The United States is behind the phone design, and folding is the proof. This year's Mobile World Congress was full of foldable, from Huawei's sleek Mate X to Xiaomi's triple model to TCL's angled DragonHinge design for the Opo prototype for the clumsy Royale FlexPai for LG's stylish V50 display.
But all these units have one thing in common: as the last waves of innovative phone designs released abroad, they will not be available in America in any meaningful way. If you look at the collapsible landscape, there is basically only one device out there that will actually be sold in the US, from operators, without having to deal with import charges or mobile compatibility: Samsung's Galaxy Fold.
This is not a new phenomenon. Cool phones from abroad have always had difficulty getting to America because of market demand, trade agreements and complex other geopolitical factors. The current distrust of various US intelligence agencies against Chinese telecommunications companies is a clear example.
But the problem is not just about American customers who lack cool and interesting phones, even though it is very frustrating. It's also that flagships from companies like Oppo and Huawei are becoming more and more of the world's best hardware and offer new ideas and specs on par with the best phones in the US, but at much more affordable prices. And that means less competition in a stagnant domestic phone market that largely consists only of Apple and Samsung phones.
Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo are number 2, No. 4 and 5 smartphone manufacturers in the world through markethare, but in the US there is a virtual duopoly. According to Counterpoint Research, in the fourth quarter of 2018, Apple controlled a 54 percent share of the market, while Samsung had 22 percent – together, the two brands make up more than three-quarters of all phones sold in the United States. The next closest competitor is LG, 12 percent, and it has been struggling with smartphone sales for several years. Even seemingly juggernauts like Google, with their Pixel line critically appreciated and taking advantage of the full firepower of the company's marketing behind it, and Sony, a brand US consumer are incredibly familiar with, can barely make a down.
So even though Chinese brands could selling in the US, the odds are that they will face an upward blow that goes into the market. But it is largely a moot point, because right now it is not even a competition at all. In addition, the boredom of American phones also increases innovation. Right now, large units in the US are boring, with slots and iPhone X-ish designs. For most American customers, the innovation height is so much that when Samsung comes out with its notch-avoidance hole S10, it feels like a victory. But Chinese phones have already surpassed the vicious patterns due to the faster and more experimental technology.
Outside the United States, the telephone world is filled with really strange and innovative ideas. Bored of boring, black and white phones? Check out these neon-hued gradients that shimmer in the sun:
Hate your hack? 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 a double-sided monitor running around for selfies or slides or completely portless phones. Sure, not everyone is the most practical, but they push the envelope forward in a way that Apple and Samsung's hardware simply aren't.
In addition, the fact that only one or two of these units will be available in the United States at present will severely limit their adoption. Right now, the collapsible space is free for everyone, with widely varied ideas about which styles that fold phones work and not. But American customers will only see a fraction of what is 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 the inverse fold that Huawei uses on Mate X, you're probably not good luck.
Now it is possible to circumvent some of the questions – if you are willing to pay a premium, you can import all the latest and best phones from across the United States. In theory, unique telecom standards mean unlocked mobile phones are not limited to any operator: you can simply buy any phone on the internet and be good to go.
But reality is more complicated. Different carriers and phones support various LTE bands and various cellular technologies (hi, GSM vs CDMA). Without the partnership and blessing of an operator, it is a boast of whether your new device actually works properly when it is enabled on stateside.
These compatibility issues will only worsen in the future, as 5G starts rolling out. It is bad to find an unlocked phone that supports the carrier's best LTE band in the United States. Throwing in the chaos of various pieces of 5G spectrum that vary from carrier to carrier with different modem and antenna requirements will only make things worse. With part 6, space-demanding mmWave antennas, various spectrum bands and gradual excerpts in cities that can mean 5G coverage gap, it seems almost impossible that you will simply be able to buy an unlocked 5G phone and make it work in the US, at least not for coming year.
It's not like Chinese companies haven't tried to enter the US market. Xiaomi pushed a few years back, but just stopped selling smart home products and accessories and even electric scooters that founded scooter startups like Bird – but no phones. Huawei has probably been closest to everyone. At CES 2018, Huawei was about to announce an agreement with AT & T to sell Mate 10 Pro in the United States, but AT & T pulled out at the eleventh hour due to government pressure over security issues. Verizon was reportedly also scared away.
Both of these efforts ended in failure, and with the political winds blowing the way, it seems increasingly that the US phone market will not have to worry about competition from companies like Huawei or Xiaomi at any time. But it does not make it more fun to be stuck alongside looking at all the cool hardware far from it.