I purchased this device from a street vendor named Elan. It's identical to an iPhone 4, but it runs Android 2.2 and features dual SIM slots and an SDcard slot. It uses plastic where the real thing has metal and glass--but it’s otherwise an excellent simulacrum, even sporting a removable backplate that slides off the way an iPhone’s does. Where the Apple logo should be, there’s the Android mascot, and below it the word “Smartphone.”
It’s hard to know the actual specs, because the box is too busy boasting about features like "Four-story steel TP," "Tencent Microblogging," and "Flying letters." But one thing is clear: Developing countries in South America are leap-frogging the desktop computer age thanks to cheap Android devices like these. Manufactured in China and imported (often illegally) through Paraguay, the devices land at open-air markets like Santa Efigenia in Sao Paulo, Brazil. That's where I found Elan, along with hundreds of other vendors selling bogus phones alongside real, stolen or used devices.
As someone who owns an actual iPhone, it’s natural to wonder: why would anyone want some crappy imitation running Android? It turns out that they’re not exactly imitations, and they’re far from crappy. I’ve been using my fake iPhone non-stop for two weeks on WiFi and 3G, and honestly, it’s not bad: The battery lasts forever and it doesn’t feel like a brick in your pocket.
The lack of conventional Android buttons makes it hard to do things like compose an email, which requires the Menu button. The Home Screen button functions like Back, and the touchscreen is responsive. I can make calls, send and receive texts, play songs and even install apps like Facebook, and it comes with all the pre-loaded apps that older Android devices did in 2010, which is a trip. Elan is honest about the quality of the thing, telling me that if it stops working inside of a month, I can exchange it for a new one.
“These devices are really designed for people in conditions of poverty,” says Ronaldo Lemos, who tipped me off about Santa Efigenia. He is the director of the Center for Technology & Society at the FGV Law School in Rio de Janeiro. My bogus iPhone was 260 real--about $130 USD--the upper limit for a low-end knock-off Android phone like this. Despite wandering between half a dozen kiosks, no one will budge on the price, and many are sold out of fake iPhones entirely.
"These phones have two or three SIM slots, they have digital TV and radio antennas--features that device designers should pay attention to," he explains. That's one reason you won’t find authentic Apple products anywhere at Santa Efigenia, even though older devices like 2G, 3G and 3GS iPhones are well within the price range: People here don’t want them because they are missing key features. Black-market phones often sport two or three SIM slots because not all the mobile networks here are interconnected. Prepaid SIM cards here boast cheap data (Vivo, the most popular network in the big cities here, has a pre-paid data plan that costs only 9 reals, or $4.50 USD, a month). Calls are $0.80 a minute.
At another kiosk, which the vendors refer to as "boxes," a woman named Susan pushes me a fake iPhone 5 featuring 32GB of memory and three SIM slots. A retractable antenna (picture an 80s sedan) provides digital TV reception so I can watch soccer. It’s 400 real, or around $200 USD, which is too rich for my blood considering that the OS isn’t Android, but a pixel-for-pixel iOS imitation built in Java. With a heavy Chinese accent, she claims this phone is actually running iOS 6, which it clearly isn’t--but arguing is pointless because her command of Portuguese only extends to basic phone specifications.
Apple iPhones are not the only fake fare at Santa Efigenia. A Galaxy S knockoff here, running the newest version of Android, Jelly Bean, has a gorgeous 5-inch color screen and admirable build quality for 500 real or $250 USD. By comparison, a real Samsung Galaxy S in Brazil costs around 1700 real, or $850 USD. (Street price in the U.S. is around $600 unlocked.) Bigger tablets and notepads are here too, and the quality is by all appearances excellent. Imitation Samsung devices, many with questionable model names like "Galaxy Gum" and "Galaxy S3 Mini," are even cheaper. [Update: a "Galaxy S3 Mini" was just announced by Samsung today, but it's doubtful the kiosks at this market had authentic pre-production devices.]
I find a vendor named Karam selling authentic Samsung devices, complete with government receipt. He came from Lebanon to sell electronics here, but says that fake devices started showing up about two years ago, undercutting his sales. "I would say seven out of 10 people that come to my box are looking for the illegal phones," he tells me in English. "It's very bad for us."
Elan, who has sold gray-market devices in Santa Efigenia for six years, says these devices are actually cheaper in Brazil than in his native city of Shanghai, since importers here buy in bulk. In China, he says, these devices are distributed legally to individual stores in smaller volume, driving up the price. He isn’t shy about the fact that the device was smuggled in; he tells me up-front that I won’t be getting a nota fiscal, or government receipt.
As a gringo in Sao Paulo, it took me about 10 minutes to find a vendor selling these things once I arrived at the market. And each of the vendors I spoke with gave me a business card with their phone number and box address, in case I wanted more.
Follow @chrisdannen on Twitter.