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Honor CEO wants to launch foldable phone in 2020

In an interview with CNET, George Zhao lays out his plans for adopting cutting-edge technologies and discusses Honor's future in the US.

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Honor may use parent company Huawei's screen technology.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Move aside 5G, the phones everyone is most excited about at MWC this year are foldable. Huawei has one, Samsung has one, and TCL sort of has one too.

Some phone makers (OnePlus) are eschewing them for now. Others, like China-based Honor, are ready to dive on in when the time is right.

In an interview with CNET at Mobile World Congress 2019 on Tuesday, Honor CEO George Zhao said he's very much on board with the new tech trend.

"Yes, of course," he said, when asked whether Honor would be making its own flexible phone. Right now he's worried about the prohibitive cost of such devices, as his brand is aimed very much at younger customers, but as production ramps up, prices will start to come down.

"For Honor I think we will find a way to make this so our target customer can have a foldable phone. I think next year; next year ... should be the moment."

Fortunately for Honor, its strong relationship with Huawei means it may not have to develop the tech from scratch. Zhao is a fan of the Mate X and the way the screens are on the outside of the fold rather than the inside. 

"Personally I like this design," he said. "Huawei and Honor you can consider like Volkswagen and Audi, so maybe for the engine, for the platform they can use the group technology."

That doesn't necessarily mean Honor will rely on Huawei's R&D (though it must be nice to have the option). The key thing for Zhao is to ensure it's the right technology for the brand.

"For foldable phones, the most important thing is what is the value add that we can bring to the consumer," he said.

But before a foldable phone, there's the small matter of 5G to contend with.

"5G should be our next opportunity," said Zhao. "This year we will definitely have a 5G product. The mass deployment to 5G customers will be the end of the year and 2020."

As for Honor's much talked-about entry into the US, it doesn't seem to be Zhao's biggest priority for now. The company is enjoying success in Europe, achieving top five phone brand status in multiple countries, including the UK. The carrier-dominated market in the US is difficult to break into because the carriers require significant up-front sales and marketing investment from phone makers, Zhao said. For now Honor will continue to sell through Amazon, but a bigger presence isn't in the cards while Honor continues to focus on growth elsewhere.

"The other markets are strong," Zhao said, and the company wants to continue making inroads in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America for now."Then maybe when we have enough capability, the last market for us is the US."