Phone Chargers: China’s Latest Sharing Economy Fad
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2017-04-13 13:11:22

Having your phone run out of battery will soon be a worry of the past — at least, that’s the ambition of several Chinese shared-charger startups.

As the fierce struggle for cyclists’ loyalty is still ongoing among China’s bicycle-sharing companies, the new battle over shared chargers has begun: The first company to market the service for mobile devices in China is suing one of its competitors for patent infringement.

Industry pioneer Shenzhen Laidian Technology Co. Ltd.’s business model is to set up charging spots in public places that attract heavy foot traffic: such as restaurants, shopping malls, train stations, and airports. For a small fee, a user can borrow one of the fully charged batteries after scanning a QR code with their phone, and they can return the charger later at any station.

Internet analyst Guo Ren told Sixth Tone that he had noticed several shared-charger lending stations at malls in Shanghai, but that current usage levels are still low.

The business world has seen the market’s potential, however. Like people everywhere, many Chinese are hopelessly addicted to their smartphones and constantly at risk of running out of battery power. It is perhaps no wonder that more than 10 startups have already launched or announced services similar to that of Laidian. Several of the companies have received millions of yuan in investment backing over the past two weeks.

Laidian, established in August of 2014, has recently filed patent infringement lawsuits against one of its competitors, Shenzhen Anker Technology Co. Ltd., and its parent company, reported tech news website Lieyun on Wednesday. Laidian is also involved in several other lawsuits with competitors.

Neither company could immediately be reached for comment by Sixth Tone on Thursday. Yuan Bingsong, founder of Laidian, told Lieyun that the company’s competitor had repeatedly sent engineers to Laidian’s charging locations to research the company’s equipment and lending model. According to China’s company credit information database, Laidian owns 32 patents for its products.

Yuan said that due to a lack of awareness of intellectual property rights in China, a large number of copycats quickly follow when an innovative product enters the market. He added that such patent infringement would hurt industrial innovation.

The idea for a shared-charger business model came to Yuan when he found out e-commerce leader Alibaba had sold 2 million power banks in just 24 hours during 2013’s Nov. 11 online shopping bonanza. According to a report by tech news site 36Kr, sales of chargers — usually priced at about 100 yuan ($14) each — reached 32 billion yuan in 2016. According to 36Kr, even though Chinese people now own 1.7 chargers on average, there is nevertheless a market for shared chargers because people frequently forget to bring their own batteries when they leave home.

But not everyone is as optimistic as the startups and their investors. Li Yijing, who runs a pastry store in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone that she noticed some restaurants installing shared-charger stations, but that she didn’t want to follow the trend. Many of her customers charge their phones when they sit down in her shop, but Li thinks they won’t appreciate having to pay for their power. “What they paid for is not just food, but also service,” she said.

On social media, some net users questioned whether shared chargers could leak personal information stored on smartphones. The most recent consumer rights gala shown every year on March 15 by state broadcaster China Central Television showed public charging stations could breach users’ privacy.

Others criticized the quality of the shared chargers. “It took an hour to charge my phone to 60 percent,” wrote one user on microblog platform Weibo.

Deng Hao, 25, told Sixth Tone that he is reluctant to borrow a shared charger and is skeptical of the business model. “When my phone is out of battery, it requires me to scan a QR code,” he said. “What were they thinking?”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: A man walks past a shared charging station for mobile phones in Beijing, April 12, 2017. VCG)