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China tech

Huawei unveils new foldable phone despite US crackdown

Chinese tech giant shows off innovation, but stockpile of key components is limited

Huawei announced its latest foldable phone, the Mate X2, on Monday. (Source photos by screenshot from Huawei Website and Getty Images) 

TAIPEI -- Huawei Technologies on Monday launched its latest foldable smartphone as the embattled Chinese tech giant attempts to show its innovative edge remains intact despite a crippling U.S. crackdown.

The debut of the new phone -- dubbed the Mate X2 -- comes just days after Nikkei revealed Huawei will halve its smartphone production this year due to Washington's trade restrictions, which have cut the company off almost completely from its global suppliers since last September.

Unlike Huawei's previous foldable phones, which fold backward so the screen wraps around the outside, like the cover of a book, the Mate X2 folds inward, a style that is more difficult to manufacture. Chinese display champion BOE Technology is the main supplier of these flexible screens for Huawei's foldable phone.

The Mate X2 will have two screens. When folded, a 6.45-inch outer screen functions as the main display. When unfolded, the phone becomes an 8.01-inch tablet as little as 4.4 mm thick. The previous generations of the Mate X were 5.4 mm.

The second and third rounds of the U.S. crackdown have "made our operation[s] extremely difficult ... but thanks to our channel partners and our consumers ... we survived in 2020," Richard Yu, Huawei's consumer electronics business CEO, said in a prerecorded online launch event.

A screenshot from Huawei's Mate X2 launch event.

The Mate X2 will begin selling from Thursday with a starting price of 17,999 yuan ($2,785). Yu said the company has tried to ramp up production capacity to meet customer demand.

The new phone is powered by the company's 5G-capable Kirin 9000 mobile processor, which was manufactured by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. until U.S. sanctions put a halt to such shipments last September.

Huawei was able to stockpile some 20 million Kirin 9000 5G chipsets before losing access to its global suppliers, sources told Nikkei Asia. Washington began imposing export controls and other restrictions on Huawei in 2019, alleging the company poses a threat to national security.

Yu has previously said that unless the U.S. ban is eased and Huawei can regain access to TSMC, its former key contract chipmaking partner, this generation of the Kirin chipset will be the last.

The Kirin 9000 is also used in Huawei's 5G-capable Mate 40, released last October to take on Apple's first-ever 5G-powered iPhones. Huawei shipped about 5 million Mate 40 handsets in 2020 and could ship around 8 million throughout the life cycle, according to Jeff Pu, an analyst of GF Securities, compared with its previous Mate series, which could ship up to 15 million units.

Overall, Huawei's smartphone shipments fell 42% on the year to 32.3 million units in October-December, dragging the company to fifth place globally, after Apple, Samsung and compatriots Xiaomi and Oppo. For all of 2020, Huawei was still the world's No. 3 smartphone maker, shipping 189 million smartphones, or 21.5% fewer than the year before. The Chinese tech champion even sold its budget handset line Honor last November to help the smartphone business avoid U.S. restrictions and regain access to vital components and supply chain support.

From April, the Mate X2 -- along with the company's existing smartphones -- will be updated to run on Huawei's HarmonyOS, which the company has been aggressively developing since losing access to the Google Android operating system, Yu said.

Huawei Mobile Services, the company's own version of Google Mobile Services, now has more than 580 million active users, he added.

Like Huawei's previous foldable phones, this latest version is only available in the Chinese market.

Samsung, the world's biggest smartphone maker last year, introduced its first foldable phone in 2019 -- the same year as Huawei -- and has already introduced several new versions since. These include the Galaxy Z Fold series, which folds like a book, and the Galaxy Z Flip series, which bends like a flip phone.

Both companies had high hopes that foldable phones would help revive the maturing smartphone market and demonstrate their technology capabilities. However, only 1.9 million foldable smartphones were shipped in 2020, with Samsung and Huawei accounting for 72% and 11%, respectively, according to IDC. Overall, 1.29 billion smartphones were shipped last year.

Huawei's previous foldable phones -- the Mate X and Mate Xs -- are available only in China and in limited quantities.

Meanwhile it is still not clear whether Huawei will be able to introduce its latest P series phone in the first half of the year as it usually does to compete against Samsung's premium S series. The Mate series, a nonfoldable phone distinct from the Mate X line, is generally released in the second half of the year to take on the iPhone.

Samsung has already launched its latest S21 5G smartphone in January, and Xiaomi introduced its latest flagship handset, the Mi 11 series, in late December.

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