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5G phones are here but there’s no rush to upgrade

Posted by | 5g, Android, Apple, Asia, barcelona, broadband, Caching, China, deutsche telekom, donovan sung, Europe, european commission, european union, huawei, Intel, Internet of Things, iPhone, LG, Mobile, mwc 2019, Qualcomm, Samsung, singtel, smartphone, smartphones, south korea, TC, telecommunications, Xiaomi | No Comments

This year’s Mobile World Congress — the CES for Android device makers — was awash with 5G handsets.

The world’s No.1 smartphone seller by marketshare, Samsung, got out ahead with a standalone launch event in San Francisco, showing off two 5G devices, just before fast-following Android rivals popped out their own 5G phones at launch events across Barcelona this week.

We’ve rounded up all these 5G handset launches here. Prices range from an eye-popping $2,600 for Huawei’s foldable phabet-to-tablet Mate X — and an equally eye-watering $1,980 for Samsung’s Galaxy Fold; another 5G handset that bends — to a rather more reasonable $680 for Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 3 5G, albeit the device is otherwise mid-tier. Other prices for 5G phones announced this week remain tbc.

Android OEMs are clearly hoping the hype around next-gen mobile networks can work a little marketing magic and kick-start stalled smartphone growth. Especially with reports suggesting Apple won’t launch a 5G iPhone until at least next year. So 5G is a space Android OEMs alone get to own for a while.

Chipmaker Qualcomm, which is embroiled in a bitter patent battle with Apple, was also on stage in Barcelona to support Xiaomi’s 5G phone launch — loudly claiming the next-gen tech is coming fast and will enhance “everything”.

“We like to work with companies like Xiaomi to take risks,” lavished Qualcomm’s president Cristiano Amon upon his hosts, using 5G uptake to jibe at Apple by implication. “When we look at the opportunity ahead of us for 5G we see an opportunity to create winners.”

Despite the heavy hype, Xiaomi’s on stage demo — which it claimed was the first live 5G video call outside China — seemed oddly staged and was not exactly lacking in latency.

“Real 5G — not fake 5G!” finished Donovan Sung, the Chinese OEM’s director of product management. As a 5G sales pitch it was all very underwhelming. Much more ‘so what’ than ‘must have’.

Whether 5G marketing hype alone will convince consumers it’s past time to upgrade seems highly unlikely.

Phones sell on features rather than connectivity per se, and — whatever Qualcomm claims — 5G is being soft-launched into the market by cash-constrained carriers whose boom times lie behind them, i.e. before over-the-top players had gobbled their messaging revenues and monopolized consumer eyeballs.

All of which makes 5G an incremental consumer upgrade proposition in the near to medium term.

Use-cases for the next-gen network tech, which is touted as able to support speeds up to 100x faster than LTE and deliver latency of just a few milliseconds (as well as connecting many more devices per cell site), are also still being formulated, let alone apps and services created to leverage 5G.

But selling a network upgrade to consumers by claiming the killer apps are going to be amazing but you just can’t show them any yet is as tough as trying to make theatre out of a marginally less janky video call.

“5G could potentially help [spark smartphone growth] in a couple of years as price points lower, and availability expands, but even that might not see growth rates similar to the transition to 3G and 4G,” suggests Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, writing in a blog post discussing Samsung’s strategy with its latest device launches.

“This is not because 5G is not important, but because it is incremental when it comes to phones and it will be other devices that will deliver on experiences, we did not even think were possible. Consumers might end up, therefore, sharing their budget more than they did during the rise of smartphones.”

The ‘problem’ for 5G — if we can call it that — is that 4G/LTE networks are capably delivering all the stuff consumers love right now: Games, apps and video. Which means that for the vast majority of consumers there’s simply no reason to rush to shell out for a ‘5G-ready’ handset. Not if 5G is all the innovation it’s got going for it.

LG V50 ThinQ 5G with a dual screen accessory for gaming

Use cases such as better AR/VR are also a tough sell given how weak consumer demand has generally been on those fronts (with the odd branded exception).

The barebones reality is that commercial 5G networks are as rare as hen’s teeth right now, outside a few limited geographical locations in the U.S. and Asia. And 5G will remain a very patchy patchwork for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, it may take a very long time indeed to achieve nationwide coverage in many countries, if 5G even ends up stretching right to all those edges. (Alternative technologies do also exist which could help fill in gaps where the ROI just isn’t there for 5G.)

So again consumers buying phones with the puffed up idea of being able to tap into 5G right here, right now (Qualcomm claimed 2019 is going to be “the year of 5G!”) will find themselves limited to just a handful of urban locations around the world.

Analysts are clear that 5G rollouts, while coming, are going to be measured and targeted as carriers approach what’s touted as a multi-industry-transforming wireless technology cautiously, with an eye on their capex and while simultaneously trying to figure out how best to restructure their businesses to engage with all the partners they’ll need to forge business relations with, across industries, in order to successfully sell 5G’s transformative potential to all sorts of enterprises — and lock onto “the sweep spot where 5G makes sense”.

