The US is lagging behind in phone design, and folding items are the proof This year’s Mobile World Congress was packed with foldable items, from Huawei’s sleek Mate X to Xiaomi’s triple-fold model, TCL’s angular Hinge design, Oppo’s prototype to clunky Royale FlexPai to LG’s second V50 display.
But all of those devices have one thing in common: Like the latest waves of groundbreaking phone designs launched overseas, they won’t be available in America in any significant way. Looking at the foldable landscape, there is basically only one device that will be sold in the US, via carriers, without having to deal with import fees or cellular compatibility: Samsung’s Galaxy Fold.
This is not a new phenomenon. Cool phones from abroad have always struggled to reach the United States, due to market demand, trade agreements, and other complex geopolitical factors. The current mistrust of various US intelligence agencies towards Chinese telecommunications communications companies is an obvious example.
But the problem isn’t just that US customers are missing out on cool and cool phones, although that’s very frustrating. It is also that the flagships of companies like Oppo and Huawei are increasingly the best hardware in the world, offering new ideas and specifications on par with the best phones in the US, but at much more affordable prices. And that means less competition in a stagnant domestic phone market that largely consists only of phones from Apple and Samsung.
Right now it’s not even a competition.
Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo are the No. 2, No. 4 and No. 5 smartphone makers in the world by market share, but in the United States there is a virtual duopoly. According to Counterpoint Research, in the fourth quarter of 2018, Apple controlled 54 percent of the market, while Samsung had 22 percent: the two brands together account for more than three-quarters of all phones sold in the US. The next closest competitor is LG, at 12 percent, and it has been struggling with smartphone sales for years. Even seemingly like Google, with its critically acclaimed Pixel line and benefiting from the company’s full marketing power, and Sony, a brand with which American consumers are incredibly familiar, can hardly make a dent.
So even if Chinese brands could Selling in the US, they are likely to face an uphill battle breaking into the market. But it’s largely a moot point, as it’s not even a competition right now. In addition, the boredom of American phones also hurts innovation. Right now, the major devices in the US are boring, notched and iPhone X-ish designs. As far as most US customers go, that’s the pinnacle of innovation, so much so that when Samsung comes out with its S10 hole punch to avoid the notches, it feels like a win. But Chinese phones have already far surpassed notched designs due to the faster and more experimental pace of technology.
Outside of the United States, the world of the telephone is full of really weird and innovative ideas. Bored of boring, black and white phones? Take a look at these neon-hued gradients that sparkle in the sun:
Hate your notch? How about a pop-up camera that pops up when you need it and leaves your screen gloriously unbranded when you don’t have it?
Or maybe you just try a double-sided screen that swivels for selfies, sliding screens, or completely portless phones. Sure, not all of them are the most practical, but they are pushing the envelope forward in a way that teams from Apple and Samsung just aren’t.
Collapsible space is free for everyone, but the US only gets a fraction of it.
Also, with the completely new form factors of folding elements on the way, the fact that only one or two of those devices will be available in the US for now will limit their adoption considerably. Right now, the foldable space is free for everyone, with wildly mixed ideas of which styles of foldable phones work and which don’t. But customers in the United States will only be able to see a fraction of what is out there. Right now, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is the only game in town for US customers, and even if you prefer the slim, reverse-fold style that Huawei uses on the Mate X, you’re probably out of luck.
Now, some of the hassles can be avoided: If you’re willing to pay a premium, you can import all the newest and hottest phones from outside the US In theory, unified telecommunications standards mean that unlocked cell phones don’t they are restricted to no operator – you can simply buy any phone on the internet and be good to go.
But the reality is more complicated. Different carriers and phones support different LTE bands and different cellular technologies (hello, GSM vs. CDMA). Without the cooperation and blessing of an operator, it sucks as to whether your new device will actually work properly when turned on in America.
These compatibility issues will only get worse in the future as 5G starts rolling out. It’s bad enough finding an unlocked phone that supports the best LTE bands from your carrier in the United States. Throwing the chaos of different chunks of 5G spectrum that vary from carrier to carrier with different modem and antenna requirements will only make matters worse. With sub-6, space-consuming mmWave antennas, different spectrum bands, and gradual deployments in cities that can mean 5G coverage gaps, it seems virtually impossible that you could simply buy an unlocked, working 5G phone in the United States, at least. not in the next few years.
It’s not that Chinese companies haven’t tried to enter the US market. Xiaomi made a push a few years ago, but only ended up selling smart home products and accessories and even electric scooters that backed scooter companies like Bird, but not phones. Huawei has possibly reached the closest of all. At CES 2018, Huawei was about to announce a deal with AT&T to sell the Mate 10 Pro in the US, but AT&T pulled out at the 11th hour due to pressure from the government over security concerns. Verizon was also reportedly scared.
Both efforts ended in failure, and with the political winds blowing as they are, it appears that the US phone market won’t have to worry about competition from companies like Huawei or Xiaomi anytime soon. But that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to get stuck on the sidelines watching all the cool hardware from afar.