Windows devices, chasing specs, and where innovation matters: A chat with KAZAM's James Atkins

In June 2013, KAZAM was born. Established by two former HTC executives – Michael Coombes, now KAZAM’s CEO; and James Atkins, the company’s chief marketing officer – the new brand was built on a simple promise: “stunning design, robust hardware and intuitive technology, underpinned by outstanding customer service”.

KAZAM's latest, the Tornado 552L

Today, less than two years since starting up, the company’s range has grown to include dozens of devices and variants, including its very first tablets – running Windows 8.1 – and its latest handset, the sleek and stylish Tornado 552L.

But in many parts of the world, KAZAM is still completely unknown, and even in the European markets in which it has launched its devices, it still remains a relatively small fish in some very big ponds. And yet, the company must be doing something right, to have risen from nothing to such a diverse range of devices in just 21 months.

KAZAM CMO, James Atkins

I wanted to find out more about this, and the recent Mobile World Congress offered the perfect opportunity to stop off at the KAZAM stand, where its CMO James Atkins took some time out of his packed schedule for a chat about what makes KAZAM different.

But before we got into any of that, I wanted to start at the very beginning.

A blurb on the company’s website states: “Founded in 2013, KAZAM exists to question the European mobile industry.” My first question, then, was simple: What exactly needed to be questioned about the European mobile industry?

“We felt that the industry was getting quite stagnated in the way it was bringing products to market,” Atkins explained. “It had almost become like a big machine – they were turning the big handle, and every year, a new phone popped out the end, but it was just a very bland sort of experience. Stuffing an extra megapixel in, or trying to make it a little bit slimmer or a little bit faster.”

"You have to have great technology - but it's about keeping it simple"But more than this, he added, smartphone vendors are now splitting into two very different camps: those that focus on the technology in their devices, and those that focus on price. Companies that compete primarily on price are seeing their tiny profit margins being squeezed hard, but Atkins believes that tech-focused brands – those that promote their devices based on their spec sheets – face their own set of problems:

“The brands that define themselves on technology are saying, ‘we have to be different from a technology point of view’, so they’re innovating within the phone. And I’m not here to question what they’re doing, but from where we sit, a lot of what’s being done is quite gimmicky. It’s something just to say, ‘look we’re different from everyone else’.”

So if KAZAM isn’t focusing on the very lowest prices, or on cramming its devices full of cutting-edge specs, how exactly is it approaching the market? Atkins explained: “We have a sort of mantra internally, which is ‘innovating in areas often overlooked’. We innovate in areas that are not necessarily the sexy end of the market; it’s not about pixels and processors for us – it’s about user experience.”

That all sounds a bit like marketing fluff on the face of it – but what exactly does it mean? According to Atkins, part of it involves making an effort to put themselves in the position of the consumer.

"If you drop your phone and your screen smashes, we've got your back"“We started looking at the bigger, the wider proposition,” he said. “We asked the question: what would add value to a consumer proposition? And one of the first things we looked at was screen protection.

People drop their phones – it happens. And when it does happen, it’s really annoying, and sometimes they smash, sometimes they don’t. So we looked at how we could set up our business model to say, ‘You know what? If you do drop your phone and your screen smashes, we’ve got your back.’”

The free screen replacement offer – which entitles customers to one free repair in the first twelve months of ownership – is available on every KAZAM smartphone, including many priced at well under £100/€100. This service is one part of what the company calls its ‘Extended Proposition’, and the second component is a facility called KAZAM Rescue.

Essentially, it’s a remote diagnostic tool that allows a KAZAM representative to remotely gain total access to your device in order to help out with any kind of issue, from helping customers set up their email to dealing with accidental deletion of a photo.

Atkins noted: “They have a dashboard with everything that comes up on the phone; I mean everything, like from the temperature your battery is running at, through to what version of Android you’re running. They can literally change stuff there and then, they can download the new version of Android to you, tidy it all up.”

Of course, the privacy implications of opening up your device to full, unfettered access by a third-party are potentially troubling, and I interjected at that point to ask him if the company had carefully examined all of the issues surrounding such concerns."Microsoft have been hugely supportive of us coming to market"

“Yes, absolutely,” he replied. “It’s all user-driven, so what happens is that you’re invited to participate in a KAZAM Rescue session, and you launch the app that’s pre-installed on the phone. They then give you a six-digit password, you type it in. Privacy issues are hugely important, and we would never do anything untoward.”

He added, with a hint of a smile: “I would just caveat it by saying that our contact centre agents don’t care about your holiday photos; they’re there to sort out the VPN settings on your email. Yes, they could look at your holiday photos if they wanted to, but you can see what they’re doing at any time. You can terminate the service at any point, and it breaks your connection.”

Unfortunately, KAZAM Rescue currently works only on the company’s Android devices – but the good news for Windows Phone users is that support will be added for those devices in the not-too-distant future, as Atkins pointed out: “Microsoft have been hugely supportive of us coming to market. We have six Windows devices, and what they're really keen for us to do is that we have a parity of proposition across Android and Windows Phone, so they’re keen to work with us and see how we can replicate that KAZAM Rescue proposition on our Windows Phone devices. So over the next few weeks and months, we’ll make sure that we deliver something of that nature.”

