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Huawei unveils flagship smartphone that supports satellite communications

Huawei Technologies Co on Tuesday launched its new flagship Mate 50-series smartphones that support satellite communications, but lack 5G mobile connection owing to US sanctions that restrict the company’s access to advanced semiconductors.

The Mate 50 series delivers the first smartphones able to link with China’s BeiDou global satellite navigation system, according to Richard Yu Chengdong, chief executive of Huawei’s consumer business group, at the product launch. That will enable users to send messages and their location data via BeiDou in the absence of local mobile network service.

But Huawei’s new flagship series, with prices starting from 4,999 yuan (US$721) for the basic model to 6,799 yuan for the Mate 50 Pro version, have 4G mobile connection in lieu of faster 5G network access. The Mate 50 smartphones are powered by the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 processor from US supplier Qualcomm, which adapted the chip for 4G use.

The new handsets also run HarmonyOS 3, the latest iteration of Huawei’s alternative operating system to Google’s Android mobile platform, and are equipped with the in-house-developed Xmage cameras, which replace the optical systems from Leica Camera. Huawei’s ties with the German firm ended several months ago.

Huawei’s Mate 50 debut came a day ahead of the much-anticipated launch of Apple’s updated flagship smartphone, widely reported as the iPhone 14.

The stakes are high for Huawei, formerly China’s biggest smartphone vendor, to remain relevant in the world’s biggest mobile phone market amid stiff competition from major Chinese Android handset makers and Apple, which has dominated the mainland’s high-end smartphone segment.

Apple had a 70.5 per cent share of the domestic market’s high-end segment of smartphones priced from US$600 in the first six months of this year, according to data from tech research firm IDC. By comparison, Huawei had a share of around 9 per cent in the same period.

“We can see that Huawei’s premium brand name was the biggest factor in achieving a favourable result in the high-end segment, despite lower 5G shipments,” Will Wong, a Singapore-based analyst at IDC, said. He indicated that the company’s brand name, as a matter of “national pride”, is expected to continue helping drive sales in that market segment.

Huawei must also contend with a challenging period in the local market. Global shipments of smartphones are predicted to shrink by 3 per cent this year amid supply chain disruptions that are partly attributed to China’s faltering economy, which has been slowed by Covid-19 lockdowns and the war in Ukraine, according to a global forecast published by Counterpoint Research in June.

China’s smartphone market contracted 14.7 per cent in the second quarter, with shipments of only 67.2 million handsets, according to IDC data. The market was led by Huawei spin-off brand Honor with a 19.5 per cent share, while the Shenzhen-based company dropped out of the top-five ranking during that period.

Still, IDC’s Wong said the Mate 50-series smartphones’ support for satellite communications augurs well for Huawei. “Satellite communications will be another selling point,” he said.

While this functionality may be suited for a niche consumer segment like climbing enthusiasts, “it could spur the imagination for future use cases”, Wong said. “Satellite communications could potentially enable Huawei to adapt this technology’s use to its intelligent car solutions, which require strong connectivity especially in remote areas.

At present, the smartphone business of Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment maker, remains under pressure years after the company was added to the US government’s trade blacklist in 2019.

Huawei has been scrambling to adapt its production of smartphones and telecoms network gear amid tightened trade restrictions imposed by Washington in 2020, covering access to semiconductors developed or produced using US technology, from anywhere.

Those restrictions extend to its chip design unit HiSilicon and contract chip foundry Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co, which produced its advanced Kirin processors used for its 5G smartphones.

Introduced in 2013, the Mate series did not get its annual update last year owing to Huawei’s draining stockpile of Kirin processors.

At Huawei’s product launch on Tuesday, the company also introduced the latest version of its electric sport-utility vehicle the Aito M5, priced from 288,600 yuan. The Aito M5, which was developed in partnership with electric carmaker Seres, comes equipped with Huawei’s proprietary HarmonyOS Smart Cockpit platform.

Aito sales in August reached a milestone with 10,045 units delivered, despite a global chip shortage, continued Covid-19 control measures and a power crisis in China. South China Morning Post

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