Chinese electronics manufacturer ZTE appears to be considering ripping off Samsung's first foldable smartphone, according to newly emerged patent documentation describing what's essentially a copy of the prototype device Samsung demonstrated early last month during the latest edition of its annual developer conference held in San Francisco, California. The company's concept involves a single display panel bendable in half, with its overall form factor resembling that of a booklet. ZTE's design involves both a front camera system and a rear-facing imaging setup, hence being an evolution of the design introduced with last year's Axon M, a two-screen affair which featured a sole camera on one of its two sides.
Similar and familiar
A rear-facing fingerprint reader also appears to be part of the package, with the overall form factor being extremely similar to the experimental implementation of the Infinity Flex display Samsung unveiled in early November. The patented concept also lacks a 3.5mm headphone jack, which isn't particularly surprising given how ZTE already started getting rid of the popular audio port earlier this year. The patent documentation doesn't mention specific dimensions, though it's clearly indicative of the overall screen real estate ratios; when unfolded, the concept device would be at least twice the size of its folded mode and would allow for both multi-window multitasking and fully immersive content consumption utilizing the entirety of the device's screen real estate.
But probably not among ZTE's priorities right now
Despite its recent struggles, ZTE remains one of the world's top original equipment manufacturers with vast patent portfolios, so the sole existence of any newly emerged intellectual property doesn't guarantee the company intends to commercialize any such concept. Still, with the Axon M receiving a lukewarm response from both critics and consumers alike, many industry watchers are likely to be surprised if ZTE ends up launching yet another take on the foldable phone concept in the near future seeing how the company is only now getting back on its feet and is presumably more interested in selling anything than trying to be on the forefront of the next smartphone design evolution. Due to that state of affairs, the newly uncovered concept likely won't be commercialized anytime soon.
ZTE has an extremely difficult year behind it as it almost went bankrupt this summer, several months after the U.S. Department of Commerce hit it with a crippling denial order that prevented it from purchasing and licensing American technologies over a seven-year period. The move was a reaction to a broken 2017 settlement that saw ZTE plead guilty to a conspiracy to violate stateside trade sanctions placed on Iran and North Korea. The company's operations ground to a halt and as some industry watchers started speculating whether the Chinese state-owned company that controls it will attempt bailing it out, President Donald Trump personally intervened in the affair, ordering authorities to find a different solution for punishing the firm so that it can stay in business. The President opted to provide ZTE with a lifeline in order to gain leverage in Washington's ongoing trade talks with China, though with limited success. As part of the new settlement signed in late summer, ZTE paid another $900 million fine, made a $400 million escrow payment in case of future violations, replaced the entirety of its management and directors, and agreed to fund an independent oversight body tasked with monitoring its compliance with U.S. trade sanctions over the next ten years.
ZTE's former leadership described the new deal as catastrophic, though the settlement ended up saving the company, allowing it to resume normal operations. However, the brand hit it suffered during the ordeal, as well as the business and opportunities it lost over some half a year it spent under the Commerce Department's crippling sanctions, all dealt long-term damage to its agenda and sustainability. While ZTE never indicated it's considering leaving the U.S. as a result of the ordeal, that's precisely what some industry watchers are currently speculating about, claiming that the firm at the very least needs a complete rebranding in order to stay competitive, both in the U.S. and the Western world in general. In the meantime, ZTE is likely to leave foldable phone innovations to Samsung, Huawei, and LG, all of which are widely expected to introduce their first such devices in 2019, with the first announcements being likely to arrive in late February at Barcelona, Spain-based Mobile World Congress.