Samsung details its foldable display plans

Tech giant Samsung reckons there might be a market for a foldable phone that turns into a tablet.

Samsung has been banging on about flexible displays for years, but it has always been teased in a vague, utopian way. Just imagine a world in which devices can bend, they invited us to do on an annual basis, without going to far as to actually detail the practical benefits of such a thing. There was even talk of rollable displays that we could unfurl like a high-tech scroll.

But now, finally, all this talk has coalesced into an actual product: the Infinity Flex Display. It was revealed at Samsung’s developer conference in San Francisco, together with a concept smartphone that unfolds into a tablet and a new version of Samsung’s Android user interface called One UI.

“Samsung continues to build on its legacy of category-defining form factor and display innovation that has paved the way for a breakthrough foldable smartphone form factor,” said the supporting announcement. “The Infinity Flex Display together with One UI delivers a new kind of mobile experience allowing users to do things they couldn’t do with an ordinary smartphone.

“Users now have the best of both worlds: a compact smartphone that unfolds to reveal a larger immersive display for multitasking and viewing content. The app experience seamlessly transitions from the smaller display to the larger display as the device unfolds. In addition, users can browse, watch, connect and multitask without losing a beat, simultaneously using three active apps on the larger display.”

Clearly Samsung understands that just enabling novel form factors alone won’t achieve much; it needs to catalyse an ecosystem that develops applications and functions designed to make use of its unique qualities. Merely making use of the greater screen real estate would be unremarkable, but enabling a smooth transition between smartphone and tablet mode while, for example, watching a video might be handy.

A short video of the announcement can be seen in the Samsung tweet below, followed by one from veteran consumer tech hack Vlad Savov, which illustrates some of the challenges Samsung will face in turning its flexible display technology into something people will want. Lastly there’s an infographic from Samsung detailing how great it is at mobile displays, for anyone not already convinced of that.

 

sdc2018_mobile-display-innovation

Smartphone market continues to plunge, with Samsung worst hit

Samsung’s smartphone shipments have declined for the past four quarters and the overall market has followed.

At the same time Huawei continues to go from strength to strength. Annual smartphone shipment growth of 41% allowed Huawei to take second place in the global rankings last quarter and 32% growth this quarter was enough to keep Apple at bay once more. Samsung’s shipments declined by 13% this quarter and if these trends keep up Huawei could grab the top spot before long – a previously unthinkable event.

“Global smartphone shipments tumbled 8 percent annually from 393.1 million units in Q3 2017 to 360.0 million in Q3 2018,” said Linda Sui of analyst firm Strategy Analytics. “The global smartphone market has now declined for four consecutive quarters and is effectively in a recession. The smartphone industry is struggling to come to terms with heavily diminished carrier subsidies, longer replacement rates, inventory buildup in several regions, and a lack of exciting hardware design innovation.”

“Samsung is losing ground to Huawei, Xiaomi and other Chinese rivals in the huge China and India markets,” said Neil Mawston of SA. “Samsung must solve its China and India problems before it is too late. Huawei remains the world’s second largest smartphone vendor with 14 percent share. Huawei has little presence in the valuable North America market, but its Android models are wildly popular in most of the rest of the world, particularly Asia and Europe.”

One interesting twist to the numbers was Apple’s decision to stop reporting shipment numbers from next quarter onwards. Since this is always its strongest quarter you have to wonder what Apple is playing at. “Starting with the December quarter, we will no longer be providing unit sales data for iPhone, iPad and Mac,” said Apple CFO Luca Maestri on the earnings call. “As we have stated many times, our objective is to make great products and services that enrich people’s lives, and to provide an unparalleled customer experience so that our users are highly satisfied, loyal and engaged.

“As we accomplish these objectives, strong financial results follow. As demonstrated by our financial performance in recent years, the number of units sold in any 90-day period is not necessarily representative of the underlying strength of our business. Furthermore, a unit of sale is less relevant for us today than it was in the past, given the breadth of our portfolio and the wider sales price dispersion within any given product line.”

Fair enough but the market will be the judge of how relevant Apple’s unit shipment numbers are. Companies like Strategy Analytics will still publish estimates and journalists will still write about them. Apple was one of the few smartphone vendors that still published its numbers so maybe it has decided, as has LG, to get in line with its competitors on this, with the overall declines in the smartphone market possibly contributing to that decision. But the weak reasoning offered above will leave many unanswered questions in the minds of investors.

Smartphones Q3 2018

Chip division continues to carry Samsung

Samsung has released its quarterly numbers, and while it is an improvement on the last quarter, the business is seemingly being propped up by a surging semiconductor unit.

