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The inside story of TCL’s display-driven, slow-burn plan for phone supremacy

Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

You probably know the company TCL Communication because of its impressive televisions, or as the company with the license to make BlackBerry-branded smartphones. It’s now putting its name on a range of smartphones, and it has some serious plans for the future. Don’t expect it to rush into anything because TCL recognizes the value in taking its time.

Digital Trends sat down with TCL Communications’ Stefan Streit, general manager of Global Marketing, and Eric Baton, TCL’s head of marketing in Europe, to talk about the slow-burn plan to introduce the world to TCL smartphones.

A display-led smartphone future

“It’s more of a brand launch than a product launch,” Streit said.

The product in question is the TCL Plex, a mid-range Android phone destined for a select few European countries, where it will be sold independently and through carrier partners. It’s a pretty little thing, with a hole-punch selfie camera in the 6.53-inch screen, and an eye-catching mother-of-pearl finish on one model. It’ll sell for 330 euros, or about $360.

Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

“Yes, the product is critical,” Streit said. “But we are here for the long run. We have a long strategy because we see a lot of potential for the future once things have come together. The timing has to be right and we will do this step-by-step because as a phone brand we are not well-known yet.”

How does it intend to become known in an already crowded and highly-competitive market? TCL’s going to leverage what it knows: screen technology. The philosophy behind the strategy is called “Display Greatness,” and it not only refers to TCL’s expertise and background in screens and screen technology but also directly to its mobile products. For example,  every TCL-branded mobile product will have high-quality display technology, covering the screen and the camera. It can also be taken as a reflection of what people can achieve when using a TCL phone.

“It’s more of a brand launch than a product launch.”

It’s an interesting alternative to pushing camera tech, which many phone companies rely on to differentiate at the moment. TCL knows it doesn’t have the background to compete with Samsung, Huawei, Google, or Apple here, so it’s drawing on its own specialist heritage, along with what it has learned from TVs. The Plex and future TCL phones will have a feature called NxtVision, which uses a hardware engine, specialist software, and artificial intelligence to enhance screen performance. For example, it has a mode that adds an HDR-like look to standard video content, and a tuned display for true colors, high contrast, and greater sharpness.

No rush for premium phones

Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

TCL’s smartphone future is not rooted solely in mid-range phones like the Plex. It’s taking a different approach with introducing more premium phones than you may expect, and for good reason.

“Would someone buy an expensive product from a brand no-one knows?” Streit asked.

He has a point. The plan is to take what TCL learned from selling televisions in the U.S. and bring “meaningful experiences” to people with sensibly-priced premium hardware down the road, at a 10 to 20% lower cost than the competition, something it can do because much of the hard work is done in-house.

Being first with new tech is not something it wants to do, but there’s a strong focus on the future.

TCL showed me a series of concepts to illustrate where the brand is headed, and it’s really exciting. A full-size foldable concept sat alongside a smaller, single-screen clamshell phone. We saw these concepts already at MWC 2019, but there’s something new.

There was a working “waterfall screen” on a test phone, where the screen cascades off the edges at an 88-degree angle. It’s mesmerizing in real life and looks great. TCL also showed a “one-piece” phone (no, not that One Piece) without buttons of any kind, saying it wasn’t expensive to produce and that Android 10’s gestures make it easier to use than before.

“We’re not counting on this product being a success or not. We’re very clear about what this product can and can’t do.”

It’s not certain any of these will become TCL smartphones you can buy, but the key technology — folding screens, innovative hinges, waterfall screens, and hardware types — is sure to influence future models. Stefan said the one-piece device and the waterfall screen could become one, for example. TCL showing them off to us now is proof it has confidence not just in its technology but is also interested in getting feedback.

TCL’s also looking toward the future with the software. It’s a slightly customized version of Android 9 Pie on the Plex, with some stylistic alterations, plus a swipe in widget tray like we’ve seen on OxygenOS from OnePlus. It wants to repeat the look, where possible, on its televisions in the future for a coherent design and user experience, and will also look at a “Home” style app to control other TCL products from the phone. It’s definitely keen on creating an ecosystem to keep people in the brand.

The beginning of the future

Andy Boxall/DigitalTrends

It’s clear the announcement of the Plex is not the story here. It’s the prologue to a motivated company’s unwritten smartphone future. It’s a considered, carefully thought-out start, and Eric Baton outlined what’s coming next.

“What we’re showing here at IFA 2019 is the start of the journey,” Baton said. “At CES 2020, we’re going to show more about the next steps, regarding the screens and the ecosystem, then at Mobile World Congress 2020 we’re going to talk more about foldables. Next year, we want to go to the U.S. and the U.K., where entertainment and 5G are much more important.”

TCL knows it won’t be easy introducing a new name into a saturated market.

“Most important here is the long run,” Streit said. “We’re not counting on this product being a success or not. We’re very clear about what this product can and can’t do.”

TCL’s being careful to control expectations with the smartphone brand, after learning plenty from BlackBerry, and how the KeyOne was widely taken as a mainstream mobile product when it wasn’t.

“It’s a big challenge,” he said. “We fully understand the steps.”

The company is taking its time; it doesn’t need success within 12 months, and it sees smartphones as driving brand awareness in the long term. Even the birth of the TCL smartphone brand has been slow and steady, having been in development for more than three-and-a-half years already.

“Build a base, and build the story,” Streit said, and based on the preview I saw today, it’s a story worth following.

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