From Apple and Samsung to Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo, every tech giant is bringing the foldable smartphone back. But why is it such a big deal?
There’s been a deluge of foldable phones in 2020. If reports are to be believed, Apple, too, is working on its first foldable handset, scheduled to be launched in September 2022. Apple may also be in active discussions with a number of material suppliers from Taiwan — Hon Hai and Nippon Nippon — for its foldable smartphone and may utilise OLED or MicroLED screen technology. The display panel will be sourced from Samsung.
Apart from Apple, there is Samsung—by far the only brand successful in foldable design and compatibility—and other brands like Motorola, Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo, which have actively pursued the quest of launching foldable smartphones with futuristic designs.
But why are foldable phones such a big deal? Mainly driven by design and a compact look, the screen can be unfolded and allows access to a larger tablet-like display when needed, while maintaining a similar footprint and functionality as a standard smartphone. The phones stretch and flex, the foldable screen comes in less fragile displays, hinges are better sealed against dust and water, and the handsets are as durable as regular smartphones. With apps optimised for foldable display phones, like Android has screen continuity for seamless transformation to different screen sizes, Google has multi-display support to make the transition to foldable phones smooth.
In 2018, Chinese manufacturer Royole released its foldable mobile phone called FlexPai. “FlexPai’s screen is virtually unbreakable and extremely durable, passing tests where the screen has been bent over 200,000 times. Its screen provides fantastic colour range, high contrast, wide angle and high resolution for outstanding picture quality,” claims the company on its website. Lenovo, too, was likely to launch a commercial flexible phone, but Royole beat both Lenovo and Samsung in launching the world’s first commercial flexible smartphone.
Perhaps, the most obvious deterrent in foldable phones has been the launch cycle. The original Samsung Galaxy Fold underwent a months-long delay in 2019 due to issues with the screen breaking after it folded. The company had to put on hold its mass availability. The device was then redesigned, re-engineered and relaunched. By far, though, it has been a pure winner when it comes to specifications and design. Multitasking daily work or multimedia experience in innovative hinge mechanisms gives a feeling of a mini laptop. The company manufactured about four lakh Galaxy Folds last year. Samsung mobile business chief Koh Dong-jin revealed at the Consumer Electronics Show 2020 that the company sold between four lakh and five lakh Galaxy Fold phones in 2019.
The list of enticing handsets to watch out for is endless. The Microsoft Surface Duo has twin screens—it brings together two different screens on either side of a patented and slim hinge that rotates 360 degrees. Moto Razr 2019 has a 6.2-inch vertical flip-view display, with a 21:9 aspect ratio, night mode and AI enhancements. Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G with Infinity flex display folds in half and has a 6.2-inch screen on the surface to cover the panel. Another good model is the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip, a vertical flip-and-fold phone.
Compared to Huawei Mate X, which wraps externally, the display of Galaxy Fold is much more protected, as it folds internally. Huawei Mate X has a 6.6-inch full screen that transforms into a 5.4-mm screen. Huawei Mate Xs will be a smaller and improved version. Xiaomi Dual Flex, or MIX Flex, is a double-folding smartphone. When folded from the left and right side, the display transforms into a smaller form factor like a phone.
According to reports, Vivo under its sub-brand, iQOO, may hit the foldable phone market with a phone that will transform into a bigger tablet-like device. Google has also confirmed that it is experimenting with foldable phones. Mario Queiroz, Google’s head of Pixel development, told CNET, “We’re definitely prototyping the technology. We’ve been doing it for a long time. I don’t think there’s a clear use case yet.”
Market research firm Gartner predicts foldable phones to potentially reinject innovation in the smartphone market, but they are cautious about their short-term uptake due to tradeoffs. Gartner estimates that foldable phones will account for 5% of high-end phones by 2023, amounting to 30 million units. On the other hand, US-based research firm Strategy Analytics says foldables will be the fastest-growing segment of the premium smartphone market for the next decade and forecast global foldable smartphone shipments to top 100 million units by 2025. Samsung, Huawei and, eventually, Apple will lead the way. Steep pricing, low display-yield and uncertain durability are will be among the near-term challenges.