors to the SAE/LTE standards with their work through the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP.) Aside from their involvement in international organizations, ZTE contributed a sizable number of LTE standards proposals and holds more than 800 essential LTE patents.
You may be sifting through all of the figures above, let me tell you what it all means. ZTE today is a global company with offices around the globe. ZTE currently works with more than 500 cell phone operators in more than 140 countries, and are the world’s fifth largest handset manufacturer, sixth largest smartphone manufacturer, based on device shipments in 2013.
North American competition is a little bit different, seeing ZTE as the 4th largest handset manufacturer, holding 4.3 percent market share for first quarter of 2014.ZTE celebrated their 500 millionth handset delivery in 2013.
Research and Development is spread across 18 facilities. Five buildings in the United States, two in Europe – France and Sweden, to be specific – the remaining at home in China. Beyond R&D, ZTE’s U.S. operations include 6 sales division offices, 11 sales offices and one distribution center. Canada has a Sales office too.
In addition to ZTE’s successes with mobile devices, they have proven themselves a powerfully innovative company. The World Intellectual Properties Organization ranked ZTE as the number two company for patent applications in 2013, a drop from the number one spot they held for the two years previous. In total, ZTE has filed for more than 50,000 patents globally, and have successfully been granted more then 16,000 of them.
It is exciting to see a manufacturer that believes in the 4G LTE standards as ZTE does. Looking back on their involvement in this technology, ZTE has more than 70 membership seats in international organizations on the standard. More than thirty leadership seats in the LTE standards organizations are held by ZTE, not to mention their 13% hold on LTE related patents.
If nothing else, with more than two thousand of ZTE’s 25,000+ LTE standards proposals accepted, they have proven themselves deserving of our thanks for helping make 4G LTE possible. But what is next?
5G and the future
With more and more of us putting more and more devices online every day, the next generation of mobile network connectivity will require many new approaches to the technology. I think we can all agree that 4G LTE provides for some super fast speeds when conditions are right, but we are still subject to dropped calls when we head into crowds, parking garages or down the highway.
Businesses and industries, in addition to the general public, will embrace 5G services, which will be carried on networks with greater intelligence, user-friendliness and versatility, combining the best characteristics of cellular and wireless local networks.
Thanks to ZTE’s involvement and experience with the 4G standards, they are in a unique position to be leaders in the next generation of connectivity, 5G. ZTE believes that 5G will go beyond simply providing higher connection speeds, expecting innovation in all walks of life. In addition to the benefits to us as individuals, ZTE envisions empowered services for everything from education and healthcare through to transportation and government.
Plainly put, ZTE is committing major resources toward 5G technology, helping to shape the next stage of our mobile connected world.
ZTE is not just a cell phone manufacturer with a big heart for 5G technology, they currently offer a good selection of self branded and carrier branded routers, USB wireless sticks and more, they even still offer PCI Express cards. If you haven’t heard of it yet, be sure to take a look at the Sprint LivePro mobile hotspot/projector all in one.
Markets like Canada are the reason some of us may only know ZTE as a feature phone and mobile hotspot manufacturer. Of the eight available devices available in Canada, four are feature phones and the remaining include the Tablet Lite from Rogers, a mobile hotspot and a wireless home phone.
Unlike Canada, the U.S. market has many more devices available. The first quarter of 2014 alone added eight new devices to the U.S. market, and five of those were Android phones, including the ZTE Concord II, Sprint Optik 2 and the Boost Max.
As of May 20, 2014, ZTE is reporting having 52 available units selling in the U.S., 40 of which are Android smartphones or tablets. The vast majority of these devices are best categorized as budget devices, but nearly half of those are LTE capable, with at least one unit on each of the big four carriers.
ZTE has 52 active SKUs in the United States.
ZTE finally ‘gets it’
The recent launch of the ZTE Grand X and, more significantly, the Grand S Pro are a window into where ZTE may be headed in the future. Thanks to a major influx of highly capable mid to high-end devices with very friendly price tags this year, ZTE’s budget class devices are proving severely underwhelming to consumers. We, the consumer, have ever growing demands of our purchases, no matter the price, and devices like the Moto G selling for as low as $50 seriously put the viability of other budget devices into question.
ZTE has responded appropriately with updates to their Grand line of devices. Perhaps the majority of the line is still in budget-to-mid range territory, but the Grand S Pro is a serious step in the right direction. A 5-inch display, 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm SoC, 2GB of RAM, 13MP camera and microSD card supporting device doesn’t sound too bad. Sure, the display is just 720p and it only comes with Android 4.3 Jellybean, but it has all the other trimmings like NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 and even Dolby Digital Pro audio technology.
If the ZTE Grand S Pro still sounds a little weak to you, it is important to remember that ZTE has built much of its company through OEM devices for cell carriers. For a manufacturer that spends half, if not more, of its time building carrier branded devices, it represents to me that ZTE finally ‘gets it’ by taking a self-branded device and kicking it up a notch. If they can keep price in check, ZTE is in a powerful position to launch a modern flagship caliber device and find some success with it.
Perhaps one of the smartest moves ZTE is taking is that all new Android 4.4+ devices will ship with the Google Now Launcher. This does not mean a stock Android experience, you should still expect to see ‘value added’ services installed, but a launcher with a consistent and familiar look and feel is a great start.
Where do they go next?
ZTE, as you now know, has some major brand power around the globe, and a major stake in the 4G and 5G technologies that we use, and will use, to connect our favorite mobile devices.
I believe the only thing standing between ZTE and an elite level flagship device is their choice of parts and perhaps the decision to sell this mythical device at, or below, cost, in order to at least be competitive with devices like the Nexus 5 and the Moto X.
Perhaps I am even late in saying this, as the ZTE Nubia Z7, which we haven’t been able to touch yet ourselves, is rocking a Snapdragon 801 processor with 3GB of RAM, a 5.5-inch QHD display, 13 MP camera, 32GB of storage space and, as must be expected, LTE antennae. Preparing and delivering this third tier of high-end device, complimenting their line-up of low and mid-range devices, would truly take ZTE beyond just being a powerful force in the market, into being a true leader in the market.
If nothing else, the experiences gained from all of the unique OEM requirements that ZTE supports, lend heavily toward ZTE’s understanding of what exactly we need of our hardware and connectivity. It is this understanding that I expect we will see represented in the innovations and standards of the upcoming 5G technology, and all of the new devices ZTE builds to utilize it. Really, what’s not to love?