The foldable phone will reportedly be with us next month

It’s been rumoured for months and an ambition of the industry for years, but it seems Samsung is almost ready to unveil a foldable phone in a few weeks times.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Samsung is set to reveal a foldable phone at various launch events around the world on February 20, a week ahead of the industry’s annual bonanza in Barcelona. Traditionally Samsung has launched new flagship devices at Mobile World Congress, but it appears the team is determined to beat Huawei to the punch, with the Chinese also rumoured to be pretty close with their own device.

Although Samsung still claims the number one spot for smartphone sales worldwide, it must be peering over its shoulder with Huawei’s recent momentum. Having overtaken Apple to secure the number two spot, Huawei is certainly on a good run, despite political pressure and suspicion over its relationship with the Chinese government.

A prototype of the device was showcased at a series of events last September, though people familiar with the matter claim three new, foldable devices will be hitting the shelves in March. There is yet to be any form of official confirmation as of yet, though it is also believed a fourth device will follow the initial launch; this model will be 5G compatible.

There are still a lot of questions surrounding the device, but one thing is clear; this is the sort of innovation the industry has been craving for years.

When you look at the reality of smartphones, there hasn’t been any genuine disruption for years. Each new flagship brings incremental advances in features and usability, a better screen or less battery intensive applications for example, but nothing could really be described as ground-breaking, despite what the manufacturers tell you. The last genuine disruption to the smartphone space was probably Apple ditching the keyboard a decade ago.

This stumbling period of innovation is probably one of the factors which contributed to the global slump in smartphone sales in recent years. Despite a lack of new features, manufacturers have been asking consumers to produce more cash, indirectly encouraging trends which have seen product lifecycles and the popularity of second-hand or refurbished phones increase.

Whether the phone will be any good remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, this is a device which will certainly attract attention at Mobile World Congress next month.

Samsung imposes Facebook on its smartphone customers and blocks uninstall

Smartphone giant Samsung has apparently struck a deal with Facebook to force the installation of the app on its phones.

The move, which was highlighted by Bloomberg, is not by itself remarkable. It’s not uncommon for smartphone OEMs to partner with third parties to preinstall their stuff on phones, although push-back against ‘bloatware’ has made this less common than it once was. What is causing some degree of backlash is the fact that it’s not possible to uninstall this imposed Facebook app, only to disable it.

The Bloomberg story quotes a Facebook spokesperson as saying the disabled app is effectively uninstalled as is no longer collects data for Facebook, but if that’s the case then why prevent its removal? Samsung didn’t provide Bloomberg with any further explanation.

This correspondent can confirm that this doesn’t just apply to new phones. I recently did a factory reset of my old Samsung Galaxy S7 in order to bequeath it to my son. Once the process was complete I was surprised to see the Facebook app appear on the home screen and can confirm that I wasn’t given the option to uninstall it.

Which raises a significant issue with the imposition of social media apps on phones that other reports seem to have overlooked: mental health. In a recent appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt revealed a sharp increase in reported mental health issues among US teenagers and young adults in the last decade. As you can see in the clip below he theorises that a major contributing factor to this is social media use, especially on smartphones.

Many parents, this one included, have decided that their children should not use any form of social media, including IM apps such as Whatsapp, due to the threat they pose to their mental health. Not only does social media seem likely to make children more socially obsessive, self-conscious and distracted, it also facilitates some forms of bullying and leaves a digital footprint that it seems likely their adult selves will regret.

For this reason, on top of the general arrogant presumption involved in trying to commercially manipulate your own customers, this looks like a bad move by both Samsung and Facebook. Neither of them are in the strongest position to throw their weight around these days and the smartest thing to do in the light of this revelation would be for them to reinstate the ability to uninstall the Facebook app from Samsung phones.

 

Samsung warns sales and profits are going down the toilet

Korean giant Samsung has become the latest major tech company to warn about significant under-performance towards the end of 2018.

In its earnings guidance for Q4 18 Samsung Electronics advised that it expects sales of around 59 trillion Korean won and 10.8 trillion Korean won. In the same quarter a year ago it racked up sales of 66 trillion and profits of 15 trillion, so that’s a pretty major drop-off, especially for profit, with margin dropping from 23% to 18%.

