The annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona sets the stage for each year’s dominant smartphone trends. But while flashy flagships from big brands like Samsung and Huawei tend to attract the most attention, designs from small Chinese manufacturers are equally revealing.

These tiny little-known companies specialize in borrowing design ideas from the big players. They churn out phones with similar features to the hottest US$1,000 handsets, and sell them at a far cheaper price. While last year we saw plenty of iPhone X knockoffs complete with an unmistakable notch, this year it looks like Apple is no longer the coolest brand to copy.

Leagoo, who showed off an iPhone X lookalike named the S9 last year, has ditched the notch from its flagship this year. Instead it’s adopting the hole-punch -- a tiny hole on the front screen that houses the selfie camera. The new design was recently seen on Huawei’s budget series, as well as Samsung’s latest Galaxy S10 flagship.

Leagoo isn’t alone. Ulefone, which released an iPhone X lookalike called the Ulefone X last year, also added a hole-punch handset to its lineup.

Another trend sweeping over small manufacturers: The so-called water drop notch found on Huawei’s Mate 20 that came out late last year. Pioneered by Chinese sister brands Oppo, Vivo and OnePlus, the tiny round notch is seen on new devices from Leagoo, Ulefone, Doogee, and Konka among others.

There’s a reason why these companies are moving away from copying the iPhone.

Around the world, demand for iPhones is weakening. Annual sales in 2018 declined from a year ago, according to figures from research firm IDC. Disappointing performance in China led to sharp price cuts for new iPhones. An iPhone factory in central China reportedly slashed salaries of workers because Apple scaled back orders.

It’s a different story for Chinese smartphone giants. Both Huawei and Xiaomi shipped a third more smartphones globally from a year ago, despite an overall decline in the market. Industry observers note that these companies are gaining users outside of China. As more international smartphone buyers turn to top Chinese brands, it’s not surprising that smaller manufacturers are trying to capitalize on the changing tide.

But just as quickly as they turn away from the iPhone this year, they could easily hop on the next fad should the tide turn again next year. And with the ongoing US-China trade tension, it's hard to tell if Chinese phone giants will continue to do well globally. 

Until then though, it looks like the battle among copycat Androids is still: Who has the better punch-hole or water drop phone?