KAZAM says that it pre-installs just four apps on its handsets

The third and final tenet of the Extended Proposition is the company’s complimentary three-year warranty on its devices, which it believes is an industry first. That said, its impressive warranty commitment isn’t quite as clear cut as it first sounds – but KAZAM believes its approach is both practical and “really clever”, while at the same time eliminating a point of irritation for its customers.

In fact, all KAZAM devices actually come with a two-year warranty as standard – but when customers register their handsets (to sign up for the free screen replacement program), they’re invited to upgrade to a three-year warranty free of charge. The catch? In order to get this free upgrade, they’re asked to install three apps from the ‘KAZAM Recommends’ collection. If you install the apps, you’ll get your free upgrade – but crucially, you don’t even need to keep the apps installed on your device after that, although KAZAM (and its partners who are paying the company to promote their apps) obviously hope that you will.

Atkins believes that smartphone buyers are sick of turning on a device for the first time and having to scroll through “seventeen pages of crap that you absolutely don’t want and you’re not interested in.” KAZAM therefore installs only four apps on its devices (in addition to the standard Android or Windows Phone apps that come pre-loaded with the OS), and instead of raking in cash by stuffing its phones full of third-party software, Atkins says the company is still “making a revenue stream out of those partners, but we’re using that revenue stream to fund the three-year warranty.”

I asked him if this an example of KAZAM ‘disrupting the status quo’ – a soundbite that Atkins himself used in interviews around the time of the company’s launch, when it was still trying to get noticed.

“Yeah, ‘disrupt the status quo’… I’m getting a bit tired of that line now!” he replied. “My new line – which I’ll be tired of in two years’ time – is ‘innovating in areas that are often overlooked’. I think that’s a really great example of KAZAM saying, ‘how can we deliver a three-year warranty, and how can we address this issue of thousands of apps that nobody wants on their phone?’ When I make the phone, I don’t know if I’m going to sell it to a 10-year-old girl or a 60-year-old man. So how can I pre-install apps?”

KAZAM has clearly given much thought to developing its product as something that extends beyond just the device itself, and into the broader experience of actually using and owning that device. But as much as the promise of great service and no bloatware may appeal to some consumers, let’s not kid ourselves: the hardware matters too.

And for a company that doesn’t build its own devices, it’s surely a challenge to get that side of things right. KAZAM enlists the services of original design manufacturers (ODMs) like China’s Gionee to build its devices, using off-the-shelf hardware designs, which it then customizes and tweaks to meet its own requirements. However, if your impression is that KAZAM simply buys a white-label handset and slaps its logo on it, and you certainly wouldn't be alone in that belief – it’s not quite accurate.

Atkins told me that KAZAM has a research and development centre in Shenzhen, China, where just under a hundred hardware and software engineers work on devices, collaborating with their ODM partners. Every aspect of a new hardware reference design can be customised, from the location of the buttons to the design of the rear cover. Every change that is made can eventually add up to hundreds of hours of testing in order to certify the device for sale."We don't innovate on technology. Our view is, a phone's a phone."

While KAZAM doesn’t design its own devices from scratch, then, it still has plenty of engineering input into every handset or tablet that it eventually launches – but only up to a point. As Atkins explained – more than once, during our conversation – the company isn’t interested in pushing the limits of smartphone specs in the way that many of its largest rivals do. “We don’t innovate on technology,” he said. “That’s our proposition. Our view is, a phone’s a phone.”

That certainly sounds a bit odd, coming from a senior executive at a tech company. But he went on: “I’m not trying to be dismissive of technology, because it’s hugely important. But it’s not about saying ‘look, we’re different, we’ve innovated, we’ve created a new way that you swipe this, or a new way that you do this’ – that’s not what KAZAM is about. KAZAM is about saying ‘what is the norm in terms of technology?’ If someone invents this new screen or whatever, that is accepted by the market as being the new benchmark, then we will follow that.”

“You have to have great technology,” he explained, “but it’s about picturing technology as ‘keeping it simple’.”

While KAZAM has been selling phones since 2013, it was only last month that the company announced its first tablets. Atkins admitted that KAZAM had “sat on the fence with tablets” for a while, but he said that the company didn’t want to simply create a ‘me-too’ product: “If we’re just about putting something on a shelf that’s the same as everybody else, that’s just going to get lost in the dross that’s out there, we’re not interested in doing that.”

He continued: “We looked at Android tablets for a long time, and we just felt that we couldn’t bring anything of worth to the market. Yeah, we could do a cheap Android tablet – but there are lots of cheap Android tablets out there.”

Of course, there are plenty of cheap Windows tablets out there now too, a point that I brought up. He responded: “Windows is not as aggressively priced as Android… but it’s a nicer sell. The Windows platform has been designed for multi-screen – laptop, tablet, Windows Phone – and it’s a nice story to communicate.”