Analysts expected a bit of a drop in profit, according to Bloomberg, but only as low at 13.8 trillion. The same story points the finger at the trade aggro between the US and China as a major reason for the drop off, citing reduced demand for memory chips which are a big thing for Samsung.

Among the companies presumably buying less chips is Apple, which also issued a sales warning last week, thanks largely to smartphone demand dropping off a cliff in China. Samsung has blamed its woes on ‘mounting macro uncertainties’ affecting chip sales and good old ‘intensifying competition’ in the smartphone market.

The latter claim seems somewhat implausible in the light of Apple’s recent admission. What seems more likely is that the downward trend in smartphone demand has accelerated, compounded by the fact that neither of Apple or Samsung’s latest flagship models offered much to entice people to upgrade. Two-year-old smartphones still do a decent job so upgrade cycles are extending, which means lower sales for the foreseeable future.

Samsung reckons its new smartphone UI is more intuitive than ever

The latest user interface for Samsung smartphones – One UI – tries to account for larger screens while avoiding excessive clutter.

“These days, our smartphones are so much more than phones,” opens the press release, apparently hoping to convey Samsung’s profound understanding of the current smartphone situation. All this extra functionality, we’re told, has caused many UIs to become cluttered. This is not a trap Samsung is about to fall into anytime soon.

“Samsung’s One UI is the company’s most simple and streamlined UI yet, built from the ground up to help users focus on what matters most,” effuses the release. “One UI’s intuitive design fosters convenient interactions, while its clean aesthetic minimizes clutter to make viewing your screen more comfortable.”

One fairly sensible innovation is to force most of the stuff you might need to interact with towards the bottom of the screen, where the average thumb has a better chance of reaching it. Now that smartphone screen sizes in excess of six inches have become commonplace, superhuman feats of manual yoga are often required to interact with them, which can be trying.

Somewhat less welcome is the apparent aim of presuming how much of a given app the user might want to see at a given moment. In order to do this “One UI keeps things simple, displaying only the functions and info the user needs to complete their task.” This seems pretty presumptuous and an example of a company overstepping the mark in its desperation to innovate and appear to be useful.

Xdadevelopers had a good play with One UI recently and concluded little more than grudging acceptance of its inevitability, given the evolution of the smartphone form factor. Custom UIs are a delicate balance as they present one of the few ways for an Android OEM to appear to innovate, but a bad one can drive users away. Samsung seems to have struck an OK balance here, without setting the world on fire.

iChief’s Samsung tie up is long overdue

The first (proper) week in January always promises a deluge of stories from CES and one opening gambit is a content-based partnership between Samsung and Apple, which should probably have happened much sooner.

Beginning in the Spring, new Samsung Smart TV models will offer iTunes Movies & TV Shows and Apple AirPlay 2 support for Apple customers, while 2018 models will also be made compatible via firmware update. iCultists with Samsung TVs can access their existing iTunes library and browse the iTunes Store to buy or rent new content, while Apple content will also work with Samsung’s Smart TV Services, such as Universal Guide, Bixby and Search.

The iTunes Movies & TV Shows app will feature on Samsung Smart TVs in more than 100 countries, while AirPlay 2 support will be available on Samsung Smart TVs in 190 countries.

On the surface this could be a very positive partnership for Apple and Samsung, both of whom have struggled to make a significant impact when searching for diversified revenues.

“Fascinating move as both companies have struggled to make strides in services,” said independent tech and telco analyst Paolo Pescatore. “Arguably it is a smart strategic move for both companies which underlines the need for companies to work more closely together. Samsung has made numerous failed moved in video services while Apple is still seeking to crack the TV landscape.”

Looking at Apple to begin with, this is a move which should have perhaps happened a while back. Stagnation trends in the devices and hardware segments will not have surprised anyone in the Apple business, this is the reason why CEO Tim Cook has been emphasising gains in the software and services business units so proudly, but it is now abundantly clear the ‘us versus everyone else’ mentality which made Apple great will not work outside its traditional stomping ground.

Apple has seemingly long-defied trends in the technology world by swimming against the ‘open’ euphoria. This mentality dates back to its stubborn but brilliant founder Steve Jobs, who constantly resisted the idea of openness, instead tightly integrated Apple within Apple, creating a closed ecosystem which forces iLifers to buy more Apple products. Back during a 2010 earnings call, Jobs stated “open systems don’t always win”.

