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10 exciting smartphone brands from unexpected places

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Yota press library

Your next phone could come from Nigeria. Or Holland. Or the UK...

Elsewhere on this site, we revealed China’s new smartphone brands and how they are taking on Apple and Samsung for world domination.

Well, they’re not the only ones.

Sure, Lenovo, Xiaomi, ZTE, TCL/Alcatel, Huawei and Coolpad are making a big noise.

But the same conditions that enabled them to grow (open source mobile platforms, cheap components, a rising global middle class) also cleared the way for startups in unexpected places.

Today, countries such as diverse as Pakistan, Nigeria, Russia and the UK have their own new smartphone brands.

Here, we round up ten of them…

Fairphone-new smartphone brandsFairphone

A rising number of people are unhappy about the impact of phone manufacture on the environment and social justice. As a result, the way new smartphone brands operate can be as big a differentiator as what’s inside the casing. In 2010 a group of Dutch entrepreneurs created Fairphone to give these consumers a chance to buy an ethical device.

Thus, the Fairphone is built using conflict-free minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo is assembled in a factory where the welfare of workers is a priority. It costs more than comparable phones but users get to see exactly where their money is going. For every phone sold, $5 (£3) goes into a worker welfare fund. By the end of 2014, Fairphone said it had fewer than 1,000 devices left and was selling up to 300 a day.

geeksphone-new smartphone brandsGeeksphone

In a world of intense competition, all new smartphone brands need an angle. For Geeksphone, read fortress-like security. The firm, a JV between developers, entrepreneurs and ex-special forces operatives, combined with encryption specialist Silent Circle to create Blackphone.

The Blackphone offering comprises a smartphone with a year’s subscription to Silent Circle, secure browsing, a remote wipe anti-theft feature, a firewall and 5GB of secure cloud storage. It runs a modified Android OS and links to a bespoke app store. Key to the whole offer, however, is the ability to manage what data apps can harvest from the phone. Needless to say, it’s been hacked. But it’s still an intriguing premise for a hardware offering.

jolla-new smartphone brandsJolla

In summer 2011, Nokia slipped out its N9 device. Why ‘slipped out’? Because the N9 was based on the MeeGo OS – a failed experiment between Nokia and Intel, which was abandoned when Nokia moved its production to Windows OS. The N9 was the only phone ever to feature MeeGo, and some people liked it a lot.

So when the team responsible for the OS left Nokia, they bought it. Then they started their own company, Jolla, and revamped MeeGo into the new Sailfish OS. The first Jolla phone shipped in late 2014. It was certainly different from most new smartphone brands, with interaction by gestures and a weird blocky form factor. It got a mixed reception from reviewers and public.

Karbonn new smartphone brandsKarbonn

Less than six years after launch, Karbonn is India’s third biggest smartphone maker. This JV between the Jaina Group and United Telelinks sells around 2.4 million handsets a month, and aims to sell 27m in 2015. The high end devices sell for about 80 per cent of the cost of the big global brands. But Karbonn is a key partner for Google in the search firm’s Android One project to create smartphones that sell for under $100. In fact it’s sold phones for around $50 in Europe. Karbonn expects to go public in 2016.

kazam-new smartphone brandsKazam

It’s been a long old time since the UK had its own phone maker. That was probably Sendo, which was bought by Moto and then closed in 2005. Thereafter came eight barren years until two former HTC execs decided to form Kazam. They observed the plummeting costs of smartphone components and what they saw as the profligacy of the major players – wasting money on unwanted technical extras and expensive sponsorship deals.

So Kazam built slim and stylish and affordable products based on native Android, and it focused on marketing angles such as free replacement for shattered screens. The devices range from a £40 basic to a tilt at the world’s slimmest – the Tornado 348.

Lava -new smartphone brandsLava

Neck and neck with Karbonn for second place in the Indian OEM stakes is Lava. The firm is best known for its premium Xolo brand and for having the courage to create its own OS skin: Hive. The creation of a kind of ecosystem running on top of Android lets Lava push its own content – something more familiar on big brands like Samsung, LG and HTC. According to the IDC Asia Pacific Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker for Q2 2014, Lava had eight per cent of the Indian market.

Micromax-new smartphone brandsMicromax

India’s Micromax is one of the major new smartphone brands to beenfit from the rise of Android and of cheap smartphone components. It launched in 2001 as a maker of basic feature phones. During the noughties it took on the mighty Nokia, which utterly dominated India, with innovations such as dual SIMs (much-liked by users to make the most of multiple tariffs).

But in the Android era, Micromax raised its sights and began to compete in premium markets too. Now, it is second behind Samsung in smartphones in its home market, with 20 per cent. Recent rumours suggest it plans to raise as much as $500 million to expand globally and also to explore wearables and Internet of Things products.

South-African-Mint-new smartphone brandsMint

Much has been made of the emergence of Africa’s new smartphone brands. Quite right too, given that Africa is probably the world’s fastest growing market and that mobile has stimulated such economic energy in the region. Contenders include South Africa’s Zest and Dream Mobile, Congo’s VMK and Nigeria’s Nerve Mobile.

But SA’s Mint may be the one to watch. Why? Because its devices are actually assembled locally rather than shipped in from China and re-branded. Mint was founded by black-owned mining and energy company Sekoko Holdings, which makes the devices in the factory it bought from Alacatel in 2002.

qmobile-new smartphone brandsQMobile

The free licensing of Android and the falling price of components have reduced barriers to entry in the smartphone device space. Which is why companies like Pakistan’s QMobile are making such an impact. This six year old Karachi-based firm is easily the largest indigenous OEM in Pakistan, making a mix of feature phones, smartphones, and tablets. QMobile does not manufacture its own devices, but imports them from vendors in China, and re-brands them. It has close to a 50 per cent Android market share in Pakistan.

Yota_new smartphone brandsYota

A handset company from Russia? That’s Yota – and very interesting it is too. Unlike many other new smartphone brands, it eschewed the bland Android slab. Instead, Yota has gone all in on the novelty of its dual-display e-ink innovation. The YotaPhone comprises a typical hi-res screen on one side and a low-power e-paper display on the back.The idea is that users can access all their messages and text-based info on the low-power rear of the phone, preserving the main screen for more battery-sapping rich media moments.

The company has struggled to get distribution outside of its home market, but its innovations certainly have won attention. And the firm scored a major PR win when President Vladimir Putin gave a Yota to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

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