Total revenues for the three months stood at roughly $57 billion, a 5.5% increase from the same period in 2017, while operating profit came in at roughly 15.5 billion, a year-on-year increase of 20.9%. The earnings were largely in line with the expectations the management team floated a few weeks back.

“In the third quarter, operating profit reached a new quarterly high for the company driven mainly by the continued strength of the Memory Business,” the team said in a statement. “Total revenue increased YoY and QoQ on the back of strong sales of memory products and OLED panels.

“The Korean won remained weak against the US dollar, resulting in a positive QoQ effect of approximately KRW 800 billion, experienced mainly in the components businesses. However the Korean won rose against major emerging currencies, which weighed slightly on the set businesses.”

Looking at the individual business units, the chip team rose to the top of the rankings once again. Revenues came in at roughly $22 billion for the quarter, with profit standing at $12 billion. Although demand is set to be weaker for the next quarter, the team anticipate slight increases over the next twelve months as demand for public cloud market, and mobile storage expands.

With fingers pointing to increased competition, revenues fell in the IT & Mobile Communications with over smartphone shipments remaining flat due to a decrease in sales of mid- to low-end products. High promotional costs and fluctuating currencies have been blamed for a dip in profitability, with the division only contributing $1.9 billion, despite it claiming pretty much the same revenues as the chip boys.

Another unit worth keeping an eye on will be the Networks unit. While revenues were down year-on-year, owing to decreased investments in 4G and the 5G euphoria yet to kick in, Samsung does seem to be benefiting from the increased scrutiny placed on Huawei in recent months. With many telcos snubbing Huawei, or at least decreasing dependence on the vendor, Samsung could certainly take advantage.

With Huawei and Xiaomi offering a more sustained threat in markets where Samsung traditionally dominates, this might not be the end of the woes for the start-studded division of Samsung.

Italian watchdog bares its gums in Apple and Samsung planned obsolescence case

Italian regulator AGCM has shown its bite is particularly toothless after fining Apple and Samsung €10 million and €5 million respectively over planned obsolescence.

Following a ten-month investigation for unfair commercial practices, the watchdog found the pair guilty, though after months of barking the bite has proven to be as gummy as a 70 year-old Welwyn Garden City pensioner. For many companies the fines would be considered monstrous, but for these two, it will barely register a blip on the financials.

The statement from the AGCM reads as follows:

“As a result of two complex investigations, the AGCM has ascertained that the companies of the Apple group and of the Samsung group have realized unfair commercial practices in violation of the articles. 20, 21, 22 and 24 of the Consumer Code in relation to the release of some firmware updates of mobile phones that have caused serious malfunctions and significantly reduced performance, thereby accelerating the process of replacing them.”

In Samsung’s case, the watchdog believes the company insisted users who had purchased a Note 4 to install the new Android firmware called Marshmallow, which was designed for the Note 7, but failed to inform of serious malfunctions due to the greater stress on the device.

Apple told the owners of various models of iPhone 6 to install the new iOS 10, which was developed for the iPhone7, without informing the greater energy demands of the new operating system and the possible inconveniences, such as sudden shutdowns. To counter these issues, a new update was released without warning that its installation could reduce the speed of response and functionality of the devices.

In a second investigation of Apple, AGCM found the iLeader did not provide consumers with adequate information about some characteristics of the batteries, such as their average life and deterioration, nor the correct procedures to maintain, verify and replace the batteries to preserve the full functionality of the devices.

Just to put the fines into some perspective, it would take Apple approximately 20 minutes to pay off the €10 million fine, while Samsung would take around 16 minutes to pay off its €5 million penalty.

The issue with these fines is the severity. Apple and Samsung have failed in their responsibilities to their customers, and should be punished. However, these are monstrous companies with unthinkably large bank accounts. Fines should be proportional to the size of the company, otherwise fear will not be instilled.

Fines are supposed to act as a deterrent for any wrong-doing in the future. Considering how minor these penalties are in comparison to the annual turnover of Apple and Samsung, what is to stop them from continuing to edge along the line of right and wrong.

Unfortunately this is the current state of play. Regulators can try to protect the consumer, but until they are given the power to effectively and proportionally punish wrong-doers, nothing will change. This is not the last time Apple and Samsung will be caught doing something wrong, and it’s because they are effectively being allowed to get away with it.

 

Samsing snags network insight firm to boost AI credentials

Samsung has bolstered its 5G readiness with the acquisition of network analytics firm Zhilabs, which uses AI to deliver network optimization insight.

Financials of the deal have not been announced though Samsung did announce it intends to invest $22 billion to boost credentials in artificial intelligence and 5G back in August. Bringing Zhilabs into the mix certainly builds on that promise.