Enterprise rollouts therefore look likely to be prioritized over consumer 5G — as was the case for 5G launches in South Korea at the back end of last year.

“4G was a lot more driven by the consumer side and there was an understanding that you were going for national coverage that was never really a question and you were delivering on the data promise that 3G never really delivered… so there was a gap of technology that needed to be filled. With 5G it’s much less clear,” says Gartner’s Sylvain Fabre, discussing the tech’s hype and the reality with TechCrunch ahead of MWC.

“4G’s very good, you have multiple networks that are Gbps or more and that’s continuing to increase on the downlink with multiple carrier aggregation… and other densification schemes. So 5G doesn’t… have as gap as big to fill. It’s great but again it’s applicability of where it’s uniquely positioned is kind of like a very narrow niche at the moment.”

“It’s such a step change that the real power of 5G is actually in creating new business models using network slicing — allocation of particular aspects of the network to a particular use-case,” Forrester analyst Dan Bieler also tells us. “All of this requires some rethinking of what connectivity means for an enterprise customer or for the consumer.

“And telco sales people, the telco go-to-market approach is not based on selling use-cases, mostly — it’s selling technologies. So this is a significant shift for the average telco distribution channel to go through. And I would believe this will hold back a lot of the 5G ambitions for the medium term.”

To be clear, carriers are now actively kicking the tyres of 5G, after years of lead-in hype, and grappling with technical challenges around how best to upgrade their existing networks to add in and build out 5G.

Many are running pilots and testing what works and what doesn’t, such as where to place antennas to get the most reliable signal and so on. And a few have put a toe in the water with commercial launches (globally there are 23 networks with “some form of live 5G in their commercial networks” at this point, according to Fabre.)

But at the same time 5G network standards are yet to be fully finalized so the core technology is not 100% fully baked. And with it being early days “there’s still a long way to go before we have a real significant impact of 5G type of services”, as Bieler puts it. 

There’s also spectrum availability to factor in and the cost of acquiring the necessary spectrum. As well as the time required to clear and prepare it for commercial use. (On spectrum, government policy is critical to making things happen quickly (or not). So that’s yet another factor moderating how quickly 5G networks can be built out.)

And despite some wishful thinking industry noises at MWC this week — calling for governments to ‘support digitization at scale’ by handing out spectrum for free (uhhhh, yeah right) — that’s really just whistling into the wind.

Rolling out 5G networks is undoubtedly going to be very expensive, at a time when carriers’ businesses are already faced with rising costs (from increasing data consumption) and subdued revenue growth forecasts.

“The world now works on data” and telcos are “at core of this change”, as one carrier CEO — Singtel’s Chua Sock Koong — put it in an MWC keynote in which she delved into the opportunities and challenges for operators “as we go from traditional connectivity to a new age of intelligent connectivity”.

Chua argued it will be difficult for carriers to compete “on the basis of connectivity alone” — suggesting operators will have to pivot their businesses to build out standalone business offerings selling all sorts of b2b services to support the digital transformations of other industries as part of the 5G promise — and that’s clearly going to suck up a lot of their time and mind for the foreseeable future.

In Europe alone estimates for the cost of rolling out 5G range between €300BN and €500BN (~$340BN-$570BN), according to Bieler. Figures that underline why 5G is going to grow slowly, and networks be built out thoughtfully; in the b2b space this means essentially on a case-by-case basis.

Simply put carriers must make the economics stack up. Which means no “huge enormous gambles with 5G”. And omnipresent ROI pressure pushing them to try to eke out a premium.

“A lot of the network equipment vendors have turned down the hype quite a bit,” Bieler continues. “If you compare this to the hype around 3G many years ago or 4G a couple of years ago 5G definitely comes across as a soft launch. Sort of an evolutionary type of technology. I have not come across a network equipment vendors these days who will say there will be a complete change in everything by 2020.”

On the consumer pricing front, carriers have also only just started to grapple with 5G business models. One early example is TC parent Verizon’s 5G home service — which positions the next-gen wireless tech as an alternative to fixed line broadband with discounts if you opt for a wireless smartphone data plan as well as 5G broadband.

From the consumer point of view, the carrier 5G business model conundrum boils down to: What is my carrier going to charge me for 5G? And early adopters of any technology tend to get stung on that front.

Although, in mobile, price premiums rarely stick around for long as carriers inexorably find they must ditch premiums to unlock scale — via consumer-friendly ‘all you can eat’ price plans.

Still, in the short term, carriers look likely to experiment with 5G pricing and bundles — basically seeing what they can make early adopters pay. But it’s still far from clear that people will pay a premium for better connectivity alone. And that again necessitates caution. 

5G bundled with exclusive content might be one way carriers try to extract a premium from consumers. But without huge and/or compelling branded content inventory that risks being a too niche proposition too. And the more carriers split their 5G offers the more consumers might feel they don’t need to bother, and end up sticking with 4G for longer.

