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Technology Futures

Commentaries on Directions That Will Impact the Future of Technology

Is a Chinese Clone in Your Future?


Chinese Clone

The picture to the left shows a typical so-called Chinese Clone tablet.  These Android-based tablets typically sell for around $200, inclusive of shipping, if purchased online directly from a Chinese vendor and about 10% more from a US retailer.  See www.chinagrabber.com and www.mhz.biz for examples.  Compared with an iPad, Motorola Xoom or Samsung Galaxy which are typically $500 or more, they seem like a bargain at first glance.
With the tablet market heating up, it might seem that the Chinese clone makers are well-poised to grab a significant share of the worldwide market, given their price advantage.  However, if one looks under the hood, one may find some drawbacks, which, I believe, will ultimately consign them to the technoeconomic dying room.  For example:
  • These devices come with virtually no useful documentation, and no technical support from the manufacturers.  Instead, buyers are expected to get support from some Internet forums populated by techno-geeks with varying degrees of expertise.   See www.apad.tv and www.androidforums.com for examples.
  • It turns out that Android is not Android is not Android.  Google chose to put Android into the public domain, enabling anyone to create their own version.  Google has a certification process designed to ensure that a given version of Android meets certain criteria.  One may choose to go through that procedure – or not.  The clone manufacturers have opted out of that process.  As a result, the clone versions of Android are prohibited access to some important features.  For example, clone owners are not permitted to download many free apps and all paid apps from the Android Market.  While it is often possible to get around this limitation, the process may be painful – and may be illegal as well.
  • The manufacturers may or may not provide upgrades to the system software.  Even if they do, they are not likely to be state-of-the-art.  Taking up the slack, there are a few Linux gurus (Linux is the foundation of Android) who have taken it upon themselves to issue system software upgrades, apparently out of the goodness of their hearts.  These are published on one or more of the aforementioned forums, but the upgrade process generally takes a tech-savvy user to implement.
  • At least some of the components used in these clones are inexpensive and that translates to slow performance for some operations.  Scrolling can be jerky;   although video files play OK, streaming video from sources such as Netflix won’t run;   web pages sometimes take a long time to load; etc.

In fairness, some of the clones have nice features.  For example, the Flytouch, one of the more popular clones, has Ethernet, two USB full-size ports, HDMI output, and a connection for an external GPS antenna.  With care, the case can be popped open and the user can change the battery himself or increase internal storage by simply inserting a larger SD card.

However, the tablet market is heating up fast, and prices are on the way down.  The 10″ Toshiba Thrive, one of the newer tablets on the market, is selling online for as little as $300 (MSRP is $400).  The MSRP for the new Amazon Fire is $200 and the Barnes and Noble Nook Tablet is $250.  All of these devices are Google-certified and are backed by big international companies with reputations to protect.

These prices are US-based.  Fortunately for the Chinese cloners, prices are much higher elsewhere in the world, so the price advantage may well stick around for some time in parts of Europe and Asia.  In the end game, it may make no difference.  The Chinese are building virtually all of the world’s tablets, the iPad included, and would thus appear to be in a win-win situation.

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