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Huawei and Samsung show off rival 5G ambitions in Berlin

Politics take back seat to technology at IFA consumer electronics show

The foldable Mate X is Huawei's answer to the Galaxy Fold recently released by Samsung.   © Reuters

BERLIN -- Huawei Technologies was among the Asian tech giants showing off its latest 5G and foldable smartphones at the IFA trade show in Berlin, focusing on innovation over politics even as the China-U.S. trade war continues to cast a shadow over the company.

Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's consumer business group, gave the opening keynote speech for the event. The Chinese company is accused by the U.S. government of being unduly close to Beijing and has been targeted by a number of measures, including a ban aimed at blocking its access to American technologies.

Yu, however, avoided any mention of politics in his speech. He focused instead on Huawei's technological achievements, unveiling the Kirin 990 5G smartphone system-on-a-chip that will power the Huawei Mate 30 smartphone slated for release later this month. The Kirin 990 5G is the first SoC that supports 5G -- rival offerings from Qualcomm and Samsung Electronics use a 4G SoC with a 5G modem. Yu said the Kirin 990 5G is the fastest and the most power-efficient SoC on the market.

"We are leading the mobile AI in the world with the 10.3 billion transistors on our Kirin 990 5G," Yu said. "Since we launched the Kirin 980 here at IFA last year, the number of mobile APPs using AI, including related to photography, online shopping and education, has been increasing, and today 5G is coming."

Smartphone makers are racing to win over users with 5G and foldable devices, betting that cutting-edge features will rekindle excitement in a market that has struggled with slowing growth recently. Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics, both of South Korea, also showcased their latest smartphones and prototypes at the IFA, while Chinese electronics maker TCL punctuated its push into smartphones by unveiling its first own-brand smartphone at the Berlin event.

The closest that Huawei's Yu came to touching on politics was when he unveiled two new color variants of the existing P30 Pro smartphone, which comes with Google's latest smartphone operating system, Android 10, pre-installed. The move was significant because Washington's ban on Huawei accessing U.S. technology means the company will likely be unable to launch new phones running the latest Google-certified Android systems.

The U.S. Commerce Department imposed the trade embargo on Huawei in May, though it granted a 90-day grace period for certain companies, including Google, to protect the interests of American consumers. Google was not included in the latest 90-day extension, which runs to late November, however, and Huawei plans to launch the Mate X without popular Google apps including Google Maps and Gmail.

While Huawei highlighted its 5G progress, foldable and dual-screen smartphones also grabbed attention at the IFA.

Samsung finally relaunched the Galaxy Fold following a recall and subsequent five-month delay over reliability issues following its initial debut in April, and the device went on sale in South Korea last Friday. Huawei presented a prototype of its first foldable handset, the Mate X, scheduled for release in October.

Fellow Chinese player TCL presented its own foldable prototype, to go on sale in the second half of 2020, and also introduced the TCL Plex, a milestone in its attempt to expand beyond its traditional focus on TV-making.

"In the previous decade, we globalized by moves such as acquiring Alcatel and Thomson TV activities in Europe. In this decade, we have been investing heavily in vertical integration, for example by investing $27 billion in state-of-the-art panel factories," said Bill Jiang, TCL's Europe GM.

"The current focus is the strengthening of the TCL brand, as well-reflected in this year's IFA with the releases of TCL Plex, as well as the showcasing of the 8K TVs under the TCL 8K QLED X-Series," he added.

Jiang described 8K resolution as an irreversible trend in TVs, as it provides a more immersive experience by allowing viewers to sit much closer to the screen without being able to pick out individual pixels.

LG Electronics, meanwhile, unveiled the G8X ThinQ, a dual-screen smartphone in which the two screens are connected via hinges, at the event.

I.P. Park, LG's chief technology officer, explained that the first screen can be used to watch a baseball game, for example, while the second screen can display the game's stats. According to Park, an LG 5G dual-screen smartphone will be out in the fourth quarter of this year.

Like TCL, LG has also been focusing on 8K televisions. Park said the company plans to rollout the LG Signature OLED 8K starting this month in global markets, with the rollable LG Signature OLED R to be launched later this year.

The OLED panels are paper thin and resilient enough to be rolled and unrolled thousands of times, Park said.

"Consumers clearly prefer ever-bigger TVs, but the size of one's apartment doors, windows and staircases will always be the limit unless it's a rollable screen," Park said. "And also the beginning of the 5G era will push demand for bigger and flexible screens, as the wider bandwidth and faster transmission speed will lead to the emergence of new content forms that allow for a much great immersion experience."

But while smartphone makers are betting on foldable and dual-screen smartphones to revive sales, Anshul Gupta, senior director at Gartner, said the popularity of these handsets will depend on the creation of content created to maximize these features, something he does not see happening yet.

"The operating systems and applications need to be optimized, so that when the phone is folded and unfolded, the application scales up and down accordingly and support multiple display and multiple window form factors," Gupta said.

"It will probably take a second generation of these phones to overcome any teething problems, but once that one is there, the affiliated ecosystems are going to grow fast," he added.

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