Samsung isn't the only company building a foldable phone

The CEO of Huawei, one of the world’s biggest phone makers, tells CNET it already has a working prototype. The device may be ready for release next year.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
4 min read

Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's consumer business group, unveils the Mate 10 during an event earlier this week in Munich.

Shara Tibken/CNET

Will foldable phones be the hot trend of 2018?

China's ZTE kicked things off this week by introducing the Axon M, a phone with two screens that fold out to form a single larger display. Samsung said it's aiming to bring out a phone with a foldable display by next year.

And now another major player is getting into the mix. Chinese phone maker Huawei is working on a foldable phone as well, Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's consumer business group, said in an interview with CNET after the introduction of the company's Mate 10 smartphone on Monday in Munich.

"We already have a working sample," Yu said.

Huawei isn't ready to launch the device, but it could as soon as next year, he said. First, the product needs better, more flexible screen technology, as well as better mechanical design, he added.

"We have two screens," Yu said. "But we still have a small gap [between the screens]. That's not good, and we should get rid of that gap."

Phone design has stagnated a bit, with the biggest innovation this year being the removal of frames around the screen for an edge-to-edge display. There's only so much you can do with a slab of metal and glass. But foldable phones mark a radical change in handsets, and Huawei (pronounced "WAH-way") certainly has the clout and scale to make this happen.

The company is, after all, the biggest smartphone maker you've probably never heard of, ranking third in the world behind Samsung and Apple. Huawei has been best-known in Asia and Europe for its networking equipment, but over the past few years, its smartphone sales have skyrocketed. IDC predicts Huawei will overtake Apple this year or next to become the world's second largest handset maker.

No. 1?

Yu, for his part, doesn't think second is good enough. He predicts his company will surpass both Apple and Samsung to become the biggest smartphone vendor on the planet.

"We will overtake them definitely," Yu said. "That's our destiny. Maybe I'm not humble ... but nobody can stop us."

He tempered the statement by adding that while market share is important, his priority remains innovation and adding features for users.

Watch this: Huawei's new Mate 10 phones focus on AI technology

Today, most of Huawei's sales come from China and Europe. It hasn't yet had a big break in the US, partly because of lack of brand recognition and partly because Apple and Samsung dominate that market. It hasn't gotten support from US carriers, and the Huawei name is still associated with a ban on its networking equipment, which was prompted by worries about the Chinese government using back doors in the gear for espionage.

Huawei has long denied the accusation.

But the company does have a small presence in the US. It's been selling its budget phones online since 2014, and earlier this year, it started selling its premium Mate 9 through sites like Amazon and Best Buy. So far, it's sold fewer than 1 million of the devices in the US, Yu said, but it's more optimistic for 2018.

"I hope from next year we can change the situation," Yu said. "We're talking to carrier partners to do that to break through that market. ... Consumers need Huawei."

Patents, patents, patents

Huawei likes to boast that it owns a wide number of patents, which have led some people to speculate on whether it's butting heads with Qualcomm, another mobile player that likes to throw its intellectual property around.

Qualcomm is already in a dispute with Apple, which has stopped paying royalties for Qualcomm wireless technology as part of a legal battle over patents. Qualcomm in April revealed that a second company had also halted payments.

Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf, speaking with CNET at the Frankfurt Auto Show last month, declined to say which company stopped payments, but analysts have speculated the company is Huawei.

Huawei's glass and metal Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro

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Yu also declined to say if his company has halted royalty payments, but he spoke generally about Huawei's intellectual property.

"At Huawei, we respect other companies' patents," he said. "On the other hand, if Huawei has more IP than another company, why should we pay so much money to the other company? At Huawei, our technology innovation is ... stronger than other vendors'. ... Who should pay who?"

Last year, Huawei filed the second-highest number of international patent applications at 3,692, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization. Qualcomm came in No. 3 with 2,466. Chinese phone maker ZTE topped the list with 4,123 applications filed globally.

Huawei later clarified in a statement that it's "committed to the ecosystem of partners who support us. ... While we cannot comment on specific partners, Huawei respects the agreements we currently have in place and pays royalties accordingly."

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