The US is falling behind on phone design, and foldables are the proof. This year’s Mobile World Congress was full of foldables, from Huawei’s sleek Mate X to Xiaomi’s triple-folding model to TCL’s angular DragonHinge design to Oppo’s prototype to the clunky Royale FlexPai to LG’s sort-of-cheating V50 second screen.
But all of those devices have one thing in common: like the last few waves of innovative phone designs released overseas, they won’t be available in America in any meaningful way. Looking at the foldable landscape, there’s basically only one device out there that will actually be sold in the US, from carriers, without requiring to deal with import fees or cellular compatibility: Samsung’s Galaxy Fold.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Cool phones from overseas have always had a tough time making their way to America, due to market demand, trade agreements, and complex other geopolitical factors. The current distrust various US intelligence agencies bear toward Chinese telecom communications companies is an obvious example.
But the problem isn’t just about US customers missing out on cool and interesting phones, although that’s plenty frustrating. It’s also that flagships from companies like Oppo and Huawei are increasingly some of the best hardware in the world, offering new ideas and specs on par with the best phones in the US, but at far more affordable prices. And that means less competition in a stagnant domestic phone market that largely just consists of Apple and Samsung phones.
Huawei, Xiaomi, and Oppo are the No. 2, No. 4, and No. 5 smartphone makers in the world by marketshare, but in the United States there’s a virtual duopoly. According to Counterpoint Research, in the fourth quarter of 2018, Apple controlled a 54 percent chunk of the market, while Samsung had 22 percent — together, the two brands make up more than three quarters of all phones sold in the US. The next closest competitor is LG, at 12 percent, and it’s been struggling with smartphone sales for years. Even seeming juggernauts like Google, with its Pixel line critically lauded and benefitting from the full firepower of the company’s marketing behind it, and Sony, a brand US consumers are incredibly familiar with, can barely make a dent.
So even if Chinese brands could sell in the US, odds are they’ll face an uphill battle breaking into the market. But it’s largely a moot point, since right now it’s not even a competition at all. Additionally, the boringness of US phones also hurts innovation. Right now, major devices in the US are dull, with notches and iPhone X-ish designs. As far as most US customers are concerned, that’s the height of innovation, so much so that when Samsung comes out with its notch-avoiding hole punch S10, it feels like a victory. But Chinese phones have already far surpassed those notched designs due to the faster and more experimental pace of technology.
Outside the US, the phone world is filled with truly weird and innovative ideas. Bored of dull, black and white phones? Check out these neon-hued gradients that shimmer in the sun:
Hate your notch? How about a pop-up camera that appears when you need it, and leaves your screen gloriously unmarred when you don’t?
Or maybe just try a double sided display that flips around for selfies, or sliding screens, or completely port-less phones. Sure, not all of them are the most practical, but they’re pushing the envelope forward in a way that Apple and Samsung’s hardware simply aren’t.
Plus, with the entirely new form factors of foldables on the way, the fact that only one or two of those devices will be available in the US for now is going to severely limit their adoption. Right now, the foldable space is a free-for-all, with widely varied ideas of what styles of folding phones work and don’t. But US customers are only going to get to see a fraction of what’s out there. Right now, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is the only game in town for US customers, and even if you prefer the slim style and inverse fold that Huawei is using on the Mate X, you’re likely out of luck.
Now, it’s possible to circumvent some of the issues — if you’re willing to pay a premium, you can import all the latest and greatest phones from outside the US. In theory, unified telecom standards mean unlocked cell phones aren’t restricted to any carrier: 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 partnership and blessing of a carrier, it’s a crapshoot as to whether your new device will actually work properly when it’s powered on stateside.
These compatibility problems are only going to get worse in the future as 5G starts to roll out. It’s bad enough finding an unlocked phone that supports your carrier’s best LTE bands in the US. Throwing in the chaos of different chunks of 5G spectrum that vary from carrier to carrier with different modem and antennas requirements will only make things worse. With sub-6, space-consuming mmWave antennas, different spectrum bands, and gradual rollouts in cities that may mean 5G coverage gaps, it seems virtually impossible that you’ll simply be able to buy an unlocked 5G phone and have it work in the US, at least not for years to come.
It’s not like Chinese companies haven’t tried to enter the US market. Xiaomi did a push a few years back, but only ended up selling smart home products and accessories and even electric scooters that underpinned scooter startups like Bird — but no phones. Huawei has arguably gotten the closest of all. At CES 2018, Huawei was on the verge of announcing a deal with AT&T to sell the Mate 10 Pro in the US, but AT&T pulled out at the eleventh hour due to pressure from the government over security concerns. Verizon was reportedly scared away as well.
Both those efforts ended in failure, and with the political winds blowing the way they are, it’s increasingly looking like 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 be stuck on the sidelines watching all the cool hardware from afar.