It’ll also clearly take time for a 5G ‘killer app’ to emerge in the consumer space. And such an app would likely need to still be able to fallback on 4G, again to ensure scale. So the 5G experience will really need to be compellingly different in order for the tech to sell itself.

On the handset side, 5G chipset hardware is also still in its first wave. At MWC this week Qualcomm announced a next-gen 5G modem, stepping up from last year’s Snapdragon 855 chipset — which it heavily touted as architected for 5G (though it doesn’t natively support 5G).

If you’re intending to buy and hold on to a 5G handset for a few years there’s thus a risk of early adopter burn at the chipset level — i.e. if you end up with a device with a suckier battery life vs later iterations of 5G hardware where more performance kinks have been ironed out.

Intel has warned its 5G modems won’t be in phones until next year — so, again, that suggests no 5G iPhones before 2020. And Apple is of course a great bellwether for mainstream consumer tech; the company only jumps in when it believes a technology is ready for prime time, rarely sooner. And if Cupertino feels 5G can wait, that’s going to be equally true for most consumers.

Zooming out, the specter of network security (and potential regulation) now looms very large indeed where 5G is concerned, thanks to East-West trade tensions injecting a strange new world of geopolitical uncertainty into an industry that’s never really had to grapple with this kind of business risk before.

Chinese kit maker Huawei’s rotating chairman, Guo Ping, used the opportunity of an MWC keynote to defend the company and its 5G solutions against U.S. claims its network tech could be repurposed by the Chinese state as a high tech conduit to spy on the West — literally telling delegates: “We don’t do bad things” and appealing to them to plainly to: “Please choose Huawei!”

Huawei rotating resident, Guo Ping, defends the security of its network kit on stage at MWC 2019

When established technology vendors are having to use a high profile industry conference to plead for trust it’s strange and uncertain times indeed.

In Europe it’s possible carriers’ 5G network kit choices could soon be regulated as a result of security concerns attached to Chinese suppliers. The European Commission suggested as much this week, saying in another MWC keynote that it’s preparing to step in try to prevent security concerns at the EU Member State level from fragmenting 5G rollouts across the bloc.

In an on stage Q&A Orange’s chairman and CEO, Stéphane Richard, couched the risk of destabilization of the 5G global supply chain as a “big concern”, adding: “It’s the first time we have such an important risk in our industry.”

Geopolitical security is thus another issue carriers are having to factor in as they make decisions about how quickly to make the leap to 5G. And holding off on upgrades, while regulators and other standards bodies try to figure out a trusted way forward, might seem the more sensible thing to do — potentially stalling 5G upgrades in the meanwhile.

Given all the uncertainties there’s certainly no reason for consumers to rush in.

Smartphone upgrade cycles have slowed globally for a reason. Mobile hardware is mature because it’s serving consumers very well. Handsets are both powerful and capable enough to last for years.

And while there’s no doubt 5G will change things radically in future, including for consumers — enabling many more devices to be connected and feeding back data, with the potential to deliver on the (much hyped but also still pretty nascent) ‘smart home’ concept — the early 5G sales pitch for consumers essentially boils down to more of the same.

“Over the next ten years 4G will phase out. The question is how fast that happens in the meantime and again I think that will happen slower than in early times because [with 5G] you don’t come into a vacuum, you don’t fill a big gap,” suggests Gartner’s Fabre. “4G’s great, it’s getting better, wi’fi’s getting better… The story of let’s build a big national network to do 5G at scale [for all] that’s just not happening.”

“I think we’ll start very, very simple,” he adds of the 5G consumer proposition. “Things like caching data or simply doing more broadband faster. So more of the same.

“It’ll be great though. But you’ll still be watching Netflix and maybe there’ll be a couple of apps that come up… Maybe some more interactive collaboration or what have you. But we know these things are being used today by enterprises and consumers and they’ll continue to be used.”

So — in sum — the 5G mantra for the sensible consumer is really ‘wait and see’.

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Here are all the 5G phones announced at MWC

Posted by | huawei, LG, Mobile, mwc 2019, Samsung, TC, Xiaomi, zte | No Comments

Mobile World Congress is underway, which means there are a handful of brand spankin’ new 5G phones hitting the market soon.

How ever will you decide?

Here’s a look at all the 5G phones announced thus far:

Huawei Mate X

The Mate X is a foldable 5G phone with one 4.6-inch screen, another 6.6-inch 2480×1148 screen and (when unfolded) an 8-inch 2200×2480 display.

Some other specs:

  • Processor: Kirin 980
  • Battery: 4,5000mAh
  • Memory: 8GB RAM, 512GB internal
  • Price: $2,600
  • Size: 11mm folded, 5.4mm unfolded

LG V50 ThinQ 5G

Aside from its unbearably long name, the LG V50 ThinQ 5G’s claim to fame is a new biometric security measure called Hand ID, which reads the veins in your hand to authenticate your identity. Plus, the new LG flagship has a dual-screen case, which effectively turns the phone into a foldable.

