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China tech

Oppo tops Huawei to regain title of China's top phone brand

Low-cost maker relies on huge store network as rivals diversify

An Oppo shop in Guangzhou: The brand's extensive store network has helped propel its sales growth in China. (Photo by Takashi Kawakami)

SHANGHAI -- Oppo outstripped compatriot Huawei Technologies to become China's No. 1 smartphone brand in January and likely stayed at the top during the first quarter of 2021, as its latest models won customers away from a rival hit hard by U.S. sanctions.

Oppo held a 23.6% market share in China during January, edging up to 24.8% in February, data from U.S. market research firm IDC shows. Huawei, which commanded around 40% of the market until the July-September quarter of last year, likely saw its share shrink to a little over 10%.

Oppo appears to have remained the leader for the first three months of 2021 to reclaim the quarterly crown the company last held in July-September 2016.

Oppo's resurgence mirrors the decline of Huawei, which was forced to cut smartphone output after its chip supply chain was disrupted by U.S. export controls. Huawei sold off its budget phone brand Honor in November.

New phones have lifted Oppo's standing. The Find X3 Pro, released in March, features a camera with a magnification factor of up to 60 and a liquid crystal display touted as the world's first phone screen displaying 1 billion colors.

Oppo hailed the new phone as perfect for skin self-exams and cooking lessons, with founder and CEO Tony Chen calling it an "ideal work" in the Find series' 10-year history.

The company, which started in 2004 as a maker of portable media players, expanded into mobile phones in 2008. Oppo set itself apart from the pack of low-cost Chinese brands over the following years with attention to in-person customer service and an advertising blitz. It emerged as China's top smartphone maker in the annual ranking for 2016.

A fast-rising Huawei later overtook Oppo, which remained a fixture in the top four, jostling with Xiaomi, Vivo and other rivals.

Oppo also has become a competitor pursuing new technology in quick charging and other areas. The company was No. 8 in terms of international patent filings in 2020, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization, and No. 3 among Chinese companies, trailing Huawei and display panel maker BOE Technology Group.

Oppo shops in provincial cities let users have their phones repaired in person -- an advantage over Xiaomi, whose presence is mostly online. As some stores run out of Huawei phones, customers are switching to Oppo, which boasts one of China's strongest networks of sales channels, IDC analyst Wang Xi said.

Rivals also are increasing product releases this year. Industry analysts see smartphone shipments in China rising around 5% in 2021, the first growth in five years.

But this rise comes off the low base during the coronavirus pandemic year of 2020. Projected shipments of roughly 350 million units for 2021 are about 20% below the market's 2016 peak. The global chip shortage may curb smartphone production and sales as well.

Faced with a saturated market, smartphone makers are shifting to new earnings drivers. Xiaomi, which also makes laptops and internet-enabled appliances, announced plans in March to invest $10 billion over 10 years in electric vehicles, encouraged by incentives for zero-emissions cars.

Huawei is broadening the lineup of its personal computers and televisions, while also expanding its automotive business. Just this week, the company unveiled automated-driving technology featuring its HarmonyOS operating system. Beyond China, South Korea's LG Electronics has decided to leave the smartphone market altogether.

Oppo has fallen behind these rivals in business diversification, releasing its first TV only in November 2020.

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