TCL Communication is a sleeping giant about to awaken, and 5G is its alarm clock

Chinese mega-brand TCL Communication is a sleeping giant, but over the past months, it has been stirring. It opened one eye to launch its television brand in the U.S., and the other eye to blink the TCL Plex smartphone into life sometime afterward. It’s even propped itself up on one elbow to give us a hint about its plan for world domination.

Now, an alarm clock is ringing, and it’s time for TCL Communication to arise. That alarm clock is 5G and the foldable revolution. This is the technology the company needed to bring everything it has worked on to center court the global stage.

Digital Trends spoke to Stefan Strait, TCL’s General Manager for Global Marketing, and Jason Gerdon, TCL’s Head of Global Communications about how 5G and a series of new phones are key to its long-term plans.

Coming to America

“The TCL Plex was a soft launch of TCL’s phone brand,” Gerdon explained, clarifying their releases at IFA 2019. “At CES, this is really the global TCL mobile brand launch in North America. More than that, it’s the coming together of TCL as an end-to-end consumer electronics brand.”

The expansion of 5G is a main driver in this. At CES, TCL gave us a preview of the hardware it will officially launch at Mobile World Congress at the end of February, and at the same time confirmed the new smartphones will come to the U.S. too.

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Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

There are three phones — the affordable TCL 10 L, the more premium TCL 10 Pro, and the special TCL 10 5G. All are evolutions of the Plex, sharing a similar style but with more cameras, more striking colors and finishes, more high-tech features, and in turn a greater mass appeal.

It’s all part of the long-term plan. Apart from televisions, TCL Communication makes everything from toothbrushes to washing machines. “TCL makes almost every electrical product you can imagine. If it plugs into a wall or runs on a battery, it’s almost certain we make some variation of it,” Gerdon reminded us. But many of these products are only available in China at the moment. More will be available globally in the future, a shift facilitated by the TCL smartphone that’s now here. The smartphone is viewed as a “controller” device, and it was hard to launch a full TCL ecosystem of products if the controller was a licensed phone from TCL’s existing phone brands like Alcatel or BlackBerry.

“We are now turning the page, and [the phones are] pushing us to the next stage,” Gerdon said.

Smartphones give TCL control

tcl 5g smartphone interview ces2020 10 phones
From left-to-right: TCL 10 Pro, TCL 10 5G, and TCL 10 L smartphones.

What should we expect from the new phones? They feel great in the hand — the matte finish and striking green color of the 10 Pro make it stand out — and we’re promised each will deliver a very similar experience across the range. All three include the NxtVision technology to enhance screen performance, previously seen in the Plex.

The specifications of each model haven’t been finalized yet (finer details will come at MWC 2020) but we do know each will have a Snapdragon 700 Series 5G chip inside. Other differentiating features between them include a large battery and TCL’s first curved AMOLED screen on the 10 Pro, and the eye-catching diamond-look rear panel on the 10 5G phone.

TCL sees a gap in the premium mid-tier smartphone space, which refers to phones that cost around $500. Excitingly, all the 10 Series phones will cost less than this price, and that includes the 5G model. 5G was a prominent theme throughout our conversation, and it became increasingly clear the recent explosion in this latest cellular technology influenced TCL’s decision to accelerate its smartphone plans.tcl 5g smartphone interview ces2020 10 head

“There’s a number of things coming together right now,” Stefan Strait told us, “5G is absolutely critical to TCL. It fits better with the TCL brand than it does with Alcatel or BlackBerry.”

TCL’s heritage and expertise in display technology link in with 5G easily, as it can be leveraged for streaming high-quality videos and games, giving the firm a strong marketing story to go along with its new hardware — something it would have lacked had it pushed phones out two years ago before 5G was available.

Big company, major challenges

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TCL 10 Pro Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Creating and launching a series of new smartphones, including a sub-$500 5G phone, is only the beginning, and TCL is acutely aware of the challenges that lay ahead. The TCL 10 Pro and 10 L smartphones will come to North America, while the 10 5G will be launched globally, but we don’t know exactly where or when it will be sold yet.

While TCL doesn’t have to strike up new partnerships with U.S. carriers, having worked with them on BlackBerry, Palm, and Alcatel devices for years, 5G presents its own problems.

“We see 5G maturing in 2020 and becoming critically important. We want to make a product that can be truly accessible in all our markets,” Gerdon said. “We’re not talking about a phone just for North America or Europe. We’re paying attention to how 5G will rollout everywhere.”

“It’s not one [5G] device covering everything,” Strait added. “Every country has a different 5G technical setup, and it’s a challenge. There may be two or three variants of the 5G device.”

The next stage of TCL’s major 2020 smartphone push will come at MWC. Alongside the TCL 10 Series phones, other devices will be shown off — perhaps including a foldable. These won’t be just phones, but devices that are in a related category. Tablets, wearables, Internet of Things (IoT) network products, and even niche connected devices like pet trackers are all existing hardware that may evolve or reach global markets for the first time. However, we expect 5G, or at the very least its promise, to feature heavily.

“This whole process has been working in the background for years. We’ve known we will get to this point, but we’ve kept it in the background as a strategic advantage,” Gerdon explained. “5G was the inflection point that got us to where we said, ‘let’s hit that switch and go’.”

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