From foldable phones to 5G: The mobile world might finally get exciting again in 2019

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When one of the biggest “innovations” in smartphones in 2018 was the addition of a notch on the display, you know the industry has hit a rut.

With fewer big technical leaps between generations, there’s plenty of evidence that consumers are starting to hit the snooze button on upgrading their phones. A year ago, smartphone sales fell for the first time, and they’ve continued to be on the decline. Consumers aren’t embracing Samsung’s latest flagship smartphones, which come with only modest updates, and Apple has ceased reporting its iPhone unit sales numbers.

That’s poised to change in 2019. There are enough big upgrades worth talking about, from the advent of 5G (finally) to the debut of flexible, foldable smartphones. The completion of the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint — still not a guaranteed deal yet — could also shake up pricing plans and dynamics between carriers. Lastly, the ultimate fate of Huawei, which got thrown in the air when Wangzhou Meng, the company’s chief financial officer, and daughter of its founder, was arrested by Canadian authorities.

“Next year will be different,” said Gartner analysts Mark Hung.

Here’s a rundown of what we expect in the coming year, including tons of buzz at CES.

5G

In a discussion about mobile, how can you not talk about 5G? The technology will get a decent kickoff at CES 2019, but you can expect the momentum to build through the year as carriers switch and more and more advanced cellular towers go up.

Ever since Verizon said, three years ago, that it was going to start field-testing 5G, the term’s been one of the hottest buzzwords in tech history. The huge bandwidth boost, responsiveness, and ability to handle multiple devices with varying connection speeds is poised to change our lives — one day.

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5G is going to change your life — one day.

James Martin/CNET

Though carriers have all committed to a healthy number of launch markets, there’ll be a race to see who can get to scale fastest. T-Mobile said it was committing to a nationwide network build-out by 2020.

Before it can expand its early rollout, Verizon needs to move beyond its proprietary standard for the home broadband service and adopt the industry-standard 5G specifications. The company has declined to provide more specifics on its roll out.

On the product side, look to giants like Samsung to go big with 5G, which is expected to roll out on multiple devices, including one version of the company’s flagship Galaxy S10. OnePlus also said it expects to be among the first with a 5G smartphone, and Sprint and LG have vowed to launch the first 5G smartphone in the US.

Foldable phones

Foldable phones are either a gimmick or the next wave of mobile device design. But if nothing else, they add a new wrinkle and shake up the standard slab of glass or metal.

Samsung offered a brief glimpse at its prototype foldable phone, and it’s likely we’ll see the real deal early next year. The folding mechanism may be little more than a novelty at first, but so was the curved display introduced in the Galaxy Round smartphone five years ago. Eventually, that curved display technology made its way to Samsung’s flagship Galaxy Note line, and it’s standard on all Galaxy S phones.

The key will be whether developers decide to take advantage of the fold-out screen — that’s why Samsung first showed off the phone at its developer conference.

“Any time you have a significant departure on form factor, that engenders a lot of different products,” Hung said. “There will be a lot of experimentation.”

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights, hopes that experimentation involves larger foldable devices that go from a tablet to a full-fledged laptop.

Samsung likely won’t be alone. The FlexPai from startup Royole is the first foldable phone to hit the market, though it’s unlikely you’ll ever see it outside of China. Huawei and Lenovo are also working on foldable phone technology, and more companies will probably hop on the bandwagon.

Huawei drama

The world’s largest telecommunications provider and second-largest smartphone maker has had a rough beginning and end of the year thanks to the US.

At the start of 2018, Verizon and AT&T shut down the prospect of selling phones made by Huawei, which has been seen as too cozy with the Chinese government, and Best Buy outright banned all of its products.

Earlier this month, at the behest of US authorities, Canada arrested Huawei Chief Financial Officer Wanzhou Meng, who’s also the daughter of founder Zhengfei Ren.

Meng faces charges of utilizing American banks to help with sales of equipment to Iran in violation of US sanctions. She was released on bail Dec. 11.

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The Huawei Mate 20 is a top-tier phone. Too bad you can’t buy it at any US carriers or Best Buy.

Angela Lang/CNET

Huawei maintains that she’s innocent. A company spokeswoman declined to provide further comment.

How does all this hamper Huawei’s momentum in the phone business? The company this year overtook Apple as the No. 2 smartphone player, but the controversies could hurt its prospects with consumers.

“It’s going to be a challenging year for Huawei,” Hung said.

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