If timing is everything, China’s world famous knock-off artists have got it down.
Weeks before Apple’s new smart watch hits the shelves, locally made knockoffs or look-alikes that sell for a tenth of the price are flooding Chinese online stores, and are available to US customers on various websites.
They look nearly identical to Apple’s newest product, launched this week in San Francisco and that officially goes on sale April 24. They have the same number of buttons, share the “digital crown” navigation tool, have the same look and feel as the Apple. They tell the time. But at a sale price of $40 – the real smart watches range from $349 to $10,000 -- they don't do everything a genuine item does.
“You have cheap, fast and good...but you can only ever have two" of those qualities, says one person closely involved in the electronics copying business here who asked to remain anonymous.
While the speed and accuracy with which electronic goods can be copied in China can seem astonishing, a cosmetic duplication is often not so difficult to make, says the knock-off expert who advises the small, anonymous firms that make the fakes.
For one thing, Apple unveiled its watch last September, so fakers knew six months ago what it would look like and basically do. Indeed, Chinese manufacturers first showed off Apple watch clones at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.
If a product contains innovative technology, the source explains, it can be copied accurately only if a faker has studied a genuine model. But “an Apple watch is not really innovative,” he says. “There are other smart watches, so that is pretty easy to fake.”
If there are product details he is unsure of, he says, “I wait for the product to come out, or ideally see if I can get it earlier than the release date.” Since so many electronic goods are made in China, where factories “are leaky, very leaky,” he adds, “people will straight up offer that stuff to you.”
Nor does a manufacturer of what the source calls “facsimiles” need to resort only to the black market to see engineering ahead of time. “Companies like Apple buy things from other providers and put them together in a pretty package,” he says. “I don’t even need to ‘pirate’ their stuff; I just buy it from the same guys who sell it to them [ie Apple].”
For the components of a fake Apple watch, the source estimates, “screen, band, case, buttons, processor, Bluetooth module, some other products, I can get all those in a week, at most a month. Then I get people working round the clock turning out prototypes.
“If you really want it to be good,” he goes on, “you wait to get your hands on a real one and then tear it apart, take everything apart and look at all of it.”
That has not so far been possible, or necessary, for makers of knock-off Apple watches. “They are making approximations of the real thing,” says the source, “and that is enough. Nobody expects it to be the real thing unless they are clueless.”
The fake makers do, though, try to associate their products with the real thing. One model calls itself the Aiwatch; its makers seem to have expected Apple to call its invention the iWatch. Another goes by its model number AW08, the two letters presumably standing for Apple Watch, and its user interface is identical to the genuine article.
Some will sync with an iPhone, as Apple’s watch does, and some will sync with phones running Google’s Android operating system too. But none of them have the heart monitor, nor a number of other special features.
For a $310 saving, many less well- off Chinese customers are likely to conclude, they can live without those features. But in the past, the flood of fakes has not meant fewer sales to wealthier Apple consumers. The iPhone 6, for example, was massively copied before it went on sale in China last October. Yet it became the best selling smartphone in China during the last three months of 2014.