In short: Huawei’s first foldable phone that will also have 5G capabilities may resemble the Mate 20 X (pictured above), an Android flagship announced earlier this week. “Before the foldable phones, we are introducing the Huawei Mate 20 X,” Chief Executive Officer Richard Yu said at the company’s latest product event. While the industry veteran didn’t outright claim the newly unveiled handset is set to be a template for its seminal device, he described the gadget as a clear step toward the goal of commercializing bendable smartphones.
The main philosophy that led to the creation of the Mate 20 X is also believed to be influencing the tech juggernaut’s pursuit of bendable handsets – delivering remarkably large screens that are still comfortable to use in a single hand and are highly compact. The Shenzhen, China-based original equipment manufacturer intends to commercialize its first foldable smartphone next year, with recent reports pointing to a mid-2019 release. The company already confirmed the handset will run Android, almost certainly the latest stable version of Google’s operating system – Android 9 Pie. Being one of the world’s largest handset vendors, Huawei produces most of its products in-house and that’s also expected to be the case for its bendable device, though the display panel it’s set to use will be made by Chinese panel manufacturer BOE, industry insiders said earlier this year.
Background: Much like Samsung, Huawei is expected to introduce bendable handsets as an alternative to its flagship products such as the P and Mate lineups, meaning the devices should feature high-end internals. In the context of its first such phone, that should mean its system-on-chip of choice will be the Kirin 980, the world’s first 7nm module produced by Huawei’s semiconductor subsidiary HiSilicon. The possibility of the Mate 20 X serving as a template for the upcoming handset is that much greater given their similar display sizes; whereas the newly announced offering features a 7.2-inch screen, recent reports indicated Huawei’s foldable product will sport an 8-inch display panel.
Huawei has been in the foldable smartphone race for several years now but is likely to lose it to Samsung as the South Korean tech giant is expected to introduce such a product before the end of the year, most likely at the next edition of its annual developer conference which is starting in San Francisco on November 7. Following last year’s debut of the ZTE Axon M, Mr. Yu said Huawei already had a similar prototype akin to a booklet but wasn’t pleased with how apart the two screens of the device were, having consequently opted to work on minimizing that gap before thinking of commercialization. Later reports indicate the concept may have been dropped altogether as the company’s foldable phone is now expected to feature a single screen instead of two connected ones.
The actual workings of the device remain a large unknown, especially given how BOE has yet to share many details on its foldable panels. The handset may be somewhat similar to what Samsun is working on in that it will essentially look like an evolution of the flip-phone form factor, albeit equipped with a single screen that will also act as a keyboard when needed, whereas the folded state of the device may resemble a wallet. Huawei’s 5G ambitions have been much older and more publicized, with the firm presently holding hundreds of patents in the field and being at the forefront of the 3GPP’s work aimed at standardizing the technologies meant to enable the next generation of wireless connectivity.
Given that state of affairs, some industry watchers were surprised by the fact that Huawei opted to make its first 5G handset foldable as the wireless tech inside it is already widely expected to be the next big thing in the industry, whereas the bendable form factor has many more question marks surrounding it and not all analysts are convinced the trend will catch. Consumers themselves are likely to think of foldable smartphones as a gimmick until such handsets become more widespread several years down the road, provided manufacturers actually manage to deliver reliable devices that take advantage of their unique footprint instead of just being functional in spite of it.
Huawei has been one of this year’s most active Android OEMs in terms of innovation; whereas Samsung and its other rivals mostly delivered incremental upgrades and refinements of their smartphone concepts in recent months, Huawei pushed the envelope with the world’s first mainstream triple-camera setup on the P20 Pro that has now also made its way to select Mate 20-series models, featuring wide-angle capabilities and even better software. The company also innovated in the SoC department, with the Kirin 980 being both based on TSMC’s seminal 7nm process node and featuring two neural processing units dedicated to on-device artificial intelligence tasks, whereas most of the company’s competitors have yet to even integrate a single NPU into their products. That ambitious R&D strategy is now continuing with 5G and foldable phone concepts, Huawei confirmed.
Impact: After establishing a significant global footprint with aggressively priced Android smartphones, Huawei has been taking aim at the ultra-premium segment of the market in recent years, seeking to differentiate itself from its rivals through major innovation and a broad range of industry-first features such as triple-camera setups. The company now intends to follow up on that move with early 5G compatibility and one of the first foldable smartphones in the world, with only Samsung being likely to beat it to the punch.
Regardless, questions remain about whether Huawei is rushing ahead with its latest innovations as both 5G and bendable mobile panels are expected to be niche features with limited usability in the near future; the former due to a general lack of 5G infrastructure, whereas the latter will likely be a cause of many quality concerns, as is usually the case with extremely unconventional first-generation electronics. Given those concerns, Huawei will almost certainly use its first bendable Android handset as more of an advertisement for its brand than a product with massive commercial expectations attached to it as the device will likely be both expensive and marketed primarily to tech enthusiasts.