Some other specs:

  • Processor: Qualcomm SDM855 Snapdragon 855
  • Battery: 4,000mAh
  • Memory: 6GB RAM, 128GB internal
  • Price: Unknown

Samsung Galaxy Fold

The Galaxy Fold is likely to be the most talked-about phone out of MWC because 1) it folds and 2) it’s made by the biggest phone maker in the world. The handset, with a 7.3-inch 1536×2152 Super AMOLED unfolded display and a 4.6-inch cover display, will be available April 26.

Some other specs:

  • Processor: Qualcomm SDM855 Snapdragon 855
  • Battery: 4,380mAh
  • Memory: 12GB RAM, 512GB internal
  • Price: $1,980
  • Size: 17mm folded

Samsung Galaxy S10 5G

The Samsung S10 5G is exactly what you would expect it to be. It’s packed with all the bells and whistles that might appeal to the customer who wants the top of the line phone regardless of price. It sports a 6.7-inch 1440×3040 AMOLED display.

Some other specs:

  • Processor: Qualcomm SDM855 Snapdragon 855
  • Battery: 4,500mAh
  • Memory: 8GB RAM, 256GB internal
  • Price: Unknown

Xiaomi Mi Mix 3

Interestingly, Xiaomi opted to leave 5G out of its flagship phone for the year, the Mi 9. That said, the 5G Mi Mix 3 has a handful of its own interesting features, including a sliding front-facing camera that results in a 93.4 percent screen-to-body ratio. It also has a dual-camera system that offers the ability to shoot slow-mo videos at 960 frames per second.

Some other specs:

  • Processor: Qualcomm SDM855 Snapdragon 855
  • Battery: 3,800mAh
  • Memory: 6GB RAM, 64GB/128GB internal
  • Price: $680

ZTE Axon 10 Pro 5G

The Axon 10 Pro 5G doesn’t have many tricks, like a folding display, but it does come with a triple-camera system and what appears to be an in-display fingerprint reader. It also sports a 6.7-inch 1080p display. The phone will definitely launch in Europe and China, but no word on whether it will make its way stateside.

Some other specs:

  • Processor: Qualcomm SDM855 Snapdragon 855
  • Battery: 4,000mAh
  • Memory: 6GB RAM, 128GB internal
  • Price: Unknown

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The Google Assistant gets a button

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Google Assistant, LG, Nokia, operating systems, PIXEL, Samsung, smartphones, TC, Xiaomi | No Comments

Traditionally, the Google Assistant always lived under the home button on Android phones, but as the company announced at MWC today, LG, Nokia, Xiaomi, TCL and Vivo are about to launch phones with dedicated assistant buttons, similar to what Samsung has long done with its Bixby assistant.

The new phones with the button that are launching this week are the LG G8 ThinQ and K40 and the Nokia 3.2 and 4.2. The upcoming Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G and Mi 9, as well as new phones from Vivo (including the Vivo V15 Pro) and TCL will also feature a dedicated Assistant button. With this, Google expects that over 100 million devices will soon offer this feature.

With a dedicated button, Google can also build a few new features into the Android OS, too, that’ll make it easier to bring up some Assistant features that were traditionally always a few taps away.

As expected, a single tap on the button will bring up the Assistant, just like a long tap on your phone does today. A double tap will bring up the Assistant’s visual snapshot feature that provides you with contextual information about your day and location (similar to the sorely missed Google Now of days gone by). A long press activates what Google calls a “walkie talkie feature.” This ensures that the Assistant listens to longer queries, which Google says is “perfect for emails or long text message.”

It’s interesting to see that the Android ecosystem is now building these buttons into phones (and we can probably assume that Google’s own next-gen Pixel devices or the fabled low-end Pixel 3 will have one, too). They will make it easier to discover the Assistant, of course, and maybe get people to use it more often, too — and that’s surely what Google is hoping for.

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What to expect from Mobile World Congress 2019

Posted by | 5g, events, foldables, hardware, LG, Mobile, mwc, mwc 2019, OnePlus, Samsung, Sony | No Comments

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: 2019 just might be the year that smartphones get fun again. After years of similar form factors and slight upgrades, the mobile industry’s back is against the wall.

For the first time ever, sales are down, owning to economic factors and slower upgrade cycles. Most people who want good phones have had access to them for a while, and smartphone makers are providing fewer compelling reasons to buy new ones.

With their backs against the wall, handset makers are getting creative. We’ve already seen some early fruits from companies late last year and last month at CES. But MWC is really going to be their time to shine. It’s a much larger mobile show, and all parties know that everyone’s bringing the big guns.

Here’s what we expect to see in Barcelona February 24-28.

Huawei: The company looks to have a lot on tap for the event — in part because the North America-based CES is kind of a non-starter. CEO Richard Yu has hinted at a foldable and a 5G handset — which could well be the same phone. More mainstream are the P30 and P30 Pro. The company’s done a good job keeping it under wraps, but rumors about three or four rear-lenses have made the rounds.

