What’s the Deal with “Smartisan”, China’s Hottest Phone Now?

2 Jun

On May 20, 2014, Smartisan Technology held a press conference for the debut of its new product in Beijing. The debut of the Smartisan T1 splashed across headlines of all the major technology industry-related media outlets in China. This young company, only two-years-old, was established by former English teacher/online personality, Luo Yonghao. With his company constantly under the spotlight, Luo fully exemplifies the fact that “being famous is easy, making cellphones is not.”

Who is Luo Yonghao, Founder of Smartisan?

Luo first achieved his fame at New Oriental Education in Beijing. Luo, a high-school dropout from the Northeast who had been a street vendor at one point, had actually been rejected twice from this school before landing a job as a GRE teacher in 2000. He was popular among his students due to his humorous ways of teaching, superior eloquence, and extreme idealism. Videos of his class surged through the internet in 2003. Some netizens even compiled a collection of “Luo’s Sayings”, in which he said, “A vicious life needs no explanation! Only the paranoid can survive.” Hence, Luo’s “vicious” values influenced many young people online.


Eventually, Luo left New Oriental and created a website, Bullog.cn, with an average of millions of views per day. However, due to the open discussions on this site, Luo was arrested many times, and servers to his site were disconnected. In 2008, Luo established his own English school and lectured all around China using the theme, “My Struggle”.

Smartisan Enters the Mobile Phone Market

In April 2012, Luo announced the establishment of Smartisan and entered the mobile phone market. To everyone’s surprise, this English teacher who has absolutely nothing to do with the technology industry decided to start making smartphones. With the spirit of an artisan, he fully devoted himself to developing a high-quality product. On his Weibo, a popular social media platform in China, Luo openly commented on the mainstream smartphones seen on the market. While the iPhone and the MIUI were the only phones to win his approval, he was highly dismissive of the Android products.

The company profile of Smartisan is as follows:

Smartisan Technology is a company that manufacturers mobile internet devices. The company’s mission is to use the perfectionism of an artisan to create digital consumer products (mainly smartphones) that offer first-class user experience to improve the people’s quality of life.

The company name was formed by combining the two terms, “smart” and “artisan”, to mean the artisan of the smart phone era. Amidst the lack of innovative spirit and ability of Android manufacturers, the Smartisan team is exceptionally well-versed in software design to provide excellent graphical and user interface, and highly proficient at hardware design.


Developing the Android-based Smartisan OS

Luo soon found out that developing mobile phones was much more difficult than teaching English. Not only is the mobile phone supply chain extremely complicated, the R&D process spanned over a long period of time. With more than 5,000 modules, Luo had to talk to each and every one of the factories, but each time, plans for the Smartisan phone failed to succeed. Finally, Luo decided to readjust his company’s development strategy by halting the R&D of the phone and focusing on the R&D of the operating system. At that time, Smartisan only had 7 members on its ROM team, only two of which had experience in developing Android systems. The remaining members had to learn the OS from scratch. In 2013, Smartisan debuted the Smartisan OS. Based mainly off of the Android 4.4 with minor tweaks and adjustments made for the UI, it was a far cry from the unique operating system the industry had been expecting.


With a not-quite-ready OS and an English teacher who had been developing a phone under the doubts and ridicules of those who are in the industry, Luo announced that Smartisan received RMB$8 million in funding after its first round of financing. Smartisan expanded itself to a team of 50. One of the investors who had also been in the technology industry expressed his confidence in Luo and stated that unrealistic dreams need to be supported.


In April 2014, the attempts at producing the Smartisan phone continued to be unsuccessful. Smartisan received $180 million during its second round of financing. At this point, Smartisan was estimated to be worth over $1 billion. This company, which has only one customized Android operating system to show, was starting to become financially stable.


At Last, the T1
On May 20, 2014, the Smartisan phone finally succeeded and Luo held its press conference in Beijing. The ticket sales of his press conference were as in demand as his English lessons.

If the Smartisan had to be described in one phrase, then it would be “an iPhone shell + Android system”.

The Smartisan T1 was designed by a San Francisco-based company called Ammunition Design Group, which had been founded by Robert Brunner, Apple’s former head designer. The exterior design of the T1 and the iphone 4 are highly similar, and claims to be the world’s first symmetrically designed smart phone.


Smartisan T1 Specs:

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor, 2.5 GHz
  • Image Processor: Adreno™ 330 3D, 578MHz
  • Screen: 4.95” JDI Pixel Eyes display, resolution 1,920 x 1,080, 445 PPI
  • Front Camera: 5MP, f/ 2.4, 88-degree wide angle OmniVision OmniBSI + image sensor (OV5648)
  • Main (rear) Camera: 13MP, f/2.0, Sony Exmor pixel-stacked CMOS image sensor (IMX214)
  • Fujitsu Milbeaut Mobile image signal processing solution, Acutelogic 4.0 auto white balance algorithm, Arcsoft scene detection and nighttime DNR LED light

The Smartisan T1 is priced to start at about $3,000 and is scheduled to be released in July, 2014. The phones are already being pre-sold with a down payment of $300.

In a time where Android smartphones are becoming highly homogeneous, it appears difficult to find what makes the T1 unique. Of course, so much attention is no longer on just the phone itself. After Lei Jun, the founder of Xiaomi Tech, rejected Luo’s hopes of cooperation a few years ago, Smartisan had always seen Xiaomi as a target. Using the method of the “fans effect”, the Xiaomi phone was able to profit tremendously. Countless Chinese manufacturers desperately want to clone Xiaomi’s success through its marketing methods, but fail to take timing into account.

Reportedly, the initial order of the Smartisan T1 is rumored to be around 30 million units. This is also what Luo had been expecting for what claims to be “the best phone in the Eastern Hemisphere.” Quite a few of Luo’s supporters have already expressed their intentions to buy the phone, not because of how well it is made, but out of support for this paranoid idealism.