When Apple was creating wonderful products, with each new release offering a brilliant new feature, this was enough to ensure the loyalty of customers despite the closed nature of the Apple business. However, innovation in the hardware segment has stalled and the closed mentality does not work in the software and services world. What some proof? Have a look at the profit warning last week.

The profit warning was the first one released by Apple in 15 years, and despite progress being made in the software and services segment, the gains could not compensate for the downturn. Although Cook pointed the finger of blame at a slowing Chinese economy, the team could not convince enough consumers to buy the ludicrously priced flagship devices in other territories either. This is a wider trend in the hardware segment, consumers are extending the lifecycle of current devices, while some are leaning towards second-hand models, but the software and services unit could not fill the $5 billion hole created.

To make the content business work, Apple will have to become a more open company, adopting the culture which it has resisted for so many years, and in Samsung it has an interesting partner.

In Samsung, Apple has found something which its own smart TVs cannot deliver; scale. According to market research firm NPD, Samsung is the leader in the US premium smart TV market (August report), holding 34% market share. Considering just over 43% of Apple’s revenue comes from the Americas, this is potential a very positive catapult to secure additional services revenues from customers. And this is before we’ve even started talking about the other territories.

Samsung is another business which has struggled to make headway with alternative revenue streams, though its prominent position in the premium home electronics space offers an excellent opportunity for the aggregator business model. When looking for new money each business has to decide where it can add value to the ecosystem; sometimes it is offering new products in parallel segments, but occasionally it means helping other businesses achieve their ambitions. Embracing openness could be an excellent move here.

If Apple wants to make any meaningful impact on the software and services industry, it will have to move away from the closed mentality which brought it success in the Jobs era and embrace the idea of collaboration. It will certainly be difficult to redirect such a massive supertanker, but one thing is clear; the faltering hardware segment, as it currently stands, will not support Apple’s indulgent ambitions.

Samsung and LG set to launch 5G smartphones in February

The Korean media has reported that the world smartphone leader Samsung and its struggling compatriot are going to launch the first 5G smartphones at MWC and ship in March.

According to a report by the Korean media outlet Pulse, citing its industry source, that both Samsung and LG will debut their 5G smartphones in February next year. Volume shipment is expected to start in March, which will synchronise with the start of 5G service for consumers by the three operators. All three of them launched limited 5G services for business simultaneously at the beginning of December.

Mobile World Congress has long been the venue for Samsung to showcase its latest Galaxy flagship product. It will be the series’ 10th iteration next year, so we can expect quite a bit of fanfare to go with the occasion. Whether the Galaxy 10 will be built on 5G, or there will be a 5G variant of the product, is up to speculation.

LG has seen its smartphone market share shrinking in recent years and already posted over $400 million loss in the first three quarters of the year. As a result, the head of its Mobile Communications business was replaced one year into the job. LG would desperately need something to excite the market if the company still decides to stay in the handset market. The expected 5G product could be a new model of its flagship G series, or the new head of its mobile business could decide to rewrite its product portfolio.

Both companies are expected to build their first 5G smartphones on the newly launched Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset, which we have reported in detail. Samsung was one of the illustrious partners to adorn the launch event, but LG was absent. With a long line of OEMs, especially the Chinese smartphone makers showing strong interest in the new Snapdragon, we can expect more 5G handsets to be launched in Barcelona come February than those from the Korean stalwarts.

Going under the hood of Qualcomm Snapdragon 855: plenty to like

More details of Qualcomm’s first 5G chipset have been released, bringing all-round improvements, and a 5G chipset for PCs was also announced.

On the first day of its annual Snapdragon Technology Summit, Qualcomm announced its 5G chipset for mobile devices, the Snapdragon 855, but released limited specs. On the following two days more details were disclosed. An SoC for 5G-connected PCs, the Snapdragon 8cx was also unveiled.

