Two brothers, one quirky idea and a splash heard around the world

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 September, 2010, 12:00am

It's got the tech world buzzing and businesspeople itching for a slice of the action, and has raised the global profile of the Pearl River Delta's shanzhai (knock-off) capabilities.

The focus of all the excitement is the Apple Peel 520, a gadget designed by two brothers from Henan that can turn an iPod Touch into a mobile phone.

It might still have to clear some intellectual property rights' hurdles before it can storm the mainland and US markets, but gives hope that the mainland's quirky but dynamic shanzhai culture can be the soil from which grass-roots innovation will grow.

One of the brothers, Pan Yong, majored in computer programming at a Henan diploma mill. He knew nothing about hardware when he finished drafting the software for his gadget late last year. His elder brother, Pan Lei, was an interior decorator. He arrived in Jiangmen , Guangdong, early last year, just few months before his brother arrived in Shenzhen.

The Pan brothers did not have the machines to make the device themselves but thanks to Shenzhen's shanzhai culture, it was easy to find small workshops to produce low-cost prototypes.

Shanzhai factories have long been able to copy the latest electronic gadgets, including laptop computers, in just a week. While inferior in quality, the copies look so similar to the real thing that it takes an expert to tell them apart.

Nevertheless, most shanzhai factories do have a fatal weakness: they are good at copying but fall down when it comes to contributing original ideas. 'They lack a very basic understanding of software technology,' Pan Lei says. 'If my brother had not been working alongside them, they could only have made the case and would have been unable to solve very tiny tech problems related to programming.'

So if somebody with creative ideas, such as Pan Yong, is able to combine their original thoughts with the shanzhai factories' gadget assembly skills, even a two-man band can make a splash heard around the world.

It's a technology development model with a proud history. When Steve Wozniak created the Apple computer in his spare time in the 1970s, with Steve Jobs helping out, they were just two young guys who were crazy about technology.

As China's schools produce more 'digital natives' - graduates who have grown up surrounded by information technology - it would not be surprising to see more innovations like the Apple Peel emerging.

It may just be a coincidence but since April, just a few months before the Apple Peel made its debut, some senior Guangdong officials have said publicly that 'shanzhai does not equal counterfeiting' and that shanzhai products which do not encroach on others' IPR should be encouraged.

Their comments are a clear signal that the provincial authorities are well aware of shanzhai culture's potential to be a driving force in their aggressive plan to upgrade Guangdong's industrial profile.

If local authorities are really keen on boosting innovation, it is time for them to think about what they can do for grass-roots inventors like the Pan brothers - people with little money, no government or business connections and no idea how to protect their inventions.

That is the way to see shanzhai culture bloom into something to take on the world.