Simon Baker (Program Director)

The launch of two high-profile folded screen smartphones at MWC — both on the 5G standard — has closely associated the new generation networks with a new breed of devices which will liven up a business in which smartphones have all come to look alike.


The New Foldable Devices

The fact that the new foldable devices were presented in glass cases created scepticism about the durability of the screens, the folding mechanisms, and the devices’ weight. Furthermore, the prices ($1,980 for the Samsung S10 5G and €2,299 for the Huawei Mate X) suggested these are promotional products not seriously aimed for volume sales in the near future.

As advertising vehicles, both played their role to a T — or should I say a fold. Samsung showed that it is aiming to rejuvenate the Android premium segment, in which it is at present the sole real player, and that has stalled with last year’s flagship Galaxy 9, which has not seen stellar sales. For Huawei, the folded screen device allowed it to show the world it can challenge Samsung at the top of the market.



The Story of “5G as a New World” — Don’t Hold Your Breath

The most important news for 5G at MWC was on the more much mundane, but in the short term much more significant theme of “5G as mobile evolution.” This view of 5G is based on the argument that the new networks won’t offer much fundamentally new straight off in everyday use to phone users, so the key in getting devices out there is to make them very similar to 4G ones, with no major price premium or general clunkiness.

However, both Samsung and LG appear to have proved that wrong. The real proof will be in the use; we will see how long the batteries operate for, but the devices look impressively ordinary. LG explained that its engineers had faced a lot of challenges, but had succeeded in increasing density of the battery and the size and effectiveness of the cooling mechanism within the phone; a solution to the heat problem was something that all 5G vendors were mentioning. One piece of the puzzle in the short-term implementation of 5G was still missing with these two devices, however: the price.

That piece was to a certain extent provided by Xiaomi, only it does not fit into the same place in the jigsaw puzzle. Xiaomi introduced a 5G phone at 600 euros, the Mi Mix 3 5G. As this phone is a development of the existing Mi Mix 3 model, the price increment for 5G is clear – around 120 euros. The phone, which will work on Sub 6GHz, but not mm wave, could be viewed and handled on the Xiaomi stand, and was noticeably heavier than its Korean rivals. Xiaomi’s low price suggests it may be the first major smartphone manufacturer to use 5G as a market entry strategy

China’s OPPO also launched a 5G device at the show, but it was not for handling, and was displayed in a recessed mount which suggested it too may be chunkier than 4G devices. ZTE meanwhile had a prototype on display on its stand, but elsewhere announced 5G capability in the Atom 10 Pro, and there was a 5G prototype from OnePlus coyly presented behind glass too. The key Chinese player, Huawei, has yet to put its products on the table for the 5G mass market, showing only its foldable Mate X model at MWC. Expect more news with the Mate 30 launch at the end of March.



The Momentum of 5G

The momentum appears mainly with the two Korean brands at present. At home, 5G is all falling into place. First, they had 80% of the domestic smartphone market between them last year, according to the IDC Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker. Second, the mobile operators there are getting on with deployment. 5G spectrum has already been awarded in Korea and at MWC the two biggest mobile operators, SK Telecom and Korea Telecom, said that they expect to have extensive national coverage operational at both the Sub 6 (3.5GHz) and mm wave (28Ghz) next year. SK Telecom was already running an advertising campaign at home at the end of last year wishing everyone a Happy 5G New Year.


Seoul at Christmas: SK Telecom wishes Koreans a Happy 5G 2019

Samsung and LG also have momentum because they are strong in the other big market where it is clear 5G will get going early, the U.S., where they hold a third of the smartphone market between them, and where Huawei is not a player.

American mobile operators all claim to be pushing ahead fast with 5G. Verizon, which appears to want to challenge cable hard in video distribution, is promoting mm wave, and will be selling the 5G devices from both Korean brands. LG at least will also be supplying AT&T (both bands) and Sprint (Sub 6Ghz). T-Mobile, meanwhile, is focusing on the 600MHz 5G band, which initial handsets may not support.

Of what IDC expects to be the big initial markets, that leaves Japan, which is a bit of a wild card. At MWC Sony had a prototype 5G device, but made no product announcement. Japan has yet to allocate 5G frequencies to operators, though at the show Japanese operators were expecting a rollout to be rapid once they do, with an extensive network in place (also 3.5/28GHz) before the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, which start in July next year.

A complication in Japan is its very specific smartphone market. Apple has half of it and there will not be a 5G iPhone before late next year. The Korean duo are barely present, while apart from Sony the Android market is mainly split between two companies which are not international players — Sharp and Kyocera. Both have yet to show their hand in 5G.



B2B Potential of 5G

The “5G as mobile evolution” theme was given a further boost at MWC by Ericsson, which was showing off its Spectrum transmission technology. This allows a dynamic allocation of traffic between devices working on both 4G and 5G protocols, while using 4G frequencies only. Qualcomm has made its second 5G modem, the X55, compatible with this technology. Such a technical solution would need regulatory approval, but may be attractive to many operators that are looking to the B2B potential of 5G without currently having much need to deploy a 5G network to counter network congestion on 4G.

The B2B potential of 5G, taking advantage of its low latency for automation, was a big feature of MWC. But the real short-term demand was not at all clear, with many applications, for instance in driverless cars, maybe years away. All this makes “5G as mobile evolution” a much more compelling approach to the new generation of mobile technology for network investment, on which many operators are still wary, as well as in devices.


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