"Windows is a nicer sell [than Android]. Its designed for laptop, tablet, phone, and that's a nice story to communicate"If those points sound familiar to you, you’re not the only one – in fact, I’d heard much the same points being made just an hour earlier over at Microsoft’s Mobile World Congress stand, where it was pushing the same ‘Windows for multiple screens’ message as part of its Windows 10 proposition. Does that mean KAZAM is committed to launching Windows 10 devices?

Atkins answered this by first pointing out the company’s commitment to Microsoft’s operating systems so far. After launching its first Windows Phone just six months ago, he said, the company now has six Windows devices, split evenly between phones and tablets. He wouldn’t be drawn on exactly when KAZAM plans to launch its first devices designed for Windows 10, but said that the company is “committed to the relationship” it has built with Microsoft, and confirmed that new Windows phones and tablets are indeed on the way.

The company announced its latest Windows Phones just last month: the Thunder 450W and Thunder 450WL. The bright yellow bodywork of the 450W will already be familiar to many in parts of the world not served by KAZAM, as the Blu Win HD and XOLO Win Q1000, which are based on the same design.

The company’s latest Tornado 552L Android handset has been developed from the Gionee S5.5, and like the Tornado 348 before it, the new device is incredibly thin – just 5.5mm thick. But are super-slim phones really what consumers want? Or is this just a case of KAZAM chasing headlines by launching another wafer-thin device?

“‘World’s slimmest headphone’ is a headline; ‘slim phone’ is not,” Atkins replied. "This is 5.5mm; it’s not like, ‘right, we’ve got to get it as slim as we possibly can’. It’s about design, and from a design perspective, it works better because it’s slim. If we launched a really fat phone, everyone would go, ‘why are have you got such a fat phone?’ It’s not about obsessing about thinness, it’s about obsessing about design. It’s in your pocket all the time; you go out, it’s put on the table. I think design is important.”

But KAZAM's focus on thinness in its marketing recently landed it in hot water in the United Kingdom. A TV ad for the Tornado 348 - the Guinness World Record holder for the world's thinnest phone at just 5.15mm thick - was banned last month by the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which upheld complaints that the ad was "offensive because it was overtly sexual and objectified women, and because the content bore no relationship to the advertised product."

I asked Atkins if he was concerned about the possible damage that the ruling might do to the brand in the UK, or if the company was just taking it on the chin, in the belief that all publicity is good publicity.

He replied: "We respect the decisions that the ASA made to take the ad down, and we’ve acted in accordance with their requirements. It is what it is, I’m not going to go into the details around it. It is a superb, sexy, slim phone, and we wanted to articulate that in our advert. How we went about that is very subjective, depending on who you speak to."

But he added that the KAZAM brand is maturing and 'moving on'. "The feel of the brand is fun, it's engaging; we're not trying to be too serious in what we're doing. And that is obviously very recent, and that's what you're going to see more of, rather than maybe what we've seen in the past."

"It's all tongue-in-cheek," he continued. "We talk about screen protection and there's a condom on the screen - 'not that kind of protection!' I'm not sure if it qualifies as 'humour', but we try to have a laugh with stuff!"

To bring our chat to a close, I asked Atkins for a few final thoughts on what’s next for the company that he co-founded, and which has come so far in such a short amount of time. One segment that they’re keeping an eye on is wearables, which he described as “a hugely exciting market”.

“We’re not involved in it at the moment, because we don’t think we can add any value there at the moment,” he said. “But we watch it with great interest, and when we do think there’s something we can bring to it, we absolutely will take advantage of that.”

And what of the company’s expansion plans? Might we see KAZAM entering new markets anytime soon? The company is already selling its devices in fifteen European countries, with 150 people across nine regional offices. “We’ve had a hugely successful last twelve months,” Atkins said proudly. “The first twelve months was largely about getting established and developing relationships. We sold some, but not a huge amount. The last twelve months, that’s started to ramp up, and now we need to take it to the next level.”Why buy a KAZAM device? "Because we innovate in areas often overlooked."

On the hardware front, he said that the company has announced “all of our major devices for this year, but we will have a range refresh around September time. It’s an exciting time for KAZAM!”

As our conversation came to an end, I asked him one final question: succinctly, why should I, or anyone else, buy a KAZAM phone? His response was, perhaps, inevitable: “Because we innovate in areas often overlooked.”

That mantra may lack the simple elegance of the slogans and soundbites that so many companies bombard us with every day, but it seems to neatly encapsulate what this company is all about. Those looking for the very cheapest devices, or power-packed flagships with über-specs, may not find what they’re looking for at KAZAM. But the offering that KAZAM has built up to today appears true to its original promise: “Stunning design, robust hardware and intuitive technology, underpinned by outstanding customer service”.

KAZAM says that customers are increasingly warming to its proposition – and for such a young company to have come so far in so little time, we can certainly believe it. We’ll have to wait for an answer to the question of where KAZAM will be in another two years – but given how far it’s come until now, we can’t wait to find out.

Giveaway: Stay tuned to Neowin for an exciting contest in the weeks ahead, when we’ll be giving away one of KAZAM’s latest devices!

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