MWC, Tuesday 26 February 2019

Our pick of the day’s news

Nubia Showcases Commercial Version of Nubia Alpha Wearable Smartphone

The Nubia Alpha was first previewed at IFA 2018 (see IFA 2018: Wearables). It has emerged as a commercial product at MWC, with plans to launch in the Chinese market in April 2019. As we predicted, flexible displays are leading to innovative device designs not only in smartphones, but also in other product categories such as wearables.

The Nubia Alpha feels more like an experimental product than the herald of new category of wearables, but does provides some idea of what can be done when you wrap a screen around your wrist. In addition to being able to interact with the touch screen, it also uses gesture recognition.

The company also announced the Nubia X Dual Screen smartphone. This has a secondary screen that appears through the gloss back of the device. It’s hard to envisage practical uses for the concept, but it’s an impressive piece of innovation that reflects Nubia’s approach with a number of its products. It echoes the dual-screen designs that were previously attempted on two Yotaphone smartphones, which were ultimately unsuccessful.

5G Devices Are about More Than Smartphones

Although most discussions about 5G devices at MWC have centred on smartphones, there are other important 5G product categories, such as portable hubs for mobile broadband, and routers designed for 5G fixed wireless access.

The show has seen announcements from companies like Netgear and D-Link, but the product that caught out attention was the HTC 5G Hub. This nicely designed Android-powered device with a five-inch touchscreen connects to 5G networks and shares the connection with up to 20 other devices connected by Wi-Fi. It sports Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855 processor and X50 5G modem combination seen in several other devices.

We expect it will be an expensive product, but it has already been selected by leading 5G operators, including China Mobile and EE, and it is likely to form an notable flagship, non-smartphone, 5G device when commercial networks launch.

KaiOS and MediaTek Collaborate to Deliver Affordable Smartphones

A collaboration between MediaTek and KaiOS Technologies to integrate the latter’s operating system with a number of MediaTek 3G and 4G platforms is a measure of the success of Kai OS to date. It has shipped on more than 80 million devices in over 100 countries.

Optimization and integration with MediaTek chipsets will help to shift KaiOS devices into lower price brackets by offering manufacturers a further choice beyond Qualcomm. MediaTek is pushing hard to reassert itself in the smartphone mid-tier. In addition, the move immediately makes KaiOS more attractive to an abundance of mid-range Chinese players that are closely aligned with the Taiwanese chipset supplier. This will be central to the expansion of KaiOS in growth markets such as India and sub-Saharan Africa.

Sprint Plans 5G Launch in May 2019

At its MWC press conference, the US carrier announced plans to initially launch commercial 5G services in five cities in May. In an apparent swipe at rivals that have committed to earlier roll-outs of 5G, CEO Michel Combes said Sprint will make coverage available to millions of customers at launch and that it has made great effort to achieve consistent coverage in the chosen cities. In our view, the carrier is sensibly pushing ahead with its 5G deployment and messaging, which will prove vital should regulators quash its planned merger with T-Mobile.

MediaTek Reiterates Timelines for Its Helio M70 5G Modem

MediaTek used MWC as a stage to underline progress with its first-generation 5G modem. The Helio M70 is due to ship in devices in late 2019, with broader design wins in the smart home, mobile and automotive markets in 2020. In reality, the announcement was a confirmation of its previous intentions, as the chip-maker seeks to keep up with the pace of 5G news flow.

MediaTek’s clear focus on operation within the 600 MHz to 5 GHz range (including frequency division and time division duplex bands) underlines that it’s prioritizing development to fulfil the needs of the Chinese market. Nonetheless, the specification of the modem and lack of support for millimetre wave highlights the gap between MediaTek and Qualcomm. This isn’t necessarily a significant problem in 2019, but the increasingly international ambitions of Chinese manufacturers make millimetre-wave support all the more important. MediaTek said it will address this feature in 2020, although its previous disclosures have highlighted that a fully integrated system-on-chip introduced in 2020 wouldn’t include the capability.

This illustrates the substantial technical challenge in managing the complexity of 5G in multiple band combinations. The need to overcome this has motivated MediaTek’s partnerships with Oppo, Vivo, Skyworks, Qorvo and Murata for radio frequency (RF) front-end technology. They will need to make tangible progress in the next 12 months if MediaTek is to be competitive globally in 5G.

Intel Allies with Skyworks as RF Front-End Silicon Emerges as an Industry Priority

Since the announcement of Intel’s XMM 8160 multimode modem, the RF front-end aspect has been the untold part of Intel’s 5G solution. The components that sit between a modem and antenna play a crucial role in managing the complexity of multimode operation from 2G to 5G and an ever-increasing array of band combinations.

This has been the driving force of Qualcomm’s investment in a joint venture with TDK, dubbed RF 360 Holdings, and the subsequent growth in its share of smartphone silicon content. The vast majority of devices featuring Qualcomm’s X50 5G modem also use its RF front-end offerings. Indeed, Qualcomm announced its second generation of RF front-end solutions at MWC, and MediaTek underlined its partnerships with Skyworks, Qorvo, and Murata as it belatedly works to define a front-end module solution.

Intel’s announcement is a much-needed step that will see RF front-end silicon become a cornerstone of the XMM 8160 platform targeted for device launches in the first quarter of 2020.

Google Ups Its Assistant Ambition

Google’s aim to make its Assistant as widely accessible as possible isn’t a new theme. Nonetheless, the company has made a series of announcements at MWC that focus on ensuring the technology reaches and is used by the largest possible number of people. Adding to its existing partnership with LG, Google has teamed up with Nokia, Xiaomi, Vivo and TCL to put a dedicated physical button on an expected more than 100 million phones. A single press of the button launches Google Assistant, a double press gives a visual presentation of the day ahead, and a press and hold of the button enables a dialogue with the assistant. For Google this radically lowers barriers to usage by easing accessibility for users and more prominently displaying the function to those yet to try the assistant.

Reinforcing the importance of scale, eyeballs, accessibility and usage for its assistant, Google also revealed that KaiOS will upgrade Google Assistant functionality, adding support for voice typing so users can dictate messages, searches and more. This follows an investment of $22 million and a pledge made by Google to use what now amounts to over 80 million KaiOS-based devices to deliver its services. Google is also bringing actions to KaiOS devices and offering a further seven Indian languages to the assistant, a move that reflects the ambitions of KaiOS in growth markets. Finally, Google is integrating its assistant into the Android messaging app, having announced its insertion into Google Maps at CES 2019.

Google has always been pragmatic about the role of its platforms, how they deliver services and ultimately work to support the core business model. Android has played a central role in its success to date, but the company is assembling the pieces to ensure that Google Assistant becomes its most ubiquitous and valuable platform.