Power

Everyone loves a foldable phone

Both Google and Microsoft filed foldable-phone-related patents this week. Could more bendy phones be on the horizon?

A drawing of a paper origami crane

Is this the next Pixel Phone?

Image: Protocol

Another week of neat patent filings from the big tech companies. Amazon wants to help you not waste time, Apple cares about battery life, and both Google and Microsoft have bendy phones on the brain.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

Alphabet

Foldable screen for a bendy phone

Ever since the dawn of civilization, people have loved the idea of a big phone — bigger screen, longer battery life, easier to hold — but wish that it could do what a small phone does: fit comfortably in a pocket. Everyone from LG to Samsung to Motorola has tried to make foldable phones in the last few years, but none have hit the mainstream. The main complaint is that the screen is too fragile to withstand all that folding.

This patent imagines making a foldable screen that attaches to the foldable OLED screen, giving the entire thing a little more structure, durability and support. It outlines various configurations of links and brackets that can bend and move in various ways. Looks like the Pixel might have a bendy future.

Amazon

Your order's ready

My favorite thing to do during quarantine was pick up orders: I ordered something via an app, and was then alerted when my order was ready. Then I'd hop in the car, park in a designated spot and pop the trunk so the sales associate could put my bags in the car. Each store had various levels of sophistication on how their app worked. Some asked you to text a number when you got there, some asked you to enter your spot number into the app. And some, like this patent describes, just knew when you were coming.

This patent lays out how a store can be alerted when a customer is coming, so neither the customer nor the salesperson needs to sit around and wait. By having the customer opt in for the app to track their location, speed or direction, the app can make a pretty solid guess about when the customer will show up. Or, by using geographical fences, the salesperson could be alerted how far away the customer is, and do various tasks (start grabbing things off the shelves, for example) that will make pickup orders even more efficient.

Apple

Better way to find your friends

The Find My feature on the iPhone lets you find the location of your Apple devices, if you have it turned on on each device. It also lets you send your location to friends and family, and if they want, they can share their location with you, too. It's key for parents, who want to keep an eye on where their teens are going. And it's fun to share your location with friends, so you don't have to ever text "When will you be here??" again.

The problem with location tracking is that it eats up a ton of battery and system resources. But this patent imagines a way to save battery life, as it assumes that you don't always need to know someone's precise location (what the patent calls a "deep location"). If you do want to know more precisely where your friends are, you can ask Find My to go a little deeper, which is where the battery-sucking GPS comes in, but only briefly, and you can even stop sharing your location completely after even just a few minutes.

Understand my crappy handwriting better

I don't have the best handwriting, but if you asked my iPhone what it thought of my handwriting, it would tell you that I don't know what I'm doing. But it's not my fault! The iPhone has a hard time figuring out what I'm trying to say even when I write block letters in all caps. This patent wants to make writing on a phone even easier, by tweaking the way the phone recognizes inputs, including how hard you press on the screen.

Facebook

AR for everyone

As AR devices become more popular in enterprise, IT departments will have to figure out how to maintain all the devices so that they're up to date and don't have any issues. This patent wants to make that process a bit easier, by allowing multiple devices to be maintained and updated at once.

Sign in much faster

There's absolutely nothing worse than using an AR or VR device and having to type in a password, letter by letter, hoping that you don't mess something up because it makes you want to throw something. This patent offers various alternatives, including using a phone number or numbered code to log you in much faster.

Microsoft

Another foldable phone?

Looks like the foldable Pixel Phone might have some competition: Microsoft is also thinking about a foldable phone future, but of the UI, not the screen itself. It lays out all the various ways that the UI can turn ugly if it's in a folded or unfolded state. Maybe Google and Microsoft should team up on a Windows Pixel Phone?

Image: Yuanxin

Yuanxin Technology doesn't hide its ambition. In the first line of its prospectus, the company says its mission is to be the "first choice for patients' healthcare and medication needs in China." But the road to winning the crowded China health tech race is a long one for this Tencent- and Sequoia-backed startup, even with a recent valuation of $4 billion, according to Chinese publication Lieyunwang. Here's everything you need to know about Yuanxin Technology's forthcoming IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

What does Yuanxin do?