“5G will enable unprecedented services attributed to the generation of exponential data traffic, for which automated and intelligent network analytics tools are vital,” said Youngky Kim, Head of Networks Business at Samsung Electronics. “The acquisition of Zhilabs will help Samsung meet these demands to assure each subscriber receives the best possible service.”

“5G technology will disrupt the communications landscape for the better, but it will only be successful if the quality of the networks transferring the information can be measured and improved to provide a best-in-class experience,” said Joan Raventós, CEO at Zhilabs. “We are delighted to be joining the Samsung Electronics family and adding a contribution with our software products and technology to the existing end-to-end solutions that the company offers its customers.”

The firm itself aims to help telcos understand the traffic which is flowing across networks to aid optimization and performance decisions. Zhilabs flagship product, CustomAir, claims to do this for customers with the solution being used to monitor the experience of 200 million end users currently. Zhilabs claims it solution is currently being used by five of the world’s largest telcos, excluding those in China.

Maintaining a positive experience for customers is of course an important metric for telcos to prevent customer churn, though end-to-end encryption makes this difficult. The world is becoming increasingly concerned about data privacy, and using encryption technology to secure information is more common place, though not being able to see the traffic which flows across a network creates a problem for telcos. Zhilabs claims to have machine learning expertise to combat this issue, making it an attractive proposition for Samsung.

While Samsung is not often discussed at the top-table when it comes to telco networking vendors, the trends do seem to be shifting. Huawei is increasingly facing scrutiny over its relationship with the Chinese government, a trend which does seem to be benefitting Samsung. Adding such tools to the armoury will continue to develop this momentum.

Samsung looks to reverse mid-year dip with Q3 numbers

Q2 wasn’t exactly a party for Samsung, though it seems ready to correct the dip at the first possible opportunity.

Samsung Electronics has announced its earnings guidance for the third quarter of 2018, with consolidated sales coming in at 65 trillion Korean won (roughly $57.3 billion), up 5% year-on-year, and profits of 17.5 trillion won ($15.8 billion). The profits would represent a 20% uplift compared to the same period of 2017.

This is a much more positive return for the business compared to the second quarter of 2018. Three months ago the business reported sales of $52.1 billion, a decline of 4% year-on-year, though this was in-line with guidance offered in the weeks leading up to the earnings call.

During the earnings call, the downward dog resembling graph was blamed on a sluggish S9, though this might be partly due to the 5G euphoria. With the promise of 5G compatible phones in 2019, some users might be wary of purchasing a device which will become old news in a matter of months.

That said, the semiconductor business has been a very strong performer for Samsung through the last couple of quarters, and some might suspect this is the case once again. Full results are due to be released on October 31.

Samsung set to refocus its smartphone strategy on mid-tier devices

The head of Samsung’s mobile communications division has said he’s going to focus on mid-range devices for the introduction of new features from now on.

The new strategy was unveiled in an interview with CNBC, which said the move was born of a desire to appeal more to ‘millennials’ – the new word for young people. From this we can infer that, because younger people tend to have less cash, they buy cheaper phones. So far so bleeding obvious, but since that has always been the case it sheds little light on why Samsung has suddenly decided to move downmarket with its phones.

“In the past, I brought the new technology and differentiation to the flagship model and then moved to the mid-end,” said DJ Koh in the interview. “But I have changed my strategy from this year to bring technology and differentiation points starting from the mid-end… So we are very much focusing on millennials who cannot afford the flagship. But how can I deliver meaningful innovation to our millennials? That’s the reason I’m trying to differentiate the mid-section.”

All this talk of millennials smacks of spin. The flagship Galaxy S9 smartphone doesn’t seem to have had a great year and the top 15-20% of the market seems to be permanently owned by Apple, so maybe Samsung has decided it’s just too much risk and hassle to introduce its latest tech in that segment. If you try something new in devices that cost half the price and are much lower profile then, presumably, the cost of failure is much lower.

One of those new features could well be a foldable phone, which Samsung has been banging on about for at least a decade, but which Koh says may now be imminent. In a separate story CNBC quotes Koh as saying it’s time to deliver on a foldable after surveys indicated there might be demand for such a thing. But he still doesn’t seem to sure what the point of a folding phone is.

“You can use most of the uses … on foldable status,” said Koh. “But when you need to browse or see something, then you may need to unfold it. But even unfolded, what kind of benefit does that give compared to the tablet? If the unfolded experience is the same as the tablet, why would they buy it?”

It’s hard to see these moves as anything other than acts of desperation from Samsung. When the prospects of significantly reducing Apple’s share of the premium tier a weak and when competitors are producing flagship devices with similar specs at a fraction of the price, the top-end of the smartphone market must look pretty bleak. But whether or not Samsung can deliver the kinds of numbers it needs to by refocusing on the mid-market remains to be seen.