In addition to the X50 modem for 5G connectivity (on both mmWave and sub-6GHz frequencies) and X24 modem (to provide LTE connectivity), at the centre of the Snapdragon 855 is ARM’s new flagship Cortex A76 CPU, marketed by Qualcomm as Kryo 485. It contains 8 cores with the single core top performance at 2.84 GHz. Qualcomm claims the 855 is 45% faster than its predecessor 845, though it did not specify what exactly this refers to. More importantly for Qualcomm, the top speed is 9% faster than the Kirin 980 from HiSilicon (a Huawei subsidiary), another 7-nanometre implementation of the ARM Cortex A76.

Also included in the 855 is the new Adreno 640 GPU rendering graphics. Qualcomm has focused 855’s marketing messages on gaming performance, and the GPU is at the core to deliver it. Qualcomm claims the new GPU will enable true HDR gaming, as well as support the HDR10+ and Dolby Vision formats. Together with the display IP, the Adreno 640 GPU will support 120fps gaming as well as smooth 8K 360-degree video playback. Another feature highlighted is the support for Physically Based Rendering in graphics, which will help improve VR and AR experience, including more accurate lighting physics and material interactions, for example more life-like surface texture, or material-on-material audio interaction.

The key new feature on Snapdragon’s Hexagon 690 DSP is that it now includes a dedicated Machine Learning (ML) inferencing engine in the new “tensor accelerator”. The Hexagon 690 also doubles the number of HVX vector pipelines over its predecessors the Hexagon 680 and 685, to include four 1024b vector pipelines. The doubled computing power and the dedicated ML engine combined are expected to improve the Snapdragon 855’s AI capability by a big margin.

The integrated new Spectra 380 image signalling processor (ISP) will both improve the Snapdragon’s capability to deepen acceleration and to save power consumption when processing images. Qualcomm believes the new ISP will only consume a quarter of the power as its predecessor for image object classification, object segmentation, depth sensing (at 60 FPS), augmented reality body tracking, and image stabilisation.

On the OEM collaboration side, in addition to Samsung, on day 2 of the event we also saw Pete Lau, the CEO of Chinese smartphone maker OnePlus come to the stage to endorse the new 5G chipset and vow to be the “first to feature” the Snapdragon 855. Separately, the British mobile operator EE announced that it will range a OnePlus 5G smartphone in the first half of 2019.

On the same day, thousands of miles away, more Chinese smartphone OEMs including Xiaomi, OPPO, Vivo, and ZTE (in addition to OnePlus) also embraced the new Snapdragon chipset at the China Mobile Global Partner Conference in Guangzhou, southern China. China Mobile will also launch a customer premise equipment (CPE), likely a fixed wireless access modem, using the same platform.

Back in Hawaii, on day 3 of the Snapdragon Tech Summit, Qualcomm launched a new chipset for PC: the Snapdragon 8cx (“c” for computer, “x” for eXtreme). This is Qualcomm’s third iteration of chipset for PC, built on ARM v8.1 (a variant of Cortex A76). Similar to the Snapdragon 855, the 8cx also has the X24 integrated cellular modem with for LTE connectivity, and the X50 modem with 5G connectivity can be paired with it. The CPU also has eight cores, with a top speed of 2.75 GHz. The new Adreno 680 GPU is said to process graphics twice as fast as the GPU in the previous generation ARM for Windows chipset (Snapdragon 850) but 60% more efficient in power consumption.

Perhaps the most meaningful change is its memory architecture. The Snapdragon 8cx will have a 128-bit wide interface, enabling it to provide native support for much more software and applications, including Windows 10 Enterprise and Office 365, which clearly is a sales pitch to the corporate IT departments.

Unlike the OEM support garnered by Snapdragon 855, there was no public endorsement by PC makers yet. Lenovo did come to the stage but was only talking about its Yoga 2-in-1 notebooks that have used earlier generations of Snapdragon chipsets for Windows on ARM. On the other hand, Qualcomm does not position Snapdragon 8cx as a replacement for the 850 but rather as a higher end contemporary, with 850 mainly targeted at a niche consumer market.

In general, this year’s Snapdragon Tech Summit has delivered more step change with the new product launches. More concrete industry support was also on show, indicating that, depending on how fast and extensive 5G is to be rolled out, we may start seeing true 5G smartphones in the first half of next year. We may need to wait a bit longer before a reasonable line-up of always-on 5G connected PCs can hit the market.

Qualcomm pumps Snapdragon 855 in Hawaii

The chipset company Qualcomm just unveiled the newest Snapdragon SoC product to power 5G mobile devices.