LG: As is its move, LG has already announced the G8 ThinQ. We know that the new flagship will feature a front-facing camera with Time of Flight sensor that brings potential tricks like face unlock, along with AR applications. The V50 is also reportedly on tap, potentially bringing 5G along for the ride.

Microsoft: A surprise addition to this year’s show, Microsoft’s already announced an event for February 24, where we expect the company will show off the HoloLens 2. The next-gen version of the headset will arrive as the rest of the hardware and software world is finally ready to embrace augmented reality in earnest.

Motorola: The recent launch of the G7 may have taken the wind out of MWC’s sails, but rumors of a foldable Razr reboot are making the rounds.

OnePlus: We know that a 5G handset and the OnePlus 7 are both in the pipeline — and, perhaps, one and the same? There’s also tell of a closed-door event at the show, but most aren’t expecting any big unveils from the company.

Samsung: Don’t expect a ton out of Samsung this year. The company (inconveniently) is holding its big event a mere days before. Expect the S10 and all its iterations to get a big unveil that week in San Francisco, along with a preview of the company’s upcoming foldable. That doesn’t leave a heck of a lot for MWC, but perhaps we’ll get a peek into the world of wearables or PCs.

Sony: While Xperia phones have long felt like a bit of a loss leader, the electronics giant has always made a big show of launching flagship devices. Those, in turn, have long been a launchpad for some exciting camera tricks. This year, the Xperia XZ4 appears to be on tap for the event. The handset looks to be an interesting one, with a reported 21:9 aspect ratio display and a beefy 4,400 mAh battery.

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Poor smartphones sales drag LG to first quarterly loss in 2 years

Posted by | Android, Asia, Companies, HTC, LG, LG Electronics, Mobile, smartphone, smartphones | No Comments

We’ve written extensively about LG’s struggling mobile business, which has suffered at the hands of aggressive Chinese Android makers, and now that unit has dragged its parent company into posting its first quarterly loss for two years.

The Korean electronics giant is generally in good health — it posted a $2.4 billion profit for 2018 — but its smartphone business’s failings saw it post a loss in Q4 2018, its first quarterly negative since Q4 2016.

Overall, the company posted a KRW 75.7 billion ($67.1 million) operating loss as revenue slid seven percent year-on-year to KRW 15.77 trillion ($13.99 billion). LG said the change was “primarily due to lower sales of mobile products.”

We’ve known for some time that LG’s mobile business is strugglingthe division got another new head last November — but things went from bad to worse in Q4. LG Mobile saw revenue fall by 42 percent to reach KRW 1.71 trillion, $1.51 billion. The operating loss for the period grew to KRW 322.3 billion, or $289.8 million, from KRW 216.3 billion, $194 million, one year previous.

Over the full year, LG Mobile posted a $700 million loss (KRW 790.1 billion) but the company claimed things are improving thanks to “better material cost controls and overhead efficiencies based on the company’s platform modularization strategy.”

LG used CES to showcase a range of home entertainment products — that division is doing far better than mobile, with a record annual profit of $1.35 billion in 2018 — so we’ll have to wait until Mobile World Congress in February to see exactly what LG has in mind. Already, though, we have a suggestion, and it isn’t exactly set-the-world-on-fire stuff.

“LG’s mobile division will push 5G products and smartphones featuring different form factors while focusing on key markets where the LG brand remains strong,” the company said in a statement.

It will certainly take something very special to turn things around. It seems more likely that LG Mobile head Brian Kwon — who also heads up that hugely profitable home entertainment business — will focus on cutting costs and squeezing out the few sweet spots left. Continued losses, particularly against success from other units, might eventually see LG shutter its mobile business.

Still, things could be worse for LG — it could be HTC.

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LG hints at gesture interface for smartphone flagship next month

Posted by | Android, barcelona, gesture interface, hardware, leap motion, LG, LG Premiere, Mobile, mwc, MWC2019, Samsung, smartphone, smartphone hardware, smartphones, TC, touchscreen | No Comments

LG has put out a gesture-heavy hint ahead of the annual unveiling of new smartphone hardware at the world’s biggest mobile confab, Mobile World Congress, which kicks off in a month’s time.

The brief video teaser for its forthcoming MWC press event in Barcelona, which was shared today via LG’s social media channels, shows a man’s hand swiping to change on-screen content, including the message “goodbye touch.”

The title of LG’s teaser video includes the name “LG Premiere,” which could be the name of the forthcoming flagship — albeit that would be confusingly similar to the mid-tier LG Premier of yore. So, hopefully the company is going to make that last ‘e’ really count.

Beyond some very unsubtle magic wand sound effects to draw extra attention to the contactless gestures, the video offers very little to go on. But we’re pretty sure LG is not about to pivot away from touchscreens entirely.

