The article was written by Matthew Anthony Pace and was published as the feature article on the Sunday Times Tech-Sunday (19th April 2015)
Over the last decade there has been an increase in online retailers selling cheaper unbranded electrical products as their main business focus, these products are being manufactured and supplied all over the world.
Unbranded products or Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) products are meant to be used for creating a branded product, whether for a lower quality brand or even higher quality brands with minor changes done by the brand owner to label the product as their own.
The standard way for both unbranded and branded product manufacturing process, when it comes to producing a new product such as a wireless router or network connected security camera system is finding a suitable base chipset with most of the required features built in to a single integrated circuit. The chipset manufacturer provides a number of items which help the OEM and brand owners get a product to market quicker, these include development manuals, code examples, demo boards and overall best practices.
With these items a shippable product can with relative ease be pieced together, based entirely off the chipset manufacturer's work at a much lower cost to the OEM and brand owner. With this lower cost though, certain steps can be skipped to keep the price down, such as no additional quality assurance, removing of test features, fixing any accidental bugs that where done by the chipset manufacturer. All these skipped steps can lead to security holes and broken functionality in the end product.
Higher quality branded products still follow the same processes as there cheaper alternatives but include design improvements and additional quality assurance checks to ensure that the product will perform as advertised, no possibility of broken functionality and no security holes. All these added steps done increases the overall production costs, which in turn are then passed to the end user after manufacturing is complete.
As the chipset manufacturers provide the above items to anybody willing to use their chipsets in products, many products can exist with the same functionality as they are literal the same internally as they are based off the same recommended components and layouts provided by the demos and examples, the brand owner can simply redesign the enclosure to match their brands image.
While most higher quality brands perform additional quality assurance processes, some manufacturers have been known to skip these processes for some of their products. One particular example of this was due to an OEM producing a wireless networking product being used by a number of respected brands, that contained an accidental security backdoor, which affected millions of users worldwide and is still visible in Malta. This issue was caused due to the OEM forgetting to disable a feature to shorten the time it takes to bulk upload the firmware to the product at the manufacturing stage, this feature should have been closed on releasing the product to market, with this security hole enabled still, it is possible for a malicious user to enter and gain unlawful access to the users entire networked systems to steal confidential information or damage other systems.
While the use of unbranded or even lower quality products maybe appealing for normal non-technical users to use out of the box, it should be done with caution in mind as the product may not be properly secured which could lead to security surprises while being in use in the future. While a more technical user will able to setup the product securely and possibly flash a custom aftermarket firmware which in most cases has been securely and openly developed by many experienced users from around the world. Custom aftermarket firmware also in most cases contain additional software and features which are not available in the factory stock firmware to give added functionality to the original product.
As with any idea or product, there will always be someone or company who will create a knock off or clone of it. If the product originated from an OEM, this makes it much more easier for the cloner, as the cloner only has to purchase the same or closest match to the unbranded version of the product and make minor or no additional changes to give the appearance of the genuine original product.
When online retailers and even normal retail shops are aware of the products that they are promoting and selling are knock offs and not genuine, it can be detrimental to the original product's brand as this would reduce earned profits for them and also give the brand a bad name if the clone is unstable or performs not up to the original's specifications.
With higher named brands, the brand owner will in most cases patent protect their product designs with an OEM, to prevent competitors and cloners from copying the products designs. While law enforcement does enforce patent infringements, it usually only applies to the same country as the patent was requested. It does not protect the product in foreign countries unless an additional patent has been requested in that country.
Electronic devices that are being sold and exported across the globe must contain certification and licensing markings which are used for products that have gone under specialist testing for radiation and any radio frequencies that could be emitting and conflicting with other devices. Cheaper unbranded devices in most cases skip these certifications and testing and illegally use the markings on the enclosure. Although some manufacturers do undergo testing for the initial prototype, then can sometimes exchange and drop components for cheaper alternatives, thus invalidating all previous testing, as the radiation and radio frequencies outputted from the device will no longer be the same as the prototype and could possibly cause interference with other devices, such as medical equipment.
This article should have provided an insight into the overall manufacturing process of OEM electronic products and the cautions of buying the cheaper unbranded or low quality branded products over the more named branded ones.
Original Times of Malta Online Article:
Copy of printed Newspaper: