Face-off: Sculley's Octopus versus the Zenfone and Mi3 in India's new smartphone wars

If John Sculley, former Apple CEO, had launched his phone even as recently as three months ago he would have ruled the market. Now he is up against some formidable competition.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer
Obi pic
John Sculley's Obi Octopus, the new kid on the block in India

When John Sculley announced his backing of Obi, a company that said that it was on the verge of introducing its own sub-US$200 smartphone to the India market, the smartphone world was still a predictable place.

Samsung kept trotting out cheaper variations of their higher-end phones, none of them particularly noteworthy, but enough to capture 34 percent of the market. Micromax and Karbonn had grabbed the lower-end of the market with their value-for-money units that made smartphones suddenly accessible to the college set but weren't the best build quality or terrifically reliable. Nokia had yet to reveal a coherent plan that would allow it to claw its way back to even the smallest of toeholds (for smartphones) in a (feature phone) market they once ruled. Blackberry was pretty much down and out and Sony was doing well but not enough to make waves.

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Former Apple CEO John Sculley at the Obi launch in India

In other words, the arena was open and inviting for a game changer to offer something mouth watering and new but also—and this is the most important part—affordable at the same time. Sculley's set wanted to do just that in the most competitive segment of all in India—the sub-US$250 one. 

That was not so long ago but in retrospect it seems like light years away, thus cementing the reality that each smartphone month is actually equivalent to one human year. So much seems to happen so quickly in a smartphone month. In just the past five months, consumers in India have snapped up a total of 1 million Moto G, Moto E and the Moto X phones (all owned by Lenovo today after Google sold Motorola to Lenovo in a year ago) making these phones the gold standard to beat. The Moto G at Rs 12,999 (US$216) price was clearly the best value in phones to be had in India, and even the world.

Then, out of the blue, came the sensational Asus Zenfone from Taiwan which I wrote about here. With a 5 inch display, 1.6GHz, Dual-core Intel Atom chip, 2 GB RAM, 8 GB memory expandable to 64 GB, a 8 MP rear shooter, sturdy build quality and sleek lines—all for a groundbreaking Rs 9,999, or US$166 (the 16 GB version is around Rs 12,999 or US$216, which is roughly the price of the 8 GP Moto G) 40,000 of them were snapped up in less than 4 days, most of them on Flipkart India's largest online retailer. As I had mentioned earlier, the Zenfone still has to go the distance and deliver in areas like after sales service, a notorious quagmire that tends to bog down many a promising phoneb company, but barring that, it is perhaps the new value-king of smartphones, easily besting the the Moto G's specs (listed here) while being available for US$40 or Rs 2,500 less.

Asus Zenfone 5

If this isn't bad enough for Sculley's phone—the Obi Octopus 520, which was launched a few days ago—India has also seen another phenomenon launched a week or so before the Zenfone—China’s indomitable Xiaomi Mi3. This phone sports a 5-inch 1080p display, a robust 2.3 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB Internal memory as well as a 13 MP rear and a 2 MP front-facing camera, all for US$250 (Rs 14,999), making it roughly comparable to the vaunted Nexus 5, but at a price that is a whole US$200 cheaper. The Mi3 has convinced enough people in China by selling a staggering 17 million handsets there and is now poised to conquer the world in that price bracket. 

Xiaomi's Mi3, of which it has sold 17 million units in China

So can Sculley's Octopus tangle up these two juggernauts, or even the Moto G for that matter? The good news for the Octopus is that for Rs. 11,990 or US$199, you get a spiffy looking five-inch display phone, running on Android 4.4 KitKat that is armed with a 1.7GHz octa-core processor, while the Zenfone's is a dual-core and the Xiaomi is a quad-core. The rest of the specs are not overwhelming and maybe they don't need to be — 1 GB RAM, 8 GB storage expandable to 32 GB, a 8 MP rear shooter and a 1800 mAh battery all of which can be looked after by 95 service centers.

Now, the phone hasn't been tested, but on paper at least, it looks to easily best the Moto G for starters, a phone that was once the undisputed heavyweight of value phones but is quickly being bested by newcomers. However, it will need to rely heavily on its octa-core processor to beat out the Zenfone or the Xiami's Mi3 if it has any hopes of doing well in the Indian market. And with smaller RAM (should have been at least 2 GB to mount a challenge say industry folk) and less battery power, it may need to do better to compete with the new kings and queens of the smartphone world.

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