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Huawei bets on high-end handsets to dethrone Samsung in Europe

Chinese giant unveils 5x optical zoom P30 Pro in Paris

Richard Yu Chengdong, CEO of Huawei's consumer division, unveils the new P30 and P30 Pro smartphones during a launch event in Paris on March 26.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Huawei Technologies unveiled its new flagship smartphone series in Paris on Tuesday, as the Chinese company looks to capture a larger market share in Europe, where its handset business is rapidly closing in on rival Samsung Electronics.

Starting at 999 euros ($1,130), Huawei's quad-camera P30 Pro is seen as a direct challenger to Samsung's more expensive Galaxy S10+, which debuted last month and also boasts four rear cameras. The P30 Pro comes equipped with new photography capabilities such as 5x zoom and the ability to shoot in a pitch-dark environment.

The Chinese company's launch event on Tuesday coincided with President Xi Jinping’s visit to the French capital, where he met with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Huawei also scored a small victory against the U.S. campaign to shut out its products from global 5G networks as the European Union declined to adopt a blanket ban of the company as Washington demanded.

Huawei presented its foldable phone just a month ago at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, days after Samsung introduced its own foldable mobile device in the U.S. -- a market Huawei won't have access to anytime soon.

Geoff Blaber, vice president of research for the Americas at market intelligence company CCS Insight, said Huawei is "becoming more and more of a serious contender in the higher tiers of the smartphone market."

"The P series has become a very strong flagship brand for them, and it has a halo effect on the rest of the portfolio," he said.

The P30 series is central to Huawei's push to overtake Samsung as the leader in Europe's smartphone market, possibly as early as this year.

Huawei shipped 15.5 million units in Europe during the last quarter of 2018, a 65% increase on the year, statistics released this month by International Data Corp. show. In contrast, Samsung's 18.7 million shipments in the same period produced only single-digit growth from a year ago.

The Chinese company made particularly notable gains in Western Europe, reaching almost 10 million units and narrowing the gap with Samsung to only around 1 million.

"It's the first time Huawei is so close to Samsung" while it has operated in Europe, said Marta Pinto, a research manager at IDC.

Huawei's P30 Pro and P30 are available in five colors.   © Reuters

Premium devices such as Huawei's P30 series and Samsung's S10 series account for a relatively small share of total shipments, but they promise higher margins for smartphone makers.

These phones remain a bright spot amid a global slowdown for handsets. The premium smartphone segment -- devices with wholesale prices above $400 -- grew 18% last year, while the overall market contracted by 2%, market intelligence company Counterpoint Research said.

Huawei almost doubled its premium market share in 2018, reaching a double-digit share globally for the first time.

But analysts warned that smartphone makers cannot be overly dependent on flagship models in their growth strategy.

"If you are not Apple, you don't make your biggest share in the flagship," Pinto said. "Even Apple needs to have iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 still in the portfolio."

The Chinese company also risks hurting its other handset models, said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies.

"I start to be concerned that Huawei might be hyper-segmenting the high end in a way that they just compete with themselves or put pressure on the price point of their previous model," Milanesi said.

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