Ina Fried

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China’s ZTE Quietly Becoming a Force in Global, U.S. Smartphone Markets

While most of the world’s largest cellphone makers are household names, there’s a pretty good chance that you have never heard of the company at No. 4 on the list.

In part, that’s because ZTE is best known for the phones it sells in China, its home market. In recent years, though, ZTE has begun to make inroads in the U.S. Its progress, however, has been largely invisible to consumers.

ZTE’s phones and hotspots tend to bear the brand of the carriers selling them, rather than its own, but the company said that, in time, it expects to see its name out there more.

“We understand the U.S. market is primarily a market driven by the carriers,” ZTE U.S. CEO Lixin Cheng said in an interview at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show. “Compared with some of our competitors, we are more willing to customize our product.”

In 2011, the company debuted a number of new products, including the Chorus phone for Cricket, and the Android-based Avail smartphone for AT&T.

So far this year, ZTE has introduced just one product — a hotspot for Verizon. In the coming months, though, ZTE plans a number of products for the U.S., including several for fast new LTE data networks.

“We will launch an LTE smartphone, tablet and mobile hotspot, and other data products in the United States,” Cheng said. “That’s our strategy this year.”

The company also plans to support both Android and Windows Phone smartphones, with plans on tap to launch a Microsoft-powered smartphone in the U.S. this year.

“We will make sure we have a wide competence in-house to support both operating systems,” said Cheng, who noted that Microsoft is a key partner for his company for its current “Mango” version of Windows Phone, as well as for its upcoming “Tango” low-end effort. ZTE is also interested in what Microsoft has in store with Windows 8.

ZTE began life in 1998 as an effort to bring telephony to more of rural China.

Cheng said the company sees a similar opportunity in the U.S., where smartphones are still either pricey or tied to expensive contracts.

As has been a challenge for fellow Chinese networking-device maker Huawei, some have raised questions over whether ZTE’s products — particularly networking gear — pose security risks.

Cheng rebuffs such concerns, noting that the company is publicly traded, with a largely independent board. And as for the security of its networks, Cheng notes that ZTE is already the key infrastructure provider behind Gogo’s inflight Wi-Fi.

“Our company’s values (are) very comparable with America’s values,” he said.

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