Rather, we’re betting on some sort of Leap Motion -style gesture control interface being added to the front of the handset, using sensors to detect a hovering hand, for example — probably accompanied by heavy marketing about how filthy-with-germs phone screens are so it’s totally better you don’t actually touch them.

Safe to say, the idea looks terribly gimmicky. Or, well, just terrible. This kind of stuff has been tried (and failed to stick) plenty of times before — as long ago as a decade, in the now no longer mobile-maker Sony Ericcson’s case.

Samsung also added a gesture feature, called Air Gesture, to some of its handsets more than five years old — which lets smartphone users do things like wave to answer a call or swipe through air to scroll up. Some of its smartphones also offer hands-free scrolling via facial tracking.

Yet smartphone users everywhere still seem as hooked as ever on actually fingering their touchscreens. And gesture-based interfaces have, fittingly enough, largely failed to stick.

Although you could view Apple’s Face ID technology as a form of non-touch gesture control, as my TC colleague Ingrid Lunden suggests. Albeit the primary point in that case is security/authentication, so it’s more than just a frictionless way to interact with a device without touching it.

Smartphone makers — and Android OEMs especially — are under acute pressure to stand out in a fiercely competitive and growth-stalled market. So despite a flighty history for gesture interfaces on mobile, a bunch of hardware experiments look to be in play, such as whatever LG’s cooking.

And that includes — as we noted earlier today — what’s now open flirtation with foldable tablet smartphones (see: Xiaomi teased a double folder phone.)

We’ll be on the ground in Barcelona to bring you news of all the major hardware releases next month — including keeping an eye on whatever LG is preparing to unbox (but not actually touch) on February 24. So stay tuned.

We just hope that another detail in LG’s description for the teaser video, in which it asks its followers whether they’re “prepared to get stunned by the LG Premiere,” does not augur a highly potent new form of contactless haptic feedback.

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The top smartphone trends to watch in 2019

Posted by | 2018 Roundup, 5g, 5g network, Android, Apple, artificial intelligence, AT&T, Google, HTC, huawei, LG, Mobile, mobile phones, Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung Electronics, smartphone, smartphones, sprint, TC, Verizon | No Comments

This was a bad year for the smartphone. For the first time, its seemingly unstoppable growth began to slow.

Things started off on a bad note in February, when Gartner recorded its first year-over-year decline since it began tracking the category. Not even the mighty Apple was immune from the trend. Last week, stocks took a hit as influential analyst Ming-Chi Kuo downgraded sales expectations for 2019.

People simply aren’t upgrading as fast as they used to. This is due in part to the fact that flagship phones are pretty good across the board. Manufacturers have painted themselves into a corner as they’ve battled it out over specs. There just aren’t as many compelling reasons to continually upgrade.

Of course, that’s not going to stop them from trying. Along with the standard upgrades to things like cameras, you can expect some radical rethinks of smartphone form factors, along with the first few pushes into 5G in the next calendar year.

If we’re lucky, there will be a few surprises along the way as well, but the following trends all look like no-brainers for 2019.

5G

Attendees look at 5G mobile phones at the Qualcomm stand during China Mobile Global Partner Conference 2018 at Poly World Trade Center Exhibition Hall on December 6, 2018 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China.

GUANGZHOU, CHINA – DECEMBER 06: Attendees look at 5G mobile phones at the Qualcomm stand during China Mobile Global Partner Conference 2018 at Poly World Trade Center Exhibition Hall on December 6, 2018 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China. The three-day conference opened on Thursday, with the theme of 5G network. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Let’s get this one out of the way, shall we? It’s a bit tricky — after all, plenty of publications are going to claim 2019 as “The Year of 5G,” but they’re all jumping the gun. It’s true that we’re going to see the first wave of 5G handsets appearing next year.

OnePlus and LG have committed to a handset and Samsung, being Samsung, has since committed to two. We’ve also seen promises of a Verizon 5G MiFi and whatever the hell this thing is from HTC and Sprint.

Others, most notably Apple, are absent from the list. The company is not expected to release a 5G handset until 2020. While that’s going to put it behind the curve, the truth of the matter is that 5G will arrive into this world as a marketing gimmick. When it does fully roll out, 5G has the potential to be a great, gaming-changing technology for smartphones and beyond. And while carriers have promised to begin rolling out the technology in the States early next year (AT&T even got a jump start), the fact of the matter is that your handset will likely spend a lot more time using 4G.

That is to say, until 5G becomes more ubiquitous, you’re going to be paying a hefty premium for a feature you barely use. Of course, that’s not going to stop hardware makers, component manufacturers and their carrier partners from rushing these devices to market as quickly as possible. Just be aware of your chosen carrier’s coverage map before shelling out that extra cash.

Foldables

We’ve already seen two — well, one-and-a-half, really. And you can be sure we’ll see even more as smartphone manufacturers scramble to figure out the next big thing. After years of waiting, we’ve been pretty unimpressed with the foldable smartphone we’ve seen so far.

