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TCL Plex at IFA 2019

TCL takes ‘cautious’ first steps into smartphone space

Image credit: Dreamstime

The Huizhou-based electronics company – best known for its affordable yet high-performance televisions – is entering the saturated smartphone market, but making a point of taking things slowly and carefully.

Addressing delegates at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin, TCL unveiled its first self-branded smartphone, whilst further revealing that it had concrete plans to also produce foldable electronics and 5G phones. TCL has years of experience producing consumer electronics under the BlackBerry and HP Palm brands, but this announcement marked its first serious step into the global smartphone market.

According to Stefan Streit, TCL global marketing manager, the maturation of the IoT – a world in which connected devices are constantly exchanging data – marks a good time for the company to bring something new to the market. He believes that hardware innovation in the smartphone market has stalled in the past decade and TCL can bring “more than another Chinese smartphone” through the introduction of entirely new form factors and features. He acknowledges that this will not happen overnight; rather, it is part of a “very long-term strategy” for the company.

TCL Plex product picture

TCL

Image credit: TCL

The first step in this strategy is the launch of the Plex smartphone, which boasts a large, high-performance LCD display and retails for €329. Jason Gerdon, TCL’s head of global communications and strategy, says that this budget-friendly price point was made possible thanks to years of affordable manufacturing experience, vertical integration in the TCL consumer group and selectivity in deciding which features to optimise. TCL chose to focus on catering to the increasing consumption and generation of media on smartphones, beefing up the display (powered by its own dedicated chipset) and camera set.

“The smartphone market is really, really saturated and if you try to build a one-size-fits-all phone, the reality is that’s not really practical anymore,” said Gerdon. “I liken a smartphone now to a car: everyone has their own tastes, everyone has different budgets, everyone has different needs, so for us it's about looking at how we can take what we’re experts in and finding that bit of the market that we can address.”

TCL acknowledges that it does not have a sufficiently strong reputation at this point to shift top-range smartphones: “Prices at the thousand-dollar range are brand-related and not our territory”. The first iteration of the Plex – already available in some markets – will not be launched in the UK, with TCL claiming to be unconcerned about selling a large number of handsets. The Plex instead marks the starting point for a portfolio of devices to be rolled out over the coming years. “It’s very important for us that this is a long-term strategy and this is bigger than just a smartphone; this is an entire TCL ecosystem coming to the market,” Streit added.

At next year’s major consumer tech events, TCL are expected to reveal a design for their foldable smartphone, having previously revealed a prototype at IFA (slightly chunky, wide-rimmed and proportioned like a miniature laptop or old-school Nintendo DS). Gerdon believes that despite seeing a “flash in the pan” surrounding foldable electronics in early 2019, the area remains a ‘Wild West’ with almost any form factor being possible. He commented how ensuring that the software running on these devices responds in a meaningful way to folding and bending is just as important as nailing the novel hardware; for example, how should Android respond when you wrap a flexible screen around your wrist?

“If you don’t have a good [software] solution there it doesn’t matter how good the hardware experience is, the user will be disappointed because they feel like this isn’t smart any more. This is a thing where we feel like it takes time and we accept the challenge,” Streit said. TCL confirmed that it is has been working with other parties to experiment with software to suit more unusual foldable electronics, with the possibility of future flexible displays worn on the wrist and multi-hinge devices. The company hopes that these devices could be sold for “much less” than the $2,000+ price point emerging as standard for a foldable phone.

In addition to foldable devices, TCL is in the relatively advanced stages of developing a ‘wearable display’ which conjures up the appearance of a large, bright cinema-style screen held before the eyes without blocking out peripheral vision, allowing for a private yet not totally isolated viewing experience. Streit confirmed that the device had generated interest from the porn industry, inevitably, in addition to other potential business partners in such sectors as fashion and design. Under TCL’s “cautious” approach to rolling out this portfolio of devices and building a reputation as a reliable brand, however, it could be years until this type of display is available to consumers.

“We couldn’t care less about the marketing message of saying ‘We’re first!’. If you’re first to market but the product fails, then what have you achieved?” Gerdon said, diplomatically neglecting to name any competitors perhaps guilty of this.

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