Samsung unveils compact foldable phone, 5G Galaxy S to fend off Apple, Huawei

SAN FRANCISCO/SEOUL (Reuters) – Samsung Electronics (005930.KS) on Tuesday unveiled a foldable smartphone shaped like a large makeup compact and put 5G mobile network capabilities into all of its other flagship devices as it strives to retain the mantle of biggest global phone company.

Samsung’s second attempt at a folding phone after a delayed rollout last year comes as the South Korean firm fends off its traditional rival in the premium smartphone market, Apple Inc (AAPL.O), along with ascendant Chinese makers such as Huawei that have eaten into its sales in China and Europe.

Huawei has only released its own folding phones in China, and Apple has yet to release a 5G iPhone of any kind.

Analysts see the folding screen as a nod to fashion-focused consumers, while the 5G phones aim to give Samsung technology bragging rights over Apple.

The Galaxy Z Flip, with folding glass, starts as a large square when closed and expands to look like most smartphones. It will start at $1,380 and be available from Friday in purple, gold and black, executives said in San Francisco.

Last year’s Galaxy Fold, a larger unit that folds like a book and was panned for its construction, had a plastic screen.

Both phones may have creases at the center of the folding screens. Samsung has called the crease a “natural characteristic” of the technology.

Samsung announced a Galaxy S20 phone, starting at $999 and available in March, which will have a 5G option. The Z Flip, however, is a 4G phone.

“Everybody wants it to have 5G, but with the segment they’re targeting of style-conscious younger folks, right now I think they are going to be OK,” without 5G in the Z Flip, said Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy.

A trio of Samsung Galaxy Z Flip foldable smartphones is seen during Samsung Galaxy Unpacked 2020 in San Francisco, California, U.S. February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Samsung was the No. 1 smart phone company overall in 2019, with 21.6% of the global market, according to IDC. But it lost that title to Apple in the December quarter, as cheaper prices for the iPhone 11 launched in the fall helped the U.S. firm mark its best growth since 2015.

Globally it also faces stiff competition from Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, which was a close third in market share in the fourth quarter, although the Chinese company is caught in a U.S.-China battle over security and technology, especially in 5G.

The new S20 devices will come equipped with chips that can handle the multiple kinds of 5G networks being built out by different carriers, the first for a phone sold in the United States.

“It’s really about delivering the full potential of 5G,” Cristiano Amon, president of Qualcomm Inc (QCOM.O), which supplied the chips for many of devices announced Tuesday, told Reuters in an interview.

It moved rear camera lenses of the new Galaxy S20 devices, which compete head-to-head with iPhones, into a squarish black panel, bringing cameras closer to the design of the iPhone 11 series. It also showed off two other Galaxy S phones. The device also shoots so-called 8K video, the highest resolution video now commonly available, and Samsung showed how 8K video on its phones could be sent to its televisions.

“The camera battles in smartphones are absolutely back,” said Bob O’Donnell of TECHnalysis Research.

“Foldables are expensive and very hard to manufacture. It will take time for foldables to become mass-market products,” said Neil Mawston, an analyst at Strategy Analytics, expecting a mass-market takeoff by 2022 or 2023.

“For now, foldables are a super-premium product that can drive profits or a ‘halo effect’ for the Samsung brand.”

Limited foldable display productivity will constrain Samsung, industry officials and analysts say.

Slideshow (22 Images)

Sales are seen at 5 million units at maximum this year, or less than 2% of Samsung’s total smartphone shipments in 2019, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters.

While China’s coronavirus outbreak has started straining the global supply chain and disrupting smartphone production, the South Korean firm is seen the least affected among major producers, as its main manufacturing base is in Vietnam, analysts said.

Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin in Seoul and Stephen Nellis in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang in Seoul, Ayanti Bera in Bengaluru and Paul Sandle in London; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Nick Zieminski and Lisa Shumaker

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