As I power up the two phones side by side, the Huawei Nova 9 and Honor 50 drive the point home. The deleterious effect of Huawei and Honor’s separation last year is clear. The practically identical-looking smartphones are like two puzzle pieces that can’t join. Both brands claw for the winning balance they struck in 2019, which offered Google support plus Huawei’s camera polish and world-class design. Neither is striking that balance now.
Honor was founded in 2013. Launching it as a sub-brand of Huawei, executives made liberal use of terms like “digital natives” and “digital nomads” while also saying Honor was like the Mini to Huawei’s BMW. The intent here was perhaps less about positioning Honor and more about framing Huawei as the not cheap alternative. In 2013, public perception of Chinese smartphones indeed included “cheap,” and creating Honor was a canny move to elevate Huawei by comparison.
Sure enough, if one brand has single-handedly changed the perception of Chinese smartphone makers over the last decade, it’s Huawei — and OPPO, Xiaomi, and Honor have all benefited.
Since sanctions by the US government have prevented Huawei from working with American companies, namely Google, thus crippling its smartphones in the West, Huawei has been diversifying. The latest rumor is that Huawei is working on an e-reader, which could add to its audio, computing, wellness, networking, smartwatch, TV, and, of course, phone and tablet lines. The further Huawei can get from relying on its non-Google phones outside China, the better. But where does all this leave Honor?
In November 2020, Huawei sold Honor to a majority Shenzhen state-owned company, Shenzhen Zhixin New Information Technology. In the sale, Honor lost access to Huawei’s IP, with more than 100,000 active patents held by Huawei at the end of 2020. Honor also won’t be able to tap into what’s seemed like an endless investment in R&D—more than $20 billion committed for 2021, a staggering amount, even for a business worth $136.23 billion.
This all sounds catastrophic, but for now Honor is actually riding high. We saw this coming to a degree. Without being shackled by US sanctions against Huawei, Honor can move more freely with Google Mobile Services back on its devices in the West. But, interestingly, its early success is in China, where Google doesn’t factor.
For the first time since August 2020, Honor hit the No. 3 spot for Chinese smartphone sales in August 2021, with its sales growing 18 percent month-on-month, putting it behind only Vivo and OPPO. Outside China, however, even with Google, the buying public is less convinced, with the brand failing to make the top five. Senior Counterpoint analyst Varun Mishra puts this down to loyalty in the mid-segment, coupled with the fact that “Honor will also have to rebuild its distribution network. Then, there are also intensifying component shortages, which will likely hinder Honor’s expansion in 2021.”
Honor clearly knows the industry is watching. At the launch event for the Honor 50, its new flagship smartphone (a rebadged Huawei Nova 9 with a slightly different camera), it stressed that it has secured more than 1,100 long-term cooperation agreements with strategic partners and over 30 suppliers. It also invited a Qualcomm spokesperson onstage to discuss the chip powering its new phone, while hammering home the very specific Honor-exclusive tweaks it’s made to the camera.
However, with both the Huawei Nova 9 and Honor 5 in front of us, it’s clear that Honor hasn’t been able to differentiate the software in time for its new global flagship launch. The core Huawei apps (email, browser, etc.) are virtually identical across both phones, even showcasing the same illustrations guiding you through first use.
The Honor 50 camera is also worse than that of the Nova 9. This could be down to the different sensors used across both phones and could also reflect Honor’s lack of access to Huawei’s photography processing IP.
More alarming, the phone’s “exclusive” Honor-engineered camera feature, Multi-channel Video Architecture, which allows two cameras to feed into a split-screen video, is virtually identical to the Nova 9’s Vlog mode. Yes, there’s a slightly different UI, but the options are the same: front/rear, rear/rear, and picture-in-picture video.
In China, the Honor 50 launched before the Nova 9 did, so, technically, Honor did get there first. But scraping the barrel with camera modes within modes highlights the struggle Honor is facing to differentiate in its post-Huawei state.
This challenge was inevitable. Honor must rework its entire offering. It can’t shut shop, and why would it? As the No. 3 smartphone maker in China, it has existing customers to service and upsell to.
So, as the company goes through an awkward puberty, the question remains: Is there hope for the Honor brand outside China? Early signs are mixed. On the one hand, Honor is taking positive steps, revealing that a redesign of MagicUI, the replica of Huawei’s EMUI, is in the works. It has also this week announced the opening of its own manufacturing plant to make its own products. On the other hand, we’ve yet to see a device manufactured entirely by Honor, so the next few handsets that launch will certainly reveal more than the Honor 50 does.
The main concerns really do come down to R&D and manufacturing. An industry insider tells WIRED “one reason OnePlus and Realme shared so many design traits and/or charging technologies with OPPO was because OnePlus had to use the OPPO lines of manufacture, and the machines used there are incredibly expensive.”
Indeed, most of the good things about the Honor 50 are its Huawei traits: premium design, fast charging, and a great display. We don’t know what phones Honor actually makes, or who Honor is as a brand anymore.
Faced with the Herculean task of retaining its customers; defining its new, Huawei-free brand identity; cementing strategic partnerships; creating a portfolio of products; plugging IP holes; and managing distribution, to name just a few priorities—all in an industry facing component shortages—the stakes are high. CounterPoint research VP Neil Shah puts it plainly: “[Honor] has done well in China. But replicating this success outside is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.”