Most phone makers say they listen to consumers, but ZTE may be willing to go farther than any of its rivals.
At CES in January, the company announced "Project CSX," which would solicit suggestions from the Internet for the company to make ... almost anything. It's like Kickstarter turned upside-down: where Kickstarter is full of ideas looking for money, CSX was money looking for an idea.
Then we didn't hear about CSX for a while, as ZTE focused its energies on developing its excellent Axon 7 smartphone. But now it's back, and ready for your ideas. As of today, you can go to community.zteusa.com and propose concepts for ZTE to make into a product to be released "in 2017," the company says.
It Doesn't Have to Be a Phone
ZTE came by our offices a few months ago to talk CSX, and made its parameters clearer. The CSX product doesn't have to be a phone, but it has to be something that ZTE could conceivably build with its existing expertise in the next year. In our conversation with ZTE, that included drones, sensors, cameras and projectors, for instance. Augmented and virtual reality could also play a part: ZTE's VR headset is really just a phone holder.
According to ZTE, suggestions have three requirements: "it must be a mobile product, the technology must be realistically possible by 2017, and the final product must be affordable for the general population." Web users will get to vote on ideas at various stages of the process, and creators of popular ideas will get "small cash prizes." (Of course, they'll also be giving their idea up to ZTE.)
The idea here isn't just to develop a gadget, of course. ZTE is the current fourth-largest smartphone maker in the US after Samsung, Apple, and LG, but still has little brand visibility or loyalty, even though it has high-profile sponsorships with the NBA and PGA.
I've been following ZTE since visiting its headquarters in China in 2011, and the company has always seen itself as having a more Silicon Valley start-up-like attitude than its giant rival, Huawei. In recent years, OnePlus, a spin-off of giant Chinese phone maker BBK, has captured global techies' imaginations with its lineup of phones. ZTE made a stab at generating that kind of buzz with the Axon last year, but it didn't break through as a social hit.
So what's really going on here is ZTE trying to develop an identity and nurture a community. By getting people to suggest gadgets with the dream that one might be built, the company draws them into its orbit, gets its name known, and might even sell a few Axon phones along the way.