The Royole is fascinating, but its execution leaves something to be desired. Samsung’s prototype, meanwhile, is just that. The company made it the centerpiece of its recent developer conference, but didn’t really step out of the shadows with the product — almost certainly because they’re not ready to show off the full product.

Now that the long-promised technology is ready in consumer form, it’s a safe bet we’ll be seeing a number of companies exploring the form factor. That will no doubt be helped along by the fact that Google partnered with Samsung to create a version of Android tailored to the form factor — similar to its embrace of the top notch with Android Pie.

Of course, like 5G, these designs are going to come at a major premium. Once the initial novelty has worn off, the hardest task of all will be convincing consumers they need one in their life.

Pinholes

Bezels be damned. For better or worse, the notch has been a mainstay of flagship smartphones. Practically everyone (save for Samsung) has embraced the cutout in an attempt to go edge to edge. Even Google made it a part of Android (while giving the world a notch you can see from space with the Pixel 3 XL).

We’ve already seen (and will continue to see) a number of clever workarounds like Oppo’s pop-up. The pin hole/hole punch design found on the Huawei Nova 4 seems like a more reasonable route for a majority of camera manufacturers.

Embedded Fingerprint Readers

The flip side of the race to infinite displays is what to do with the fingerprint reader. Some moved it to the rear, while others, like Apple, did away with it in favor of face scanning. Of course, for those unable to register a full 3D face scan, that tech is pretty easy to spoof. For that reason, fingerprint scanners aren’t going away any time soon.

OnePlus’ 6T was among the first to bring the in-display fingerprint scanner to market, and it works like a charm. Here’s how the tech works (quoting from my own writeup from a few months ago):

When the screen is locked, a fingerprint icon pops up, showing you where to press. When the finger is in the right spot, the AMOLED display flashes a bright light to capture a scan of the surface from the reflected light. The company says it takes around a third of a second, though in my own testing, that number was closer to one second or sometimes longer as I negotiated my thumb into the right spot.

Samsung’s S10 is expected to bring that technology when it arrives around the February time frame, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of other manufacturers follow suit.

Cameras, cameras, cameras (also, cameras)

What’s the reasonable limit for rear-facing cameras? Two? Three? What about the five cameras on that leaked Nokia from a few months back? When does it stop being a phone back and start being a camera front? These are the sorts of existential crises we’ll have to grapple with as manufacturers continue to attempt differentiation through imagining.

Smartphone cameras are pretty good across the board these days, so one of the simple solutions has been simply adding more to the equation. LG’s latest offers a pretty reasonable example of how this will play out for many. The V40 ThinQ has two front and three rear-facing cameras. The three on the back are standard, super wide-angle and 2x optical zoom, offering a way to capture different types of images when a smartphone camera isn’t really capable of that kind of optical zoom in a thin form factor.

On the flip side, companies will also be investing a fair deal in software to help bring better shots to existing components. Apple and Google both demonstrated how a little AI and ML can go a long way toward improving image capture on their last handsets. Expect much of that to be focused on ultra-low light and zoom.

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Google Fi now officially supports most Android devices and iPhones

Posted by | Android, app-store, fi, Google, iOS, iPhone, LG, Mobile, Motorola, project fi, Samsung, smartphones, TC, vpn | No Comments

Google is making a major move to expand the availability of its Fi wireless service.

It’s been a few years since Google launched Project Fi with the promise of doing things a bit differently than the large carriers. Because it could switch between the cell networks of multiple providers to give you the best signal, the service only ever officially supported a select number of handsets. You could always trick it by activating the service on a supported phone and then moving your SIM card to another (including an iPhone), but that was never supported.

That’s changing today, though. The company is opening up Fi — and renaming it to Google Fi — and officially expanding device support to most popular Android phones, as well as iPhones. Supported Android phones include devices from Samsung, LG, Motorola and OnePlus. iPhone support is currently in beta, and there are a few extra steps to set it up, but the Fi iOS app should now be available in the App Store.

One thing you might not get with many of the now-supported phones is the full Fi experience, with network switching and access to Google’s enhanced network features, including Google’s VPN network. For that, you’ll still need a Pixel phone, the Moto G6 or any other device that you can buy directly in the Fi store.

Fi on all phones comes with the usual features, like bill protection, free high-speed international roaming and support for group plans.

To sweeten the deal, Google is also launching a somewhat extraordinary promotion today: If you open a new Fi account — or if are an existing user — you can buy any phone in the Fi shop today and get your money back in the form of a travel gift card that you can use for a flight with Delta or Southwest, or lodging with Airbnb and Hotels.com. There’s some fine print, of course (you need to keep your account active for a few months, etc.), but if you were looking at getting Fi anyway, like to travel and want to get a Pixel 3 XL, that’s not a bad deal at all.

The fine print is below:

Travel on Fi with Any Device Purchase Promotion Terms (Google Fi)

Limited time, 24-hour offer applies to any qualifying device purchased from fi.google.com from 11/28/18 12:00 AM PT through 11/28/18 11:59 PM PT, or while supplies last. When you purchase a qualifying device on fi.google.com, you can redeem a travel gift card in the amount you paid for the device, excluding taxes (details below).

