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Meet the Vietnamese smartphone maker gunning to be the next Apple

por Mike Ventura (2019-11-25)


id="article-body" class="row" section="article-body"> Click here for more Road Trip 2015 stories.HANOI, Vietnam -- The lights in the conference room flickered a couple of times and then turned off completely. The hum of the air conditioner quieted and the room became still -- unnaturally so for a technology company trying to enter the noisy smartphone business.

I was at the Hanoi headquarters of BKAV, a Vietnamese company that's made its money selling security software but now wants a piece of the $2.2 billion smartphone market here. The electricity in the building -- located around the corner from the city's tallest skyscraper, the Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower -- sputtered in the middle of a presentation about the company's first phone. I'm told it "happens sometimes."

In early June, a few weeks before I arrived here, BKAV launched the Bphone, which it touts as the first smartphone designed and made in Vietnam. The sleek device, which comes in six models and costs about $450 to $925, is reminiscent of an iPhone 4 -- but with a bigger, 5-inch screen versus Apple's 3.5-inch display.

BKAV's mission is part of a technological revolution happening in Vietnam. Most of the investment in the country, however, has come from foreign companies looking for ways to more cheaply build their gadgets. That's why BKAV stands out; it's a homegrown company with the goal of building a pricey phone for locals. In some ways, it's following in the footsteps of China's Xiaomi, which built up global credibility for its low-priced smartphones by catering to its home market first.

BKAV's sights, though, are squarely aimed at the premium market.

Making a high-end smartphone "is the dream for every high tech corporation in the world," said Ta Minh Hoang, the BKAV mobile product director who led development of the Bphone. "Making a smartphone is also our dream because we want to become the best technology corporation in the world."

Ta Minh Hoang, "easy1up nguyễn phạm quốc ảnh" BKAV mobile product director, shows off the company's first smartphone, the Bphone, in the company's Hanoi headquarters. Shara Tibken/CNET The Vietnamese aren't afraid to spend money on electronics. Last year, 24 million mobile phones were sold in Vietnam (the population totals about 94 million), according to Strategy Analytics. Smartphone demand is expected to soar here over the coming years.

Sounds great for BKAV, right? The problem is the Vietnamese aren't clamoring for a "made-in-Vietnam" phone. They're happy with their iPhones and the Galaxy devices offered by Samsung. With workers typically making less than $150 a month, the Bphone is too pricey for many. The boastful nature of BKAV's CEO -- who calls Bphone the best smartphone the world -- also goes against the grain of typical Vietnamese humility and has turned many people off. Others are skeptical the company actually designed and manufactured the Bphone here.

"If you can't prove that you make any hardware parts and can't show where your factory is located, then how can it be made-in-Vietnam?" a user identifying himself as No Banh Nha Lau commented on an article about Bphone in May.

Designed in Vietnam
But it was that very factory where I headed next. A run-down industrial complex covered with green corrugated metal, just a 10-minute drive away from BKAV's headquarters, is home to one of two facilities where BKAV workers build the Bphone.

When I visited BKAV's phone assembly plant, about three dozen people were suited up in blue-and-white uniforms. Think a cross between doctor scrubs and mechanic garb. Everyone wore white cloth gloves, surgical face masks and blue cloth hats with rims to keep strands of hair from falling on the smartphone parts.