Samsung launches its first phone based on the stripped-down Android Go platform

The world’s largest smartphone maker Samsung has unveiled the Galaxy J2 Core, its first phone built on Android Go for the entry smartphone segment.

Samsung is joining Nokia, Alcatel, Motorola, Asus, ZTE, etc. in addressing the entry segment smartphone segment, with the latest addition to its extremely diversified Galaxy series. Android Go, since it was introduced to 8.1 Oreo, has seen the product line-up slowly but surely growing, but the participation of Samsung is definitely a boost, bringing to the camp not only its expertise but also its brand clout.

The Samsung management is obviously happy with its efforts to address the entry segment and the first time smartphone owners. “The Galaxy J2 Core offers a complete smartphone experience, incorporating some of the key features available on high-end devices with improved battery, storage and performance that is particularly appealing to first time owners”, said Junho Park, Vice President of Global Product Planning, Mobile Communications Business at Samsung Electronics.

The J2 Core uses the same chassis as the J2 Pro, with same display size (5.0 inches) and resolution (540 x 960 pixels, or qHD), same cameras (8MP rear and 5MP front) though the Pro is equipped with a flash for the selfie camera. Both house battery of the same volume, and both support dual-SIM. The key difference is in computing power and memory size. The J2 Core uses Samsung’s own Exynos 7 chipset, and only has 1GB RAM and 8GB onboard memory (compared to the Pro’s 2GB RAM and 16GB memory).

Android Go has modified the standard Android to be run on lower hardware configurations including stripped-down Google applications designed to consume less memory and less data. However, the biggest problem with the Android ecosystem when it comes to Android Go is that not all applications have followed Google’s example, therefore the saving on memory and data does not go very far. In particular, quite a few applications, most social networks, for example, have disabled the option to be offloaded to run on external memory card, which means the onboard memory is still likely to run out pretty quickly. This will frustrate users, especially those first-time owners who may not be the most tech-savvy consumers.

Samsung does not disclose J2 Core’s retail price levels in the first two markets it will be made available.

Samsung claims first 3GPP-compliant 5G modem

Korean electronics giant Samsung reckons it has edged ahead of Qualcomm in the 5G modem race.

The Exynos Modem 5100 claims to be ‘the industry’s first 5G modem that is fully compatible with 3GPP Release 15’. Qualcomm announced its X50 5G modem some time ago and seemed to have an early monopoly on 5G chips. But with Apple apparently making it clear it won’t be using Qualcomm 5G chips there is a stronger incentive than ever for its competitors to catch up.

“Samsung’s leadership in communication technologies and market-proven knowledge allowed us to develop the industry’s first 5G modem, the Exynos Modem 5100, which fully complies with the latest 3GPP standards,” said Dr. Inyup Kang, president and head of System LSI Business at Samsung Electronics. “As the industry prepares the shift toward 5G, Samsung will continue to drive the growth of innovative ideas and new services in mobile applications and other emerging industries.”

The chip is manufactured on the 10nm process and Samsung has the advantage of owning its own semiconductor fabs. It supports both mmWave and sub-6 GHz spectrum as well as all the legacy wireless technologies. Samsung says it has completed some testing, but doesn’t seem to have released the modem into the wild yet.

Samsung launches mesh-based wifi system in the US

The US arm of Samsung has gone all-in on wifi mesh technology with the launch of the SmartThings System.

The main feature of wifi mesh technology is to fill wifi coverage not-spots around the house. Rather than use multiple routers or powerline networking, which don’t dynamically switch to the strongest source depending on your location, mesh promises strong coverage throughout the home through a number of wifi boosting nodes.

“As more people embrace a connected lifestyle, we’re focused on creating the best experiences so they can get more out of their smart home,” said SK Kim, Senior Director, IoT Product Marketing at Samsung Electronics America. “SmartThings Wifi is an intelligent solution that adapts to the many devices in the home, with mesh capability to eliminate coverage gaps plus a built-in SmartThings Hub to easily monitor and control hundreds of compatible smart products.”

Unsurprisingly the system uses Qualcomm chips integrated by Plume. Samsung goes on at considerable length about how great Plume’s wifi AI is, which actively tinkers with things to make sure everything’s cool. As Qualcomm recently explained to us, this tech also does other cool stuff like being able to detect where you are in the house, which could open the door to all sorts of other smart home applications.

The SmartThings 3-pack retails for $279.99 and the single device retails for $119.99. It’s not yet known when Samsung plans to launch these products globally, but if it manages to flog a few in the US, the rest of the world will presumably follow before long.