To qualify for this promotion, a device must be activated within 15 days of device shipment and remain active for 60 consecutive days within 75 days of device shipment. The device must be activated within the same plan that was used to purchase the device. Activation must be for full service (i.e., activation does not apply to a data-only SIM).

This offer is available for new Google Fi customers as of 11/28/18 12:00 AM PT and existing, active Google Fi customers. If the customer is new to Google Fi, the customer must transfer (port-in) their current personal number over to Google Fi during sign up. The number being transferred must be currently active and have been active with the previous carrier and the customer since 8/28/18 12:00 AM PT.

After the terms have been satisfied, the customer will receive an email from Google Fi (around 75 – 90 days after device activation) with instructions on how to obtain a gift card from Tango subject to Tango’s terms and conditions. The user can redeem gift card amounts with select travel partners: Airbnb, Delta Airlines, Hotels.com, and Southwest Airlines. Gift cards may also be subject to the terms of the travel partners.

If Fi service is paused for more than 7 days or cancelled within 120 days of activation, the value of the gift card will be charged to your Google Payments account to match the purchased price of the device. Limit one per person. This offer is only available for U.S. residents ages 18 and older, and requires Google Payments and Google Fi accounts. Unless otherwise stated, this offer cannot be combined with other offers. Offer and gift card redemption are not transferable, and are not valid for cash or cash equivalent. Void where prohibited.

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LG replaces the head of its struggling mobile business after just one year

Posted by | Asia, head, LG, Mobile, Personnel, president | No Comments

Mission impossible: A new executive at LG is charged with fixing the company’s long-time loss-making smartphone division following a leadership change.

Hwang Jeong-hwan took the job as president of LG Mobile Communications last October, and this week LG announced that he will be replaced by Brian Kwon, who is head of LG’s hugely profitable home entertainment business, starting December 1.

“Mr. Kwon played a critical role in transforming LG’s TV, audio and PC business into category leaders and his knowledge and experience in the global marketplace will be instrumental in continuing LG’s mobile operations turnaround,” LG wrote in an announcement.

The company said Jeong-hwan had “successfully bolstered the operation’s quality assurance and product development efficiency.”

Those are interesting words; none of them mention the crisis that has seen LG’s mobile business continue to post big losses. This year to date, it lost the wider company some $410 million, including a $130.5 million net loss in the last quarter. In contrast, Kwon’s unit was the standout performer of the quarter, generating total sales of 3.71 trillion RKW ($3.31 billion) and a 325.1 billion KRW ($289.9 million) profit.That burn rate was cut during Hwang Jeong-hwan’s tenure, but it seems like there’s still much work to be done. Kwon — who LG describes as a “turnaround expert” — will combine his new role at the mobile business with his existing position as president of LG’s Home Entertainment Company. Hwang Jeong-hwan will move on to lead the company’s “Convergence Business Development Office.”

LG has also shuffled at the top of the tree. CEO Jo Seong-jin will “focus more on strategy and planning for the future,” with president and CFO David Jung taking over a number of day-to-day responsibilities. LG has also restructured its vehicle component and business services divisions.

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Happy 10th anniversary, Android

Posted by | Amazon, Android, andy rubin, Angry Birds, Apple, artificial intelligence, AT&T, China, computing, consumer electronics, digital media, Facebook, Gadgets, Google, google nexus, hardware, HTC, HTC Dream, HTC EVO 4G smartphone, huawei, india, iPad, iPhone, Kindle, LG, lists, Mobile, Motorola, motorola droid, motorola xoom, Nexus One, oled, operating system, operating systems, phablet, Samsung, smartphone, smartphones, Sony, sprint, T-Mobile, TC, TechCrunch, United States, Verizon, xperia | No Comments

It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5X and Huawei 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Google Pixel (2016)

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

The rise and fall of the Essential phone

In 2017 Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, debuted the first fruits of his new hardware startup studio, Digital Playground, with the launch of Essential (and its first phone). The company had raised $300 million to bring the phone to market, and — as the first hardware device to come to market from Android’s creator — it was being heralded as the next new thing in hardware.

Here at TechCrunch, the phone received mixed reviews. Some on staff hailed the phone as the achievement of Essential’s stated vision — to create a “lovemark” for Android smartphones, while others on staff found the device… inessential.

Ultimately, the market seemed to agree. Four months ago plans for a second Essential phone were put on hold, while the company explored a sale and pursued other projects. There’s been little update since.

A Cambrian explosion in hardware

In the ten years since its launch, Android has become the most widely used operating system for hardware. Some version of its software can be found in roughly 2.3 billion devices around the world and its powering a technology revolution in countries like India and China — where mobile operating systems and access are the default. As it enters its second decade, there’s no sign that anything is going to slow its growth (or dominance) as the operating system for much of the world.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

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