Meet Kazam, the new UK smartphone manufacturer taking aim at the big guns

Top-notch Android smartphones for less cash? "We’re not spending money on sponsoring David Beckham or the Olympics."

“Do I want to buy an HTC for a Zoe moment, or a Samsung for eyeball scrolling? Do I want to pay a premium for these features?"

Michael Coombes, CEO of UK smartphone start-up Kazam, is banking on the answer being "No."

Chances are you've no idea who or what Kazam, or indeed a Kazam device, is. The people behind Kazam are Coombes and co-founder/CMO James Atkins, ex-senior employees of HTC UK & Ireland who quit the firm earlier this year to launch a new venture. This new venture, the 'what' part, is a UK-based smartphone brand that announced its existence in May. Kazam has plans to launch a comprehensive range of Android-based devices – spanning my-first-smartphones to high-end phablets – into the European market in September.  

Since May, the company has been busy opening up satellite offices in Spain, Denmark, Poland, Germany and France. Its hopes are sky-high: Coombes aims to have Kazam in Europe's top five smartphone manufacturers within three years, and its target isn't the likes of Alcatel and Sagem - it's the big guns, such as Samsung and Apple.

"If you want the core features that those devices bring at a very competitive price point," says Coombes, "and with a design that’s still really sexy, then I’d like to think people would consider a Kazam device."

To call this a tall order would be a ridiculous understatement. So, how?

Just as much, for less

One strand of Kazam's mobile strategy is faintly reminiscent of Apple's approach to features: if something's not going to be used, leave it out. The difference is that it's applying this to Android smartphones, in which competition is traditionally about one-upmanship: huge brands slugging it out with superior internals, sleeker designs and ever more inventive added-value features. 

Kazam CEO Michael Coombes

Kazam thinks that it has devices that go toe-to-toe with Apple, Samsung and HTC on hardware, design and reliability, but it isn't even trying to compete with the added-value stuff. Developing the likes of Samsung's Smart Scroll and HTC's Zoe is expensive and – so goes the theory – most punters would rather have good gadgets for less cash.

"The brands that define themselves by technology are in this arms race to constantly differentiate. I think that can sometimes lead to developing tech to be different rather than because it's necessarily the right thing to do," says Atkins.

Coombes agrees. "We’re not worried about having 20,000 R&D engineers creating features we don’t really want. We’re seeing tech-savvy customers saying, ‘We love HTC but we don’t need Sense, we want native Android; we love our Samsung device but we don’t want TouchWiz, we want native Android.’”

Every Kazam device will run the sort of unadorned Android you get on a Nexus device, or an AOSP version of the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4. But, says Kazam, they won't carry the high prices of those devices, as the company R&D costs are lower than those of competitors. All of Kazam's R&D is done by NF Technology Limited, a Chinese smartphone developer, under scrutiny from Head of Products Daniel Boff who recently joined Kazam from WDS.

And there's another way that Kazam's keeping costs down, says Coombes: "We're not spending money on sponsoring David Beckham or the Olympics."

More after the break...

Risky business

There's good reason that Samsung sponsors the Olympics or HTC ropes in Robert Downey Jr. for a campaign. The smartphone market is saturated. BlackBerry is teetering on the brink, and even HTC is struggling. Visibility is key, and without the marketing budget of a megacorp, it's going to be a huge challenge for Kazam to get itself seen.

Kazam CMO James Atkins

And while there's no doubt that Android offers as good a mobile experience as any on the market (well, Sense 5 is pretty damn good too), with a conspicuous lack of Kazam hardware or pricing, it's impossible to judge whether its handsets will be compelling enough to make people think twice before picking up an HTC or an iPhone. 

Indeed, with devices such as the Nexus 4 already offering unadorned Android on outstanding hardware for mid-range money, Kazam will have its work cut out.

Atkins tells us, "It's about more than just the handset," and hints at a wider strategy that hinges on top-notch background services. He also thinks there's much to be made of the company's local approach: when was the last time you bought a smartphone from a British manufacturer, or even a European one? Atkins wouldn't be drawn on specifics in either case, but the idea of a home-grown smartphone is certainly an appealing one (check out how nuts the US went over the Moto X).

Coombes is similarly bullish that Kazam’s no-nonsense approach can achieve great things in a short time. “We’re not trying to do anything other than the basics: great-looking devices with features, without compromising on quality. I’m 100 per cent confident that Kazam will be a big player in a few years’ time; when you mention Kazam everyone will know who we are.”

A good start would be a few killer devices - it's going to be interesting to see what September brings.

UPDATE: Kazam Tornado 2 5.0 hands on review 

Comments

I'd like clearer use of the headline "UK smartphone manufacturer". I am in the UK, a little country with high unemployment and under-employment, too little manufacturing, and a public defecit. It faces unfair competition sometimes. So I google for UK-manufactured products looking for specific things.

  • Does this firm pay taxes to my government services? Very little I guess.
  • Does this firm's factory hire staff in the UK? Or work under UK employment law? Unlikely, otherwise it would say so.
  • Does this firm employ anyone in the UK at all except for a PR agent, a sales team and a couple of founders who probably pay tax offshore? Probably not: we read that their R&D is done in China.
  • Does this phrase "UK ... manufacturer" have any reason to be applied to Kazam at all? Under the terms of the 1968 trades descriptions act defining "made in Britain" and similar labels, no.

Please tell me if I am wrong - a UK-made phone would be worth a look.

Interesting stuff, but it will be tough for a small company to survive on price alone, as you'll have a dozen Chinese and Tiwanese competitors churning out cheap android handsets at ever lower prices, as well as the big companies dumping stock of their less successful handsets at a loss.

Lets face it, in two or three years, the spec of a Samsung Galaxy IV will probably be available in a £99 PAYG handset.

On the other hand, if Kazam can invest in a product  designer and give their phones a distinctive and cool look, and sell at prices similar or slightly lower than the big names they might be able to carve a niche. The next phase would be to utilise the branding and cool factor to charge a slight premium over all of the uber cheap devices.

Although the Andriod market is saturated with tech for geeks like me, none of the phones or tablets look half as cool as their Apple equivalents. I reckon there's a huge gap in the market for cool looking, decently priced Android handsets.

And as for the name Kazam, it just puts you right in the mix with all the other clones. If you're a British company, why not go for an upscale sounding British name? Brompton, Molton Brown, Burberry are the kind of things I'd be looking to emulate. And I'm sure they won't be manufacturing in the UK, but that's never done Dyson much harm.

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