popsciThe little gadget was bootleg gold, a secret treasure I'd spent months tracking down. The miniOne looked just like Apple's iPhone, down to the slick no-button interface. But it was more. It ran popular mobile software that the iPhone wouldn't. It worked with nearly every worldwide cellphone carrier, not just AT&T, and not only in the U.S. It promised to cost half as much as the iPhone and be available to 10 times as many consumers. The miniOne's first news teasesa forum posting, a few spy shots, a product announcement that vanished after a daygenerated a frenzy of interest online. Was it real? When would it go on sale? And most intriguing, could it really be even better than the iPhone?
I made a hastily arranged flight to China to find out. Ella Wong, a marketing manager at Meizu, the Chinese company building the new phone, had invited me to come to the annual Hong Kong Electronics Fair only days before it began this April. We had been trading e-mails for weeks, negotiating access to the miniOne and the operation that produced it. Meizu cloned Apple's iPod Nano last year, establishing itself as a significant force in a music-player market far larger than Apple's: international consumers who had little access to either Macintosh computers or the iTunes music store. The miniOne was going to be on display at the fair, and Jack Wong, Meizu's CEO, would also be there. If I made a good impression, I would be invited to the company's headquarters and research facility on the mainland. "You'll be warmly welcome," Wong wrote me.
My journey was more than a pilgrimage born of techno-lust (though there was an element of that as well). Nearly every type of product can beand iscloned in China, sometimes so well that the ripped-off manufacturers inadvertently service the fakes when warranty claims come in. Cloners make air conditioners with the LG brand name in the country's remote west, along what was once the old Silk Road trading route. But cloners don't have to sell their wares under the same brand name: In Anhui province, near the Yangtze River, one of China's biggest auto manufacturers builds a part-for-part replica of a top-selling Chevrolet model, then slaps a new badge on the car. In the south, one cloning operation didn't just copy a technology company's product lineit duplicated the entire company, creating a shadow enterprise with corporate headquarters, factories, and sales and support staff.
But the miniOne represents the vanguard of this cloning revolution. Meizu isn't aspiring merely to copy the designs of a Western manufacturer on the cheap. The company plans to give the miniOne capabilities beyond the original. Does this signal the start of something bigger in Chinathe years of reverse engineering serving as a de facto education for the engineers who will soon transform China into a design and engineering powerhouse? Is China on the cusp of going legit?
Several hours after I arrived at the Hong Kong Electronics Fair, I finally found Meizu's (maddeningly unlisted) booth and asked for Ella Wong. She was sitting at a table, talking to a pair of potential customers. When she finished, I introduced myself. "Thanks for making this happen," I said. "Would this be a good time to start talking about the miniOne, or to make arrangements to meet Jack Wong?" I handed her a business card and a stack of magazines with stories I'd written. She thumbed through a few pages and smiled. "The phone? Mr. Wong? Oh, that may not be possible," she said. Silence. What about our e-mails, the conversations, the invitation? She was struggling to be polite. It isn't customary in China to be forced into an outright yes or no. "Come back," she said, "maybe in September."
Is this for real?