There are many ways startups can crack open the health care market in China, and Yuanxin has focused on one: prescription drugs. According to its prospectus, sales of prescription drugs outside hospitals account for only 23% of the total healthcare market in China, whereas that number is 70.2% in the United States.

Yuanxin started with physical stores. Since 2015, it has opened 217 pharmacies immediately outside Chinese hospitals. "A pharmacy has to be on the main road where a patient exits the hospital. It needs to be highly accessible," Yuanxin founder He Tao told Chinese media in August. Then, patients are encouraged to refill their prescriptions on Yuanxin's online platforms and to follow up with telehealth services instead of returning to a hospital.

From there, Yuanxin has built a large product portfolio that offers online doctor visits, pharmacies and private insurance plans. It also works with enterprise clients, designing office automation and prescription management systems for hospitals and selling digital ads for big pharma.

Yuanxin's Financials

Yuanxin's annual revenues have been steadily growing from $127 million in 2018 to $365 million in 2019 and $561 million in 2020. In each of those three years, over 97% of revenue came from "out-of-hospital comprehensive patient services," which include the company's physical pharmacies and telehealth services. More specifically, approximately 83% of its retail sales derived from prescription drugs.

But the company hasn't made a profit. Yuanxin's annual losses grew from $17 million in 2018 to $26 million in 2019 and $48 million in 2020. The losses are moderate considering the ever-growing revenues, but cast doubt on whether the company can become profitable any time soon. Apart from the cost of drug supplies, the biggest spend is marketing and sales.

What's next for Yuanxin

There are still abundant opportunities in the prescription drug market. In 2020, China's National Medical Products Administration started to explore lifting the ban on selling prescription drugs online. Although it's unclear when the change will take place, it looks like more purely-online platforms will be able to write prescriptions in the future. With its established market presence, Yuanxin is likely one of the players that can benefit greatly from such a policy change.

The enterprise and health insurance businesses of Yuanxin are still fairly small (accounting for less than 3% of annual revenue), but this is where the company sees an opportunity for future growth. Yuanxin is particularly hoping to power its growth with data and artificial intelligence. It boasts a database of 14 million prescriptions accumulated over years, and the company says the data can be used in many ways: designing private insurance plans, training doctors and offering chronic disease management services. The company says it currently employs 509 people on its R&D team, including 437 software engineers and 22 data engineers and scientists.

What Could Go Wrong?

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped sell the story of digital health care, but Yuanxin isn't the only company benefiting from this opportunity. 2020 has seen a slew of Chinese health tech companies rise. They either completed their IPO process before Yuanxin (like JD, Alibaba and Ping An's healthcare subsidiaries) or are close to it (WeDoctor and DXY). In this crowded sector, Yuanxin faces competition from both companies with Big Tech parent companies behind them and startups that have their own specialized advantages.

Like each of its competitors, Yuanxin needs to be careful with how it processes patient data — some of the most sensitive personal data online. Recent Chinese legislation around personal data has made it clear that it will be increasingly difficult to monetize user data. In the prospectus, Yuanxin elaborately explained how it anonymizes data and prevents data from being leaked or hacked, but it also admitted that it cannot foresee what future policies will be introduced.

Who Gets Rich

  • Yuanxin's founder and CEO He Tao and SVP He Weizhuang own 29.82% of the company's shares through a jointly controlled company. (It's unclear whether He Tao and He Weizhuang are related.)
  • Tencent owns 19.55% of the shares.
  • Sequoia owns 16.21% of the shares.
  • Other major investors include Qiming, Starquest Capital and Kunling, which respectively own 7.12%, 6.51% and 5.32% of the shares.

What People Are Saying

  • "The demands of patients, hospitals, insurance companies, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies are all different. How to meet each individual demand and find a core profit model is the key to Yuanxin Technology's future growth." — Xu Yuchen, insurance industry analyst and member of China Association of Actuaries, in Chinese publication Lanjinger.
  • "The window of opportunity caused by the pandemic, as well as the high valuations of those companies that have gone public, brings hope to other medical services companies…[But] the window of opportunity is closing and the potential of Internet healthcare is yet to be explored with new ideas. Therefore, traditional, asset-heavy healthcare companies need to take this opportunity and go public as soon as possible." —Wang Hang, founder and CEO of online healthcare platform Haodf, in state media China.com.

Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

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