World's third-largest phone maker expands its mobile vision with two-in-one tablet device, reports Bill Bennett.

A telecommunications industry conference may seem an odd place to launch a new laptop.

Maybe not if you are Huawei, the world's biggest telecommunications hardware brand and the third largest phone maker.

There's a lot about Huawei's MateBook computer that defies conventional thinking.

This week's Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona is the industry's biggest showcase and talkfest.


Many sessions are on the big questions about the future of mobile phone technology, such as whether the move to 5G networks should be evolutionary or revolutionary.

On the day before MWC started, Huawei showed its MateBook computer to journalists flown in from around the world.

The reception was positive; early reviews praise the device.

Huawei's MateBook is a two-in-one Windows 10 business computer. In many respects it resembles Microsoft's Surface Pro 4, but a Huawei New Zealand manager says it will sell for much less than Microsoft's computer when it reaches the country in September.

Like the Surface Pro 4, the MateBook is a two-in-one device.

In its basic form it functions as a tablet.

Add the optional keyboard, sold separately, and it more closely resembles a traditional laptop. There's also a stylus for drawing and scribbling handwritten notes.

Huawei approached building the MateBook from a phone maker's perspective.

Speaking at the launch, Richard Yu, chief executive of Huawei's consumer division, said his company used the experience gained from making phones to create the MateBook.

Like a phone it is thin, light and sips power -- the battery lasts for 10 hours.

He talks of frustration at having to turn to a bulky business laptop for some of his work when the other tools he uses are so thin and light.

Henry Hsu, the chief operating officer for Huawei's consumer business group in the South Pacific, echoes this view.

He says that, in part, the decision to build a laptop came after customer feedback suggested there was a need for such a lightweight device.

You don't go into a new market to lose money, but it may take some time before an investment pays off.

There's something else odd about Huawei's decision to make PCs.

Sales of personal computers are in freefall. Makers have faced double digit declines in revenues for the past three years.

HP and Dell have gone through dramatic restructures in order to deal with diminished margins and losses.

Why would such a gloomy sector interest a company like Huawei?

Hsu says while PC sales overall are down, two-in-ones are a bright spot, experiencing rapid growth. He says growth looks set to continue for the near future.

It helps that, for now, Huawei's entry into the PC space is simple.

There is just the one basic MateBook, which comes in a handful of configurations using different Intel processors and varying amounts of storage. That's it.

Another advantage Huawei has over other PC makers is that the MateBook is aimed at well-heeled business users.

The company isn't stuck in a race to the bottom.

"The industry's problems are at the low end where PC makers target consumers. They need to offer a lot of models and margins at the low end are tight.

"Our entry level model has a reasonable price, but it's not what people call affordable," Hsu says.

The MateBook is strategic for Huawei.

"You don't go into a new market to lose money, but it may take some time before an investment pays off. We've made similar moves in phones and watches, now we're following that path in PCs."

In other words, while the MateBook is unlikely to be a money-spinner, it lays down a path for future products that will be.

The MateBook will go on sale in Europe in July with prices starting at €800 ($1300) before tax.

Huawei plans to bring it to New Zealand in September and says prices will be similar.

Bill Bennett travelled to Barcelona as a guest of Huawei.

Telco backs bridge to 5G revolution

Developers say 5G technology will drive cars, pilot drones and connect users to diverse devices in our homes, workplaces and outdoors. Picture / AFP
Developers say 5G technology will drive cars, pilot drones and connect users to diverse devices in our homes, workplaces and outdoors. Picture / AFP

Fifth-generation mobile phone technology promises a lot. Companies developing 5G say that when it arrives users will have the perception of instant and unbounded access to data from almost every point on the globe.

The technology will take over driving cars and piloting drones. It will connect almost every imaginable item from washing machines to industrial equipment to moisture sensors in paddocks. This is the so-called internet of things.

You could be forgiven for suspecting there's an element of hype in all this. After all, the companies making 5G networks can't agree on what it is. They all talk of fast speeds - usually from 1 to 10Gbps - and low latency of less than 1ms, but that's about it. Beyond those two numbers everything else is up for debate.

They can't even agree if the industry should race to a revolutionary 5G which would mean replacing existing networks, or go for an evolutionary approach, building on today's 4G networks. Depending on who you listen to, 5G could be with us from 2017, but most in the industry don't see a widespread rollout before 2020.

The tensions were on display at this week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. The congress is the telecommunications industry's annual conference where questions like the future of 5G are debated.

Many sessions looked forward to 5G. However, on the day before the official conference opened, China's Huawei put its marker down by hosting the 4.5G Industry Summit. Huawei sees 4.5G as a bridge between today's networks and the next generation. It builds on existing technology.

This last point is important. It is only a few years since carriers such as Spark and Vodafone invested vast sums on 4G networks. They need to get more out of this existing infrastructure to recover their costs. Moving to 5G would mean another costly round of investment before the 4G bills are all paid.

Ryan Ding, Huawei's president of products and solutions, says 4.5G is effectively a software upgrade to the existing network. It needs a little extra hardware, but only an incremental investment. He says it will allow much faster services and an improved customer experience. Ding says the quality of voice traffic is noticeably better on 4.5G compared with 4G, but the real advantage is with video. Huawei expects consumers will use their mobile phones for a lot more video communication in the near future.

It will also mean a more secure network. In many countries it will be used by police, ambulance and fire services, replacing existing specialised networks. Customers will see peak speeds up to eight times faster than existing 4G networks. The average speed will be 10 times faster. A 4.5G network should be able to handle about six times as many simultaneous connections as a 4G network.

Ding says that while Huawei already has pilot 4.5G networks running, this year will see many more phone networks around the world pick up the technology. For now, most of these deployments are pre-commercial. That is, not open to all customers.

Huawei wireless network vice-president Chaobin Yang says the growing need to connect sensors and remote devices is behind the rush to 4.5G. There is a demand for apps such as smart metering, smart cities, animal tracking and fleet management.

"Many new technologies are emerging that need capabilities not delivered by existing networks," Yang says. "The internet of things is already underway, we can't afford to wait for 5G."

5 lessons from Mobile World Congress 2016

A man uses virtual reality glasses during the Mobile World Congress wireless show. Photo / AP
A man uses virtual reality glasses during the Mobile World Congress wireless show. Photo / AP

Phone innovation stabilises

In recent years phone makers used the Mobile World Congress to launch new handsets. This year was no different, with Samsung unveiling its Galaxy S7. It's a good-looking handset with an impressive specification, but does little to break new ground.

Modular phones

With little new in terms of technical advances, phone makers looked elsewhere to get customer attention. In the case of the LG G5, the designers have gone for a semi-modular approach where you can add hardware features such as better sound or handgrips to extend the capability of your phone.

Virtual reality

There was a notable trend, with many phone makers and other hardware companies showing virtual reality software and equipment. There's still little in the way of compelling VR content to go with the hardware.

Internet of things

Network equipment makers and phone companies are focused on the internet of things. You couldn't move at MWC without seeing a reference to connecting sensors and controllers to the internet or discussions of device-to-device communications.

Next up, wireless network broadcasting

The 700 MHz spectrum that once carried analogue television signals and now carries 4G mobile traffic may soon be back in the broadcasting business. Ericsson showed multicasting technology that can send, say, TV signals to hundreds of devices at the same time.