Foldable Form Factors Steal the Show At MWC19

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Foldable Form Factors Steal the Show At Mobile World Congress 2019
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Foldable Form Factors Steal the Show At Mobile World Congress 2019

MWC is where companies go to showcase brand new 5G smartphone designs, and this year’s MWC2019 conference did not disappoint. Even before the show officially started, the following six new smartphone designs, all with 5G modems, were announced:

During the show, Chinese manufacturers ZTE and Nubia debuted their first 5G designs: the ZTE Axon 10 Pro 5G and the Nubia Mini 5G. Not to be overlooked, Sony and OnePlus reiterated their intent to release 5G smartphones later this year, while opting to demonstrate 5G design prototypes at their conference booths.

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On the component side, Qualcomm’s first-generation Snapdragon X50 won the majority of modem sockets in these very first 5G phones, with the exception of HiSilicon Balong 5000 in the Huawei Mate X. The San Diego mobile chipset juggernaut had just announced its second-generation 5G chipset prior to MWC19, the 7 nanometer (nm) Snapdragon X55, which extended their industry leadership in 5G modems.

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Altogether, there are now six competitive 5G modems available to the market, including solutions from Qualcomm, Samsung, Intel, Mediatek, HiSilicon and UNISoC.

In fact, 5G smartphones weren’t originally expected until 2020. The development of 5G smartphones occurred one year sooner than expected, due to a coordinated effort among key industry stakeholders to accelerate 5G deployments.

RELATED: Huawei Mate 20 Pro. Phone of the Year. No Questions Asked.

Unlike 4G, where the industry had to bet on either WiMAX or LTE standards, the 5G transition avoided industry confusion. The entire industry is converging on one 5G standard, via the 3GPP, giving everyone in the mobile ecosystem certainty about what lies ahead. The overall mobile industry has prepared for faster 5G rollouts, by making devices readily available.

The only unknown is the business model behind the new 5G service. In other words, the supply side of the 5G ecosystem is ready, but there are still doubts about the demand side.

If the new 5G technology is to be truly accessible by the masses, the complexities of 4G/5G radios must become available at prices that can be designed into an affordable smartphone platform. In that sense, the industry is still years away from that adoption curve. Affordable modem design is a key ingredient in our 5G future, and the component supplier ecosystem appears to be in front of the adoption curve, which bodes well for the availability of truly mainstream and affordable 5G devices in the not-too-distant future.

Best in Show: Huawei Mate X

There was no doubt about the “best in show” smartphone. The Huawei Mate X foldable 5G smartphone is an out-folding smartphone that unfurls into a contiguous eight-inch tablet.

Foldable smartphones are the first significant change in mobile form factors in nearly a decade. Not since capacitive multi-touch technology, which allowed device makers to simplify user interactions onto a single piece of glass, has there been a more ground-breaking mobile design.

It was no secret in the industry that both Huawei and Samsung were locked in a race to be the first to release a new foldable form factor, and just one week prior to MWC, Samsung announced its own Galaxy Fold device. The technology, which has been under development for many years, has finally matured enough to be included in products.

At first glance, the new foldable form factor can seem overly complex, with moving parts and flexing displays that may ultimately be prone to damage or failure. With prices starting at $2,000, the value proposition of these early devices is questionable, even though they are obviously targeted at the ultra-premium, luxury segment of the market.

The mobile industry still has a long way to go, until the technology can be cost-effective to adopt for the general public. However, given the stagnant growth of the mobile devices market, the foldable design could not have arrived at a better time to reinvigorate the sagging smartphone market.

(By Wayne Lam, principal analyst, mobile devices and networks, IHS Markit)

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