The gliding gadgets are suddenly everywhere, and someone is going to make a killing. Will it be the guy who patented them, the guy who imported them from China, or Mark Cuban? ... The 2-foot-long, two-wheeled, twin-motored plastic board that glided to the forefront of American popular culture this summer could be the skateboard of the young century. The similarities are there. It’s a zeitgeisty short-distance ride that has started to yield its own, self-sustaining viral culture. And you can definitely draw a line from the amateur videos that helped skate culture conquer America to the sudden tide of Vines and Instagram videos that have made the boards a phenomenon. Then again, the so-called hoverboards could simply be the Tickle Me Elmos of 2015 — ubiquitous, overpriced trinkets with a single holiday-season half-life. Time and the collective attention span of America’s teenagers will tell. ... This much is certain: For some weeks or years to come, these devices will be part of the future. Celebrity endorsements on television and social media, enthusiastic word of mouth, and a sudden crop of internet distributors that can barely import the things fast enough to mark them up and meet demand have seen to that. ... As Wired reported earlier this summer, all of the dozen or so tiny American companies that sell the devices, including IO Hawk, buy from Chinese manufacturers like Hangzhou Chic Intelligent Technology (Chic) and make changes to the boards, typically cosmetic, before selling them in the States.
They’re a physical commodity, but they’re also a meme — popularized by celebrities, shared endlessly on Twitter and Instagram and Vine, discussed to death by the chittering idea factory that is the English-language internet. ... One of those factories is Gaoke (or “High Tech”) Times, a midsize plant situated on 120,000 square feet in a Bao An industrial park. ... churn out 600 boards in a day, for customers in the U.S., U.K., Dubai, and Australia. ... In the two decades Gaoke has been here in Shenzhen, it has made desktop phones, then DVD players, televisions, mobile devices, and eventually tablets, which today are the largest part of its business. ... About six months ago, at the request of some of the company’s existing tablet customers, Gaoke had started manufacturing them. New product crazes present struggling businesses and eager entrepreneurs alike with an opportunity to leave behind glutted markets, and the nature of China’s booming electronics business is to be adaptable to the whims of a global market. ... Fang Zuoyi estimated that there are at least 1,000 factories in the Shenzhen area making hoverboards. ... It starts when a (typically) Western company, eager to cash in on a product made popular by the social internet, contracts a Chinese factory to make it. From here, the idea spreads throughout the elaborate social networks of Chinese electronics manufacturing until the item in question is being produced by hundreds and hundreds of competitors, who subcontract and sell components to each other, even as they all make the same thing. It reaches its saturation point quickly. It moves from product to product without sentiment. And it is proof that our never-ending digital output, our tweets and Vines and Instagrams and Facebook posts, has the power to shape the lives of people on the other side of the world.
Around Shenzhen, since mid-December a cottage industry of more than 1,000 factories that were churning out the boards has shrunk to a couple hundred. “We maybe lost 50% of our revenues after the Amazon announcement,” says Feng, speaking from his shamrock-green factory floor. ... Unlicensed manufacturers had begun copying Chic’s board immediately after it appeared at the Canton trade show. By the summer of 2015, more than a thousand factories—up to 10,000, by some estimates—were making boards for distributors who sold them abroad online. Factories like Feng’s that had been making LED screens or iPhone cases switched to building hoverboards in a matter of days. And many factories, licensed and otherwise, cut corners on safety standards, often by subbing in cheaper, potentially flammable batteries.