When Impression Electronics, a brand of Ukrainian-made gadgets, started selling computers in 1997, the must-have computing device was a bulky tower-style desktop with a CD-RW drive and an Intel Pentium II processor.
Nineteen years later, Impression Electronics still makes hardware, devices that weren’t even a glint in an inventor’s eye back in the late 1990s – including smartphones, tablets and monoblock computers.
But while Impression Electronics is still the top performer with a 27-percent share on the Ukrainian market, according to a recent study by market researcher GFK Ukraine, the brand is moving with the times, shifting away from the shrinking desktop segment to mobile gadgets.
In fact, the company was one of the first to start selling tablet computers in 2011, not long after Apple introduced its groundbreaking iPad device, according to Georgy Chernyavsky, the board chairman of Navigator, which owns the Impression Electronics brand.
“The project was a great risk, because nobody knew if the product would attract customers,” Chernyavsky said.
Entering the fiercely competitive smartphone market in 2014 was another risk, Chernyavsky said.
However, the brand has one feature that sets it apart from its international rivals – its home-grown Ukrainian pedigree. The company has changed its marketing approach, emphasizing that its products are Ukrainian-made to capitalize on the surge of patriotism arising from the EuroMaidan Revolution.
Actually, the hardware that goes into the company’s smartphones is not of Ukrainian origin. There are no production facilities in the country that could produce parts of good enough quality, according to Chernyavsky. Instead, its smartphones and tablet computers are assembled in the Chinese city of Shenzhen.
Chernyavsky says that Asian companies don’t usually perform thorough tests after a device is assembled, and some minor defects can cause unexpected closures of Windows, random crashes, or other glitches. So the firm has another facility in China where it carries out quality control checks before products are shipped to Ukraine.
“A few technical checks can significantly enhance quality,” Chernyavsky said. “The company tests batteries, Wi-Fi modems and accessories after the devices are assembled.”
Navigator was born out of the Chinese electronics manufacturing boom of the early 1990s, when cheap, off-the-shelf computer components started to flood into the personal computer market. Companies in Ukraine started churning out cheap-and-cheerful desktop computer assemblies from parts sourced in Asia, and three Ukrainian entrepreneurs, Chernyavsky, Oleksand Radchenko and Dmitry Osipov, teamed up to create Navigator, which a few years later started to produce computers under the Impression Electronics brand.
Chernyavsky recalled the first steps in the business back in the 1990s, in the middle of the financial crisis that raged after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He said the founders had to take loans at 100 percent interest, and sold computers to former Communist Party bosses and heads of collective farms.
Jump forward two decades, and the company has expanded the range of products it sells, and is even developing devices targeted at special consumer groups. These include a tablet aimed at kids, which has a sturdier body and apps for kids specifically matched to the device. The company is also working on tablets with simplified software and clearer, larger graphical interfaces for the elderly.
The company is also using its technical capabilities in cultural and artistic events to burnish its Ukrainian image. In one recent, eye-catching event in Kyiv, the company used some technical wizardry to “animate” the monument to Ukrainian military leader Bohdan Khmelnytskiy on Sofiyivska square in the Ukrainian capital.
“Ukraine should be proud of its intellectual potential,” Chernyavsky said.
However, he added that “trust in local producers is what our relationship with our customers requires.”