Samsung may be the current leader in global phone sales but both Microsoft and Huawei are gunning for a leading spot and both companies spent yesterday trying to get big in phones - Microsoft with fun and Huawei by hinting it could pledge patents to Android.
Microsoft went big with Mango - literally, and with the charm and whimsy that's fast becoming the hallmark of Windows Phone; by building a giant phone in a New York park with large video screens for the Start screen tiles. The animated tiles also slid back to reveal stage sets; a band played in the Music & Video tile, there were cooking demonstrations, a mass exercise class, a live game of Fruit Ninja, a Plants Versus Zombies dance troupe and - appropriately for a phone that's all about connecting people - Yuriy Rudd proposed to his girlfriend inside the Xbox Live tile.
More seriously, Microsoft put Windows Phone firmly in the mass market space with a $50 Samsung handset - and while it's cheap, the Focus Flash has a 3.7" AMOLED screen and 4G. Microsoft also recruited Samsung vice president Gavin Kim to the Windows Phone team as general manager.
Huawei is also planning to be big in smartphones; in the top five globally in three years and in the top three globally in five years, aiming to copy HTC's successful shift from unknown manufacturer to a brad in its own right. It's promising to put its own UI on Android, although the Vision - the first phone to come out with the Huawei brand rather than an operator name like 3 on it - has the 3D SPB Shell that's already widely available. Huwei is also promising to focus on strong design at a low price. Again, we have to say that doesn't show up in the new devices; both the Vision and the 7" Android 3.2 Vision MediaPad look rather similar to other Android devices on the market (and on a 7" tablet, Honeycomb does look just like a very big phone).
"We want to make sure everything people touch feels special and good design can do that," creative director Andy Davey said at the launch. That's certainly true, but the new devices don't quite deliver. What Huawei might deliver, and what could give it the big position it's looking for, is patents. Although it's had a turbulent record on intellectual property, with lawsuits brought by Cisco and Motorola that were later settled, Huawei also holds the record for the most submissions to the World Intellectual Property Organization's Patent Cooperation Treaty in a single year, and it's been granted over 17,000 of the 40,000 patents the company has applied for.
And recently, chief marketing office Victor Xu revealed at the Vision MediaPad launch, the company has been having discussions with both Google and Microsoft about their patents. He confirmed that Microsoft had contacted Huawei to discuss possible infringements and a patent cross-licencing agreement - as it has many other Android manufacturers - but said the discussions were in progress and he couldn't give more details. What he did talk about was the advantage Huawei's patents could bring Android and recent discussions with Eric Schmidt. "After Google's acquisition of Motorola, the market is changing and we are occupying an important place," he said, claiming to have a 'strategic relationship' with Google. Huawei will have a big importance in Android; we will have a dominant position in the market. We are an important stakeholder in the Android alliance; we have some IP to protect our products and our partners."
Although Google patent counsel Tim Porter told the SF Chronicle recently that software patents are granted too easily and "innovation happens without patents" Google is investing in buying patents to defend Android; it bought patents that it sold on to HTC in September to use in suing Apple. Getting access to Huawei's hefty patent portfolio to go with what it bought in with Motorola could make the crossfire of mobile patent lawsuits even more tangled.