Chinese electronics giant TCL plans to start selling smartphones in the US under its own brand, the latest move in a string of attempts by Chinese phone makers to build a foothold in the West.
In an interview with Chris Larson, vice president of TCL North America, Larson said the company plans to launch official TCL phones in the US later this year, though he declined to give a specific time frame.
TCL already has some standing in the US using the Alcatel brand, with which it sells affordable phones. It acquired similar licensing rights from former mobile titan BlackBerry last December, and has manufactured a handful of BlackBerry-branded phones over the past year.
The company is also sitting on the rights to the Palm name, another once-popular phone brand, though it has yet to apply that to any devices. More recently, Android Authority, a blog that covers Android, reported that TCL is making a phone that will be branded by T-Mobile. (The company declined to comment on that.)
TCL already markets a variety of phones under its own brand in China, Europe, and various emerging markets. Some of those phones have been rebranded for sale in the US; last year, for instance, its higher-end TCL 950 phone was made over to become the BlackBerry DTEK60.
Exactly what the new TCL phones will look like is unclear, but Larsson broadly said they will feature a “whole new design” compared to the company’s existing phones overseas. He also hinted that they would likely fit in the “mid- to upper-mid-range” side of the market, price- and feature-wise, where TCL normally does its business.
According to research firm IDC, TCL had the fifth-highest smartphone market share in North America in 2016, with 10.9 million phones shipped through its various brands. Worldwide, it ranked tenth, with 32.9 million units shipments. But the company says its global shipments fell 39% in the first quarter of 2017, per Bloomberg.
A crowded field
TCL’s phone business is already swimming in a crowded pool of Chinese firms competing for market share in the shadow of Apple and Samsung. The likes of ZTE, OnePlus, LeEco, and Huawei’s Honor sub-brand all sell mostly affordable phones through online stores today.
Some of those have found success — ZTE has made meaningful gains and built relationships with certain carriers (though it briefly faced trade sanctions from the US government earlier this year), and OnePlus has built a reputation for quality affordable hardware. Lenovo has some standing through its Motorola legacy brand as well. But others, like LeEco and Honor, have had a harder time making thing work.
The competition has generally resulted in an increase in quality among affordable phones for consumers, but few of the companies involved have managed to become a widely-known entity in the US. That’s not to mention more established names like HTC and Sony, which have fallen further behind in recent years.
The move would seem to put TCL at odds with its own sub-brands. But past comments from TCL’s North American boss Steve Cistulli and other execs have pointed to a strategy where the company tries to use its various brands to cover different niches — the KeyOne is for keyboard lovers, Alcatel phones are for budget buyers, and so on.
Building on the Roku TV
TCL’s main consumer electronics business is TVs, and it’s there where the company does have some standing in the US today. Larsson said the company sold 1.8 million TVs in the US last year, most of which came through its status of manufacturer of the “Roku TV” brand of smart TVs. Worldwide, Larsson said TCL sold “about 20 million” TVs last year — enough to put it third in global market share, behind Samsung and LG.
Larsson said the company has tried finding a way to make its phones work more harmoniously with those TVs, but that it’s struggled to integrate the two thus far.
In any case, TCL still has a steep road ahead of it to make inroads with the major mobile carriers, which dominate the purchasing process for most smartphone buyers in the US. Alcatel and BlackBerry have already helped with that to an extent, but most of its partnerships are through those carriers’ prepaid brands.
Nevertheless, the move should give Android users another option to choose from, and further TCL’s multi-pronged attack on the US.