Evolutionary Product Mash-Ups

Some of the things that shanzhai manufacturers come up with are a bit comical. Traditional Chinese slippers with a Nike swoosh or Adidas stripes. A mobile phone that can store your cigarettes and light them for you too. Phones shaped like beetles, pandas, or Mickey Mouse.

Designed for young women, this phone takes the shape of a compact mirror. Source: http://www.clonedinchina.com/2009/05/a-makeup-mirror-phone-channel-a5.html

But others, especially in the consumer electronics sector, are giving consumers things they actually want but multinational corporations have been unwilling or unable provide: a phone with a heavy battery that lasts several weeks on a single charge; or a handheld that doubles as communication device and boom box.

In a 2009 blog post giving hackers outside of China their first glimpse of the makers behind shanzhai, Bunnie Huang wrote: “They are doing to hardware what the web did for rip/mix/burn or mashup compilations … They are not copies of any single idea but they mix IP from multiple sources to create a new heterogeneous composition, such that the original source material is still distinctly recognizable in the final product. Also, like many Web mash-ups, the final result might seem nonsensical to a mass market (like the Ferrari phone) but extremely relevant to a select long-tail market.”

Transparent processes and hyperspecialization allow these very small firms to combine the capacity in the region and react extremely quickly to things they’ve never seen before. In a kind of rapid evolution, nothing is designed from scratch; everything is built on top of previous products. The shanzhai system is unlikely to invent the next iPad. But it will innovate furiously on top of the iPad, creating a wide range of new tablets with all kinds of different features (they are already flooding global markets in 2011). High-priced design and technology is becoming available to a global mass market through shanzhai.

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