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Samsung’s Galaxy S20 was one of the worst kept secrets in the phone history. By the time of the official launch everyone interested in the company’s hardware knew the $2200 top model Galaxy S20 has a main camera can capture 108 megapixels. It can also zoom 100 times.

The phone is also one of the first to work with 5G mobile networks.

There was a bizarre New Zealand twist to Samsung’s secrecy. Two days after the company advertised the phone during the US Super Bowl television broadcast and less than 24 hours before the official launch the company asked me to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

I’m not in the habit of signing these anyway, they are all about timing launches to maximise the marketing impact, that should never be a journalist’s concern. But to ask for one when all the details about the phone are already public is nothing but madness.

Samsung is on its second generation of foldable phones. Motorola and Huawei are a step behind, but remain in the game. Will your next phone be one you can fold?

The technology is impressive. All the foldable phones I’ve seen to date look great. They are also useful.

Folding means a handheld phone can morph into a small iPad Mini sized tablet. They make reading and simple online tasks easier than on everyday phones.

From a phone maker perspective they do three important things.

First, they give phone buyers a reason to upgrade. People have been hanging on to phones for longer because there is less pressing reason to upgrade. Adding a new functionality breaks that cycle.

Out of the cul-de-sac

Second, they give phone makers a route of the design cul-de-sac.

Phone formats have stabilised as slabs of glass and metal. They would be almost featureless if it were not for the ever swelling camera bumps. Makers add more lenses and more receptor pixels in a bid to competitive1.

Folding phones open up new ways to differentiate and compete.

The third benefit of folding phones for phone makers is they sell for premium prices. Phone makers can increase the average unit price at a time of intense competition downward pressure on prices.

Phone makers announced two more foldable models in the last week or so. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip and Lenovo’s $1,500 Motorola Razr are both flip phones with folding screens.

Foldables have not got off to a good start. Samsung’s Galaxy Fold was a botched launch. A second wave of models was better, but they are still fragile and expensive at NZ $3400.

Fragile

The Motorola Razr is as fragile and has poor battery life.

In other words, the models we’ve seen so far are undercooked. They will sell to well-heeled early adopters. These people will pay a king’s ransom to act as guinea pigs. Meanwhile the phone makers can go back to the drawing board and perfect their designs.

They will make it into the mainstream in one of two ways. Either Apple will create a folding iPhone that gets the technology right and resets the market or Samsung will brute force its way to success. The other possibility is that folding phones go the way of 3D television sets.

There’s no doubt this is a development worth watching. My advice is to hang on to your money for now, maybe squeeze another year from your existing phone. The benefits of having a bigger screen are not enough to outweigh the risk of spending a lot of money on something that’s easy to break.


  1. It’s questionable this is what most buyers want. ↩︎

Huawei may need Google more than Google needs Huawei, but the ban still threatens Android’s dominance.

May 2019 saw the US President sign an executive order banning ‘foreign adversaries’ from dealing with America’s telecoms industry.

The unnamed ‘foreign adversary’ is Huawei.

Huawei is already banned from building US 5G cellular networks. The order also stopped US companies from working with Huawei’s phone handset business.

This meant Google suspended its business with Huawei. That was a blow for the Chinese phone maker, Huawei phones run on Google’s Android software.

Beyond Android

The ban goes beyond Android. It means Huawei phones can’t use the Play app store. Nor can they use Google Maps, Gmail or the official Search app. Google Mobile Services features are central to the Android phone experience.

Huawei makes some of the best Android phones. It has a huge market share, now second only to Samsung. Yet the company sells little in the US.

With Huawei phones unable to ship with Google apps installed, sales have fallen outside China.

Otherwise, Huawei appears to be in good shape. In October it announced revenues were up 24 percent on the previous year. The company signed 60 contracts to build 5G networks last year.

Huawei could sit out the ban. Many think it is as much about US trade protectionism as anything to do with security.

Subscribers to this school of thought believe the US could lift the Huawei ban as part of trade negotiations.

While that is plausible, Huawei never wants to be in this position again. It cannot afford to be dependent on Google when the US could turn off the tap again at any moment.

Huawei has offered Chinese customers a non-Google version of its phones for years. It isn’t a problem there. It is more of an issue in places like New Zealand, Australia and Europe where people rely on Google services.

To get around the ban, Huawei is replacing Google Mobile Services with its own services. It aims to spend US$ 3 billion this year getting developers to improve Huawei Mobile Services. It has set aside another billion to market those services.

Harmony in my head

Huawei is also developing its own Harmony OS. It scheduled release for early this year. Now Huawei says it is running late and could take years to emerge.

The acid test for Huawei’s post-Google life is the P40 phone launch. It will have no Google services. Huawei expects to lose some market share.

Reuters reports Huawei plans to join forces with other Chinese phone makers to set up a rival to Android and challenge Google Play.

The original plan was to launch in March. This could be set-back by the recent coronavirus outbreak.

Joining Huawei are Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi. For now, the other Chinese phone makers are not locked out of Google. Yet the move amounts to admission they fear the ban could extend to them.

Between them, the four account for 40 percent of handsets sold worldwide. Yet for now they restrict their project to nine regions including India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Russia.

