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ZTE rips a page from Samsung’s Galaxy S playbook

ZTE wants to make the leap into the premium smartphone league in the US.

The Chinese telecommunications vendor, the fourth-largest smartphone vendor in the US, on Tuesday introduced the first product in its new Axon flagship series. But unlike the Samsung or HTC route of partnering with all of the US carriers to sell the device, ZTE will sell the phone on its own website.

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The Axon Pro will sell for $449.98 unlocked and initially only work with AT&T and T-Mobile. The phone will start shipping on July 27.

ZTE’s decision to take its new flagship brand directly to consumers is part of a broader push by lesser-known smartphone manufacturers to bypass the usual distribution route of the carriers in an attempt to build their own brand awareness. These companies have struggled to sell their slickest products at carrier stores, where sales of Apple’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy S smartphones have dominated.

Instead, companies such as ZTE, as well as Huawei and Alcatel, are pushing their own websites, or ones affiliated with online retailers such as Amazon, as the destination for affordable but high-quality smartphones. ZTE already said another sub-brand, its Nubia Z9, would go on sale in the US through its own website later this year.

It’s been a boon for bargain hunters who know where to look for a deal, although a vast majority of people still prefer to buy their smartphones from a wireless carrier.

“This is a small segment of the market right now,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis. “Consumers are going to need an overwhelming push to change.”

ZTE has been keen on making a bigger splash here. It took a curious route with the invitations to the launch event for Axon. The company sent out notifications of the Tuesday event packed with a Cardboard-esque virtual reality viewer. ZTE’s name wasn’t mentioned on the invitation, which listed a website for Axon, leading some to speculate that it was a potentially new venture.

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