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TCL’s Streit Talks Future Plans, 30 Series, and Foldables

TCL's Streit Talks Future Plans, 30 Series, and Foldables
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TCL is one of the most interesting companies in the mobile field because it is a relative newcomer despite having been around for a long time on paper. TCL spent the first fifteen years of its life in mobile devices as a manufacturer, making phones for other brands for sale rather than under its own name. Only at IFA 2019 did TCL launch the TCL Plex, its first branded smartphone. Since then, TCL has launched a number of new smartphones, including eight due to arrive in 2022. I sat down with Stephen Street, director of marketing, TCL Communications, to learn about TCL’s plans for 2022 and beyond.

A Brief History of TCL

TCL has been in the phone industry game for more than a decade, starting out as an OEM for brands like Alcatel (before buying the company years later), BlackBerry, and Palm. “TCL works in this industry, and they are really active [for] 15 years. If you look back 15 years ago, there aren’t many brands that are still around from that time until today. We are a survivor, and that also shows our capabilities. “We’ve survived our ups and downs, but we’re still here,” Street said.

It wasn’t until the aforementioned TCL Plex that the company put its own name on a smartphone. By far, Alcatel was its most popular smartphone brand, but in 2019, things changed. Specifically, the smartphone industry has seen a huge push towards 5G, with flexible screens on the horizon. One big thing these technologies have in common: cost. Specifically, the cost of building 5G phones for Alcatel didn’t really work out for the Alcatel brand, which focused primarily on budget phones. This was just one of the many reasons TCL felt the timing was right to put its own name on a smartphone.

“Once we move on to a class, we’ll go really fast.”

TCL wants to approach the smartphone market the same way it approaches the TV market. It wants to democratize high-end features that usually cost a premium. Streit refers to the curved screen on the TCL 10 Pro, which came in at just $449. At the time, it was possible to buy a smartphone with a curved screen at this price point, but these phones were two or three years old. The TCL 10 Pro was completely new.

Since then, TCL has been very active in the smartphone market, first launching three smartphones in 2020, followed by five smartphones in 2021, and now eight smartphones in 2022. In Streit’s words: “Once we start a category, We will go very quickly.” This brings us to the world of folds.

My kind of city

Let’s start with the 800-pound gorilla in the room, aka the foldable “Chicago”. This foldable phone (which Streit holds as a daily driver, by the way) was supposed to come out in 2021. In fact, around this time last year, TCL promised to introduce a foldable phone in 2021. Obviously, that didn’t happen. For me, being born, raised and living in Chicago, it hurts more than a little.

Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Streit confirmed that the decision not to release Chicago came before Samsung announced the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3, which sold at crazy numbers last August. But the writing was on the wall regardless. Samsung realized it had to bring the cost of the foldable device down to triple digits. TCL’s target was lower, anticipating a $800 price tag in Chicago. TCL said back in the fall, and Streit repeated to me, “We also think that someone who can spend $800 for such a device, maybe can also spend a thousand dollars. For a fairly new brand, it’s probably too soon. So it’s not about us giving up.” About this product category, okay, or no because we’ve delayed this category, we just said, “Okay, let’s call this, this is our first generation.”

So Chicago is an educational tool, and TCL intends to build on that tool. Streit was reluctant to schedule a release for the first foldable. The bad news is that Chicago is officially out of production, and there are only a few working machines left. But the good news is that when TCL releases a new foldable heart-shaped device, it will be a second-generation device with everything it refers to in terms of updated hardware and software.

Next folding

So when will TCL enter the foldable device market? I have to admit, I came out impressed with Street’s enthusiasm for the subject. He brought up the foldable stuff much earlier in the interview than I had planned. This is clearly first in mind. In fact, TCL sees folds in the same vein as electric cars.

TCL's foldable phone concept is shown.

The auto industry was rocking just fine until Tesla hit the scene and started flipping over the buffet table. Before you know it, Tesla has overtaken everyone and has become the most valuable American car company in the world. TCL sees folds in a similar way. At the CCS conference in November, Streit said of smartphones: “You all have a black box, some with more cameras, some with fewer. There is no room for hardware innovation.” Today, Streit continues:[Smartphones] It’s gotten a little boring over the past 10 years…Flexible display technology allows you to create a completely different product again…and with specific use cases. But first, TCL is waiting for a few things to come together. The first is to share ideas.

Three factors

Until now, folds weren’t really at the forefront of people’s minds. They were out of curiosity and, in my opinion, not really worth the admission price. That has changed and is still changing today. In August, Samsung released the Galaxy Flip 3, and for the first time, people started having a conversation foldable. This allows foldable devices to move beyond geeks and enthusiasts and into the mainstream.

TCL also needs to keep innovating this technology and bring the price down even lower. Simply put, TCL is not running in the premium space. It has taken TCL years to build its dominance in the TV market and only recently has it released premium quality TVs. Sees itself on a similar path in the smartphone space. “So we’re not in a hurry, we don’t need to be among the first. We need to be among the people when the market goes from, I’ll call it an early adapter maybe for the early majority, and that’s some time we feel right for TCL “.

“So we’re not in a rush, we don’t need to be among the first. We need to be among those when the market moves from, I’ll call it an early adapter to the early majority maybe.”

Finally, we get to the carriers. TCL is building its brand in North America in the same way that others have done – through carrier stores. Simply put, if you want to succeed in the US, you will do so on the shelves of T-Mobile and Verizon. That’s why the phones TCL announced today are carrier-exclusive. Streit also mentioned that T-Mobile will carry the TCL 30 series of phones instead of its own REVVL series.

But for now, carriers are more interested in pushing 5G over foldable technologies. Companies like Samsung have the scale to sell foldable devices without carriers and they have the leverage to get carriers to sell them, too. TCL has great relationships with carriers that date back to the Alcatel days, but carriers still have their priorities. At the moment, folds are not one of them.

Signs of things to come

But Streit points to its activity in the smartphone space as a sign of what will happen once you pull the trigger on foldable devices. Going back to the first thing he said to me: “Once we start in a class, we’re going to go really fast.”

This also applies to foldable things. That’s great news because foldable devices make phones fun again, to borrow a phrase. Devices like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3, Galaxy Z Flip 3 and the recently released Oppo Find N are changing the conversation. We no longer ask, “Why do you want foldable?” We are now asking, “What fold do you want?” The answer is different for many people.

Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

“This is deep in our DNA and in our strategies,” says Street. “We always want to democratize some of the latest technology, and bring it further into the mass market.” Includes pleats.

The good news and the bad news

The bad news is that TCL is waiting for a bunch of factors to come together to finally release its first foldables. The market has to evolve, and carriers need to embrace this upcoming evolution of smartphones. Once those things line up, TCL is ready to go, and they have over 20 different working form factor models to prove it.

The good news is that once these factors are aligned, we are very likely to see a significant boost in this category. Moreover, these foldable devices will be so affordable that most people can enjoy them. There will be options depending on what you are looking for and what works for you. That time is not now, but when it comes, it will be really cool.

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