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Huawei Delays Its Foldable Mate X Phone as It Faces a Trifecta of Market Headwinds

David Meyer

If you’re really looking forward to getting your hands on Huawei’s new 5G foldable phone, you’re unfortunately out of luck—the beleaguered Chinese company’s Mate X will be rolled out later rather than sooner.

Originally due in mid-2019, the Mate X will only come out in September, corporate communications chief Vincent Pang told Reuters.

Pang suggested that the delay is due to Huawei certifying the device with various mobile carriers; the process will only be completed in August. That said, the trifecta of market forces swirling around the much-anticipated device can’t be ignored, so let’s take a close look at them:

1. It’s a Huawei phone

The most urgent issue is that the Mate X’s vendor is Huawei, a company whose American suppliers are currently banned from providing it with parts and software, due to an alleged national security threat posed by the company.

While Pang denied the delay was due to the ban, the ban poses a pressing question: What will Huawei use to make the phone-slash-tablet?

Bloomberg reported last month that Huawei has a stockpile of chips that will allow it to weather the component ban for around three months, at least to a degree that will allow it to continue functioning as a business. September is past that threshold.

Although Huawei makes its own chips through a manufacturing venture called HiSilicon, it still needs parts from U.S. companies such as Micron (memory chips) and Qorvo (radio chips) that have halted shipments to Huawei under the ban. (The Softbank-owned chip-design giant ARM has also suspended ties with the Chinese firm, but that should only stop Huawei from designing future chips; the Mate X uses processors that have already been designed and made.)

Then there’s the software. Like everyone except Apple, Huawei makes phones using Google’s Android operating system, which is also subject to the trade restrictions. Google managed to get the U.S. government to grant it a waiver that allows it to continue supplying Huawei phones with Android updates, but again that waiver runs out in August.

Huawei’s Pang told Reuters the firm can use its own “Hongmeng” version of Android instead, but that will take six to nine months to pass testing.

2. It’s a folding phone

Phones with folding screens have been promised for a long time and are now here, but the flaws predicted by cynical industry-watchers appear to have arrived with them.

The primary flaw is that of fragility. The Mate X’s big rival is Samsung’s Galaxy Fold—or at least, it would be if Samsung’s device was on the market yet. In April, the Fold made it as far as the hands of reviewers, several of whom found the display broke after a few days of use.

As a result, the Fold’s launch was delayed until this week. Except, that didn’t happen. There’s now no firm launch date, and AT&T has cancelled early orders.

The Galaxy Fold and Mate X are far from identical—crucially, the Fold has its big screen on the inside and the Mate X has its big screen on the outside of its folded form. Early comparisons have shown that Huawei’s design choice at least avoids leaving a fat crease down the center of the screen, but also that both screens are vulnerable to damage, as they are plastic rather than glass. And Huawei’s screen is continuously exposed to loose change, keys and other scratch-risk items while folded up in a pocket.

In short, the technology is very young—early adopters beware.

3. It’s a 5G phone

5G—the fifth generation of mobile technology—is the future, we are constantly told. Which is nice, and true, but right now is the present.

It might be impressive to brandish a 5G phone in 2019, and a lucky few consumers in certain cities may be able to benefit now or in the near future from the speeds promised by the new technology—in some cases over a gigabit per second, But it will take years for broader networks to be upgraded and, in turn, for larger swaths of the population to benefit. Until then, 5G phones will in most cases just drop back to 4G, with its more familiar speeds.

There’s also the issue that, as with any leap forward in mobile connectivity, it will take a while for app developers to come up with services that can take advantage of 5G’s benefits. For now, good old 4G is adequate at giving most phone users what they need in terms of video-streaming, gaming and so on.

The benefits of 5G will become more apparent in the coming years, meaning most people shouldn’t feel a need to rush to upgrade just yet. Particularly when the first 5G phones are pricier than most. When the Mate X finally arrives, it’s slated to come in at an eye-watering $2,600.

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