Huawei to launch Mate-series smartphone refresh without Leica optics as US sanctions, flagging China economy depress demand

Huawei Technologies Co will launch its new Mate 50-series premium smartphones on Sept 6, 2022.
PHOTO: Weibo

Huawei Technologies Co will introduce the latest edition of its Mate-series smartphones this September, several months after its partnership with Germany’s Leica Camera ended and more than a year since the Chinese company skipped the annual refresh of this premium handset line amid its struggles with US sanctions.

The global launch of the new Mate 50 range will be held on Sept 6, according to Huawei’s post on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo on Monday (Aug 22).

“After two years, Mate 50 is finally going to meet you all,” said Richard Yu Chengdong , chief executive of Huawei’s consumer business group, in a separate post on Weibo. “The Mate series … carries the beliefs and hopes of many people. Over the years, we have risen to meet the challenges, and constantly made … breakthroughs in technologies.”

Introduced in 2013, the Mate series did not get its annual update last year owing to Huawei’s draining stockpile of Kirin processors, which are designed by the company’s own chip unit HiSilicon and made by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC).

Huawei Technologies Co’s Mate 40 smartphone, installed with the company’s own HarmonyOS operating system, is displayed at a Huawei store in Beijing on June 3, 2021.
PHOTO: Reuters

Huawei has been scrambling to adapt its production of smartphones and telecommunications network equipment 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 manufacturer TSMC.

Shenzhen -based Huawei, the world’s largest telecoms equipment maker and formerly China’s biggest smartphone vendor, was added to the US government’s trade blacklist in 2019.

Over the past two years, Huawei has tried to keep its smartphone business afloat by releasing a mix of handset models equipped with either 4G processors from US supplier Qualcomm or in-house designed Kirin 9000 5G chips.

Still, the privately-held company posted total 2021 revenue of 636.8 billion yuan (S$130 billion), down 29 per cent from a year earlier, to mark its worst annual sales performance on record . Revenue from its smartphone-led consumer business declined 50 per cent to 243.4 billion yuan, while sales at its telecoms carrier equipment business tumbled 7 per cent to 281.5 billion yuan.

While Huawei’s decision to finally update its Mate handset line shows the firm’s effort to stay relevant in the global smartphone market, the timing comes during a challenging period.

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 shipments for the first six months of 2022 fell 21.7 per cent year on year to 136 million units, according to the latest report by state-backed research institute China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT).

Domestic smartphone makers accounted for 84.5 per cent of all shipments on the mainland in the first half, down from 89.2 per cent in the same period last year, amid the strong challenge from Apple and other foreign brands, according to CAICT data.

Huawei’s introduction of its Mate 50 range will also coincide with Apple’s annual iPhone refresh, which is expected to be held on Sept 7, according to a report by Bloomberg.

Apple has been the biggest winner in the high-end smartphone segment, following the retreat of Huawei, as the US tech giant recorded a 62 per cent global market share of handsets priced more than US$400 (S$560) in the first quarter of this year, according to Counterpoint data.

In the second quarter in China, Vivo led the market with a 19.8 per cent share, followed by Huawei spin-off Honor with 18.3 per cent, according to Counterpoint. Huawei ranked sixth in its home market with a 6.9 per cent share.

It is also unknown how the Mate 50 will fare in the market, without Leica optics as one of its main selling points. Xiaomi in July released its 12S-series smartphones , highlighting advanced imaging systems co-engineered with Leica that sets them apart from other major Android handsets in a shrinking global market.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.