May 13, 2008 No-one is in any doubt about how hot the iPhone has been since the June 2007 birth. It’s a gizmo lover’s dream. Glomming to the hype on the basis that “imitation is the most sincere form of flattery” are a bunch of phones spied by Todd Robbins this week in Bangkok. They’re not quite as authentic as the Hiphone i32, but more than enough to fool your Grandma. Todd takes up the story …

It beats me why someone would want to buy a fake iPhone – maybe it’s the same people who would buy a fake Prada handbag? The decision to save a few dollars buying an iClone will probably get you a bunch of usability headaches and non-authentic functionality from the get-go. With the iPhone or the iClone, you get what you pay for. Yes, the fakes often cram a lot of bells and whistles for THB6000-8000 (approx US$180 - $240), but the ingenious iPhone User Interface isn’t there, touch screens are invariably stylus based and you can forget about any of the third party applications working with an iClone. Finally, the iPhone’s important music function is crippled in a clone, because syncing with iTunes is a no go.

In the last few weeks I’ve now seen two phones with enough use of the Apple logo and similar enough in form factor to trap the unwary. Their packaging brazenly borrows from the original, and one of them even had the clear plastic tray to cradle the phone inside the black box. They’re not as close as these offerings from Solomobi (here, here and here) and Meizu, but close enough to mobilise Apple’s lawyers we suspect.

I stumbled across the first of these phones while cruising the massive MBK shopping complex in Bangkok a week back and unfortunately, I only had my (real) iPhone with me, so the first set of pics are a bit hazy thanks to the beating the exposed lens gets on my iPhone.

The shots show a phone marketed as the X-88 by MXNEC.

MXNEC is an innovative Thai phone distributor offering an array of phones with such features as stylus touch screen, a wristwatch phone, a TV phone, and an MP3 phone with an inbuilt accelerometer, designed so that you can change music tracks with gestures (presumably not suitable for jogging or dancing).

MXNEC markets a range of phones made in Taiwan under its own brand, and the phone itself does not appear to pretend to be an Apple iPhone, but what caught my eye was the packaging that is remarkably similar to that of Apple’s distinctive iPhone – certainly close enough to fool your grandma, but anyone who has been anywhere near current media will know that it is not an iPhone. The image library shows the packaging I saw that day, labelling it as a UFO, but, well, you can be the judge by checking the images.

I suspect that MXNEC might need a few lessons in international patent law, as apart from the packaging on the first phone, which I did see, I came across a second phone on the company web site which uses the Apple logo on the phone, seemingly as the outline for a speaker. (see image library)

When I went back to MBK, I was disappointed to find the store had closed down LINK), but they hadn’t taken all their posters with them and as you can see from the attached, somewhat crumpled poster (apologies – I had to extract it through the grate, so it got a little damaged), the company is still selling the above mentioned M-222 complete with Apple logo and a new sexy pink M-3000, featuring a reversed Apple logo on the rear of the phone.

Fortunately, next time I visited MBK, I had a decent camera with me to capture yet another iPhone imposter.

This time I didn’t get to identify the manufacturer, though we were told that it was made in Taiwan. Whomever makes it, they were certainly free with their association with Apple, as the box and the phone made liberal use of the Apple icon and the unique Apple packaging including the clear plastic tray that cradles the phone. The phone’s form factor was very close to the iPhone.

The size of the THB5900 (US$184) phone and the silver bezel were very close to the iPhone though it was a tad thicker. The black and silver colour scheme with Apple logo on the back were very similar. The back sported a different camera lens location and what we think is a speaker, and the front has a few additional buttons, and the touch screen is a stylus touch screen and navigation is very difficult.

We got to play with the phone briefly, until my colleague produced a camera and then time ran short indeed for hands-on investigation. From the brief time available, the user interface appeared nothing like the Iphone’s and try as I might, I could access nothing that looked like the user interface of the iPhone as displayed on the product’s packaging. It reminded me of being a kid and seeing the advertising on cereal boxes announcing “free toy inside”. Once you dug your hand to the bottom of the box and retrieved your prize toy, it never seemed as cool as the picture on the box.

The manual was in Chinese and the retail staff were decidedly uncooperative with information, but if a picture is worth a thousand words, check out the image library.

But make no mistake, some of these iClones would definitely fool your grandmother, and maybe even your spouse, at least until you turned it on. We suspect Apple will soon have a platoon of lawyers on this one. I don’t believe Apple is losing any real sales to the iClones (fake Prada bag owners probably would never buy a real Prada bag) but there’s unquestionably damage being done to one of the cleanest and most respected technology brands in history.

Todd Robbins

View gallery - 34 images