On the first day of its annual “Snapdragon Tech Summit” in Hawaii, Qualcomm introduced its first commercial 5G chipset, branded as Snapdragon 855. The system is compatible with Qualcomm’s X50 modem with antennae supporting 5G on both sub-6GHz and mmWave frequency bands. On a 7-nm silicon will also be its 4th-generation multi-core on-device AI engine (said to deliver 3X faster AI performance than its predecessor the Snapdragon 845), Computer Vision Image Signal Processor (CV-ISP) for new photo and video features (“true 4K HDR video capture, cinema-grade photography capabilities”), and 3D Sonic Sensor. The sonic sensor can be used for under-display fingerprint reading using ultrasonic waves (instead of the current optical under-display sensors using light), which, Qualcomm claims, is safer and more accurate.

Qualcomm expects the first smartphones using the new chipset to hit the market in the first half of next year. “The Snapdragon 855 will define the premium tier in 2019,” said Alex Katouzian, SVP and GM of Mobile for Qualcomm, who unveiled the new chipset. Earlier Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm’s President, said he expected to see a lot of phone announcements at CES in January and a lot of actual phone launches at MWC in February.

“Today marks a massive and exciting step forward underscoring how Qualcomm Technologies and ecosystem leaders are driving 5G commercialization, a journey that went from R&D, accelerated standardization and trials, the launch of innovative products and technologies, to the imminent launch of 5G networks and smartphones across the globe starting in early 2019,” said Amon at yesterday’s event. “Together we are demonstrating our role in transforming the mobile industry and enriching consumer experiences with 5G mobile devices on live 5G networks at this year’s Qualcomm Snapdragon Technology Summit.”

Executives from mobile operators including AT&T, EE, Telstra, and Verizon were present at the event, so were representatives from Ericsson, Samsung, Motorola, NETGEAR, and Inseego. The 5G smartphone from Samsung to be launched by both Verizon and AT&T is likely to be the first of its kind to be built on Snapdragon 855.

“At Samsung, we have a vision of a connected world powered by 5G that will benefit consumers, communities, industries and governments,” said Justin Denison, SVP for mobile product strategy and marketing at Samsung Electronics America. “5G will fuel collaboration, connectivity and productivity worldwide, and we’re excited to be at the forefront working alongside partners like Qualcomm Technologies to make the transformation to 5G a reality.”

The event will last three days till Thursday, and Qualcomm promised more announcements and more details will be released.

AT&T won’t let Verizon have its moment in the 5G limelight

Just a day after Verizon announced plans with Verizon to launch a 5G-compatible device in the H1 2019, AT&T has romped in to steal attention with its own, pretty similar announcement.

It must sound like a bit of an echo, but during the first six months of 2019, AT&T will bolster its 5G devices line-up with a Samsung smartphone. This is the second device which will be available through the AT&T portfolio, having announced a 5G Mobile Hotspot, in partnership with Netgear back in October.

“5G is going to be about more than just a network,” said David Christopher, President of AT&T Mobility and Entertainment. “Customers will eventually be able to connect in near real-time to unforeseen possibilities. Together with Samsung, we plan to bring the best in technology and innovation to our customers. The future we imagine with 5G is just beginning, and it is a great time to be a consumer.”

For those die-hard AT&T/Samsung fans, a little bit of cold water might have to be poured onto the excitement. AT&T has claimed to have installed 5G network equipment in the 12 markets it plans to go live in before the end of 2018, though coverage is likely to be incredibly limited in the first few months. By mid-2019, AT&T plans to bring the 5G bonanza to a further seven cities across the US, though as with the original 12 take the 5G coverage claims with a pinch of salt.

The 5G race in the US is certainly heating up, and while some might complain the buzz has dimmed into more of a nauseating drone, at least there is something to actually shout about nowadays. Aside from Samsung getting into bed with two hardcore rivals, Motorola is working with Verizon for its own device, while LG has plans to launch its own 5G compatible device on Sprint’s network, also for the first half of 2019. Apple, however, is choosing to sit out the H1 2019 race, suggesting its own 5G compatible device will not be ready until 2020.

Despite the inevitable short-comings when it comes to coverage, 5G is pretty close to becoming an actual thing in the hands of the consumer.