Huawei: Unfolding Drama

Had MWC not been cancelled Huawei would have held its launch event in front of a packed auditorium. However, instead, it is having to use a webcast to launch its latest set of consumer products. This state of isolation is becoming more and more familiar for Huawei. In China, the COVID-19 outbreak has isolated entire cities and caused disruption to sales and supply chains. Given Huawei’s reliance on the China market, thanks to the US’s attempt to isolate the company from many of its traditional suppliers, it is now suffering from a sharp decline in demand.

Nevertheless, the company is still launching new products… or at least revised versions of existing products.

Huawei is continuing with its 1+8+N product strategy. The ‘1’ refers to the smartphone, which it sees as the pivotal device. The ‘8’ refers to adjacent devices such as PCs, wearables, tablet devices, audio devices and even cars. The ‘N’ refers to the innumerable IoT devices that will increasingly form a background hum of low-power connected devices.

This round of product launches features one smartphone and a few from the ‘8’.

Huawei Mate Xs

Huawei Mate Xs

A revision of the Mate X launched a year ago, the Mate Xs, which now includes the HiSilicon Kirin 990 5G chipset. The hinge and display have undergone a redesign claimed to make them more robust. The design is amazing – the outwardly folding display allows for both sides of the device to be active (in certain states) when the device is closed, but the user interface seamlessly resizes when opened.

Huawei Mate Xs Folding Screen

That same UI allows for some apps to be run side-by-side in resizable windows for multi-tasking.

However, the outwardly folding screen means the screen is vulnerable to damage unless placed inside a case. We noted that one of the demo devices already had scratches on the surface of the display, despite Huawei adding additional layers to the screen.

Huawei Mate Xs Outwardly Folding Screen

Cameras are now the same as the Mate 30 Pro’s, which are excellent. But the lack of GMS is also like the Mate 30 Pro, which is far from excellent. This means the product is likely more or less unsalable outside of China.

Samsung is already iterating the folding form factor towards a clam shell design, in the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip. While it is continuing with the Galaxy Fold for now, we are likely to see further, necessary, iteration in the folding form factor before this style of device settles into something mainstream. The original Mate X was, arguably, a far better design than Samsung’s Galaxy Fold. However the clam shell design of the Z Flip has a lot of positives – inherent screen protection and buyer familiarity for two. That Huawei is still refining the outwardly folding, and vulnerable, Mate X design suggests that it sees a future in this form factor – we’re less certain.

Huawei MatePad Pro 5G

Huawei has had a notable series of tablet devices that have done well in a lackluster market. It is introducing the ‘Mate’ nomenclature to the tablet line-up (instead of MediaPad) and is equipping its new tablet device with the same Kirin 990 chipset for 5G connectivity. The display to body ratio is around 90%, which means the bezels are narrow. To avoid the misinterpretation of touching the display by merely holding the device, Huawei has developed the UI so that it disregards these ‘false positives’. In a brief hands-on trial, it worked well, though wasn’t completely foolproof.

Huawei is using the same UI capability as on the Mate Xs, called App Multiplier, to allow apps to be run side-by-side, resized, stretched etc. It claims there are thousands of apps currently capable of supporting App Multiplier with more in the works. It was notable that many, but not all, the apps shown in the demos were Chinese, which suggests that Huawei has Chinese developers on-side, likely through the Huawei AppGallery program, but far fewer non-Chinese developers.

The MatePad Pro has an attachable keyboard and a pen that recharges when attached, magnetically, to the top of the device. Incidentally, the MatePad Pro can also wirelessly reverse charge other devices from its capacious 7250mAH battery.

Huawei Sound X 

Huawei’s rise to prominence in smartphones was coincident with its partnership with Leica. We think the Leica deal was a significant factor in Huawei’s success. As the company is now pushing beyond the smartphone it is trying to find the key to unlock other high potential markets. It has achieved modest success with a smartwatch and has several true wireless audible products on the market. The next sector in Huawei’s sights is the home audio market. In its attempt here, it has partnered with a French hi-end audio company called Devialet that counts Jay-Z among its shareholders. Devialet has co-engineered the new product with Huawei. The speaker itself is a squat device, weighing in at 3.5kg yet packs a tremendous audio punch, thanks to dual woofers and six tweeters. The synchronized, back-to-back or so-called, push-push, woofer design means that the speaker can generate high sound pressure levels with little vibration. The product is likely to be priced around the same as the Apple HomePod.

Huawei Sound X 

In China, we understand the Sound X is equipped with Huawei’s own Xiaoyi voice assistant, Huawei HiLink smart home control, and support for Huawei music. Outside of China these are less likely to be of interest. Nevertheless, the audio quality alone makes the Sound X a compelling proposition. But in a market awash with strong competitors, it would be surprising if Huawei was to make much of an impact.

Huawei Matebook X Pro and Matebook D

The other Huawei products being announced are refreshed versions of its laptop PCs. These again are well-designed products, but ones undermined by the ongoing trade embargo with the US. But again, weirdly and inexplicably, they don’t have cellular connectivity. For a company that sees logic in equipping a tablet device with a 5G modem, to entirely forego cellular connectivity in its PC line-up continues to strike us as odd.

Huawei’s isolation by the US will likely continue indefinitely. The isolation caused by COVID-19 is showing some positive signs, but it’s too early to call an end to the outbreak within the next few weeks. Should either type of isolation come to an end, Huawei will regain ground, but at a very much reduced level to where it otherwise would have been.