ZTE isn’t exactly a household name in the United States, but that hasn’t stopped the Chinese handset maker from taking an 8% share of the American smartphone market in the second quarter of this year. According to IDC, ZTE’s market share in the United States has increased from 4.2% in the first quarter of 2014, which means the company is now the fourth most successful handset maker in the United States at the moment, behind Apple, Samsung, and LG.
In most AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile stores, it takes a while to find the ZTE phones, buried in the back, past the latest from Apple and Samsung. But they’re there. In AT&T stores it’s the ZTE Maven, which has a screen, speakers, and a processor with capabilities somewhere between the iPhone 5 and 6. As Tony Greco, ZTE’s head of U.S. retail marketing, puts it, “These were state-of-the-art features two years ago.” The Maven’s draw, really, is price. Without any subsidies from a wireless carrier, the phone costs just $60. And it’s not even one of the company’s cheaper models. ZTE is quietly becoming a force in the U.S. by selling good enough phones at low prices—smaller prepaid smartphones for $30, basic phones with QWERTY keyboards for about the same, and so on. The Chinese company’s products are among the cheap phones of choice at three of the big four U.S. carriers. (Verizon doesn’t carry them.) ZTE claimed about 8 percent of America’s smartphone market in the second quarter of this year, says researcher IDC, up from 4.2 percent in the first quarter of 2014. That ranks the company fourth among smartphone makers overall, behind Apple, Samsung, and LG. “We came from nowhere, and now we are a solid force,” says Lixin Cheng, head of ZTE’s U.S. operations.