It is still early days. Yet it seems the US ban on Huawei is speeding up Chinese tech companies becoming independent of US ones. They already buy less American hardware, software and services. Google and Android remain strong, but one outcome of the ban is to undermine the near monopoly.

Gartner analyst @MobileAnn forecasts worldwide #smartphone sales will grow 3% in 2020. Read more. #Mobilephone #Tech @Gartner_IT

Source: Gartner Says Worldwide Smartphone Sales Will Grow 3% in 2020

 

Phone sales dropped two percent in 2019. That’s the first time sales dropped since 2008. It’s been a wild ride since Apple introduced the first iPhone.

Gartner says it expects sales to climb three percent in 2020. The rebound is down to the 5G networks being built around the world. The research company says this is likely to stimulate a replacement cycle as people upgrade to the new, faster standard.

“However, in 2020, the market is expected to rebound with the introduction of 5G network coverage in more countries and as users who may have delayed their smartphone purchases until 2020 in expectation of price reductions begin buying again.”

— Annette Zimmermann, Gartner research vice president.

Gartner says it expects the industry will 221 million 5G phones in 2020. That’s about one in eight of the total number of phones sold. This will more than double in 2021 to 489 million units.

5G iPhone coming

Another aspect of this will be the first 5G iPhone, which Gartner says will boost demand in Asia-Pacific and China.

So far the big winner from 5G has been Samsung. The company sold more than 6.7 million Galaxy 5G devices during 2019. That was more than half the market last year. Which means the 5G phones market will grow roughly 20-fold in 2020.

Samsung has poured resources into 5G. It’s range now includes the Note S10 5G, the Note S10+ 5G, the Galaxy 10 5G, the Galaxy Fold 5G and, at the bottom of the range, the inexpensive Galaxy A90 5G. This tells another 5G story. While much fo the talk about the technology is looking at flagship phone models, there’s plenty of demand lower down the market.

Although Samsung’s early 5G dominance looks impressive, it’s not a big deal. those 6.7 million 5G phones were roughly two percent of the company’s output last year — a drop in the ocean.

Phone or smartphone?

Gartner and many other companies like to talk of smartphones. The idea is that these are distinct from phones that are not smart. (The industry calls unsmart phones feature phones, which is confusing because the main point is they have fewer features).

As far as countries like New Zealand are concerned, phones are nearly all smart, feature phones make up a tiny fraction of the total.

In March, New Zealand’s government will auction 16 10MHz blocks of spectrum in the 3.5GHz band.

It’s an unusual spectrum auction. Most past spectrum auctions in New Zealand have been for 20-year licences. This time, the licences are for two years.

The reason for this is that the industry is pressuring government to release the spectrum they need for 5G mobile services.

Treaty claims

At the same time, the government has yet to reach a Treaty of Waitangi settlement with iwi over spectrum. Selling short-term licences buys time to complete negotiations.

Each of the 16 10MHz blocks has a reserve price of $250,000. Bidders need to deposit $500,000 to take part in the auction.

If everything sells at the reserve price, the government will raise $4 million. Prices can go higher. The last time spectrum was auctioned prices went much higher.

No single bidder will be able to buy more than four blocks in the first auction round. This is less than the 80MHz to 100MHz recommended for full 5G services by the GSMA, an international mobile operator trade association.

The rights are not tradable, are nationwide and buyers must use them for 5G mobile services.

More spectrum later

Licence terms start later this year and finish at the end of October 2022. The government will hold a further, long-term auction for the spectrum that year. The government says it expects to free up more spectrum later.

Bidders in the March auction will have to return existing 3.5GHz management rights to the government.

This affects Vodafone more than any other carrier. It is possible Vodafone’s existing 3.5MHz holding will fall. Returning existing spectrum will help flatten the playing field. There will be a refund for returned management rights.

Radio Spectrum Management, part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, will use a simplified version’s of a combinatorial clock auction. In effect, this starts with the seller offering blocks at the reserve price. If the demand for blocks is greater than the supply, it increases the price.

Beyond the three mobile carriers

New Zealand has three existing mobile networks. There are 16 spectrum blocks on sale and each bidder can buy four in the first auction round. That means the government expects a fourth buyer to enter the auction.

This is a departure. The earlier auction for 700 MHz band spectrum was tailored to cater for the three mobile carriers; Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees.

The obvious candidate is Dense Air. The company owns 70 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum. At the moment Dense Air acts as a wholesaler to the mobile carriers. Spark’s tiny South Island fixed wireless broadband 5G project uses Dense Air spectrum.

Other parties may be interested in the spectrum. Few of New Zealand’s Wisps1 could afford the $500,000 deposit or the $250,000 per block asking price. Yet if they were to act collectively a bit might be possible.

If the government doesn’t sell all 16 lots in the first auction round, it may offer them to existing bidders.

Given that the amount of spectrum being auctioned is not enough for carriers to offer a full blown 5G service, it looks as if will be some time before New Zealand gets all the benefits of the technology. There’s enough bandwidth for fast data speeds, but, as things stand, maybe not enough for carriers to deliver the gigabit plus speeds 5G hype has promised.


  1. Wisps are small, local wireless internet service providers. They cover rural and remote gaps in markets not served or poorly served by bigger telcos. ↩︎