Nearly half a decade ago, Samsung — who, at the time, had barely outpaced Nokia — released a concept video titled “Today’s components, tomorrow’s possibility”. The promotional clip showed people — Samsung users — carrying around gargantuan screens in their pockets and charming everyone who caught them using it.
The message was clear. Samsung had figured out bendable displays and was ready to be at the forefront of the smartphone’s future. But then, it all evaporated.
Samsung continued to sell the most amount of smartphones in the world and its Galaxy lineup grew more mature and modern as the years passed by. No signs of foldable phones, however. Reports did swamp the Internet every few months claiming that the company will be unveiling it soon but those rumors never come to fruition.
Samsung is totally going to release a foldable smartphone in…
— Ron Amadeo (@RonAmadeo) July 18, 2018
Last week, at long last, Samsung’s foldable phone broke cover. Sort of. Under dim lighting, Samsung took out a prototype which could bend to morph either into a 4.58-inch phone or a 7.3-inch tablet. It didn’t have a hinge, nor did it look like a clamshell device of the yore. Just like that 2014 video promised (except with a lot more bezels).
The week was a big one for foldable phones itself. Hours before Samsung’s unveiling, Google announced it’s creating a new category for Android device makers called Foldables with new developer tools in the pipeline. “Start a video with the folded smaller screen – and later you can sit down and unfold the device to get a larger tablet-sized screen for a beautiful, immersive experience.”, the company wrote on its blog.
That’s not all. A couple of days preceding those two events, a Chinese display company, Royole went ahead and claimed the title for the first commercial foldable phone. Its new $1300 FlexPai smartphone is already up for pre-order. What’s more, unlike Samsung which employs two screens — one outside and another, larger one inside which folds, FlexPai has just a single a 7.8-inch screen that can be folded 180 degrees.
So why foldable phones? And why now?
The answer to the second question is rather straightforward. While companies like Samsung had managed to achieve bendable screens way back in 2014, the rest of the technology simply was not there to make a smartphone happen. Even the display was in preliminary stages and wasn’t even remotely comparable to what you have on regular phones. The exterior screen found on Samsung’s first foldable phone only has a resolution of 840 x 1960, a far cry from the Quad HD panels the company ships today.
The reason why so many OEMs are interested in producing foldable phones, on the contrary, is a lot more complicated.
Here’s how companies themselves justify it. The key pitch is that a foldable phone enables you to fit both a large tablet and a normal-sized phone in your pocket. If you’re commuting, you can fire up the smartphone to read and upon reaching the destination, you can simply fold it out, plug in a wireless keyboard to work on a spreadsheet. It’s the ultimate “one device to rule them all” dream. Phone makers have tried to push towards that goal with several features in the past like Samsung’s own DeX platform.
Then there’s, of course, the novelty factor and a way to spark interest in the plummeting smartphone market — something which is attached to every other new smartphone technology. But in this case, it’s slightly different.
Foldable phones won’t be easy to replicate like notches or multiple cameras. It’s truly a way for a company to stand out and not worry about a clone being born in just a matter of months. And only brands like Samsung (who excel at displays) have the research and resources available to develop a commercial foldable phone. Sure, that certainly won’t prevent the Chinese competition to catch up but it won’t be as easy and widespread as the current trends.
Commenting further on this, Navkendra Singh, Associate Research Director, IDC India, said, “With every new flagship launch, we are seeing mere incremental innovations like cameras with mechanical movements, notches, bezel-less screens etc. All these don’t really revolutionalize our interaction and experience with the device. And considering the widespread availability and quick replicability of such technologies, the brands are really not able to stand out with these incremental innovations. With Foldable screens, there is a real chance to absolutely and completely change the way the smartphones of future will look like, be designed and opens up several exciting possibilities of how we will interact with the devices, which is always on our person.”
The Screen Battle Lives On
Most importantly, bendable displays are a clear step forward to what has driven smartphone battles so far — screen sizes. In the last few years, one of the primary objectives phone makers have invariably held is how to cram a bigger display in a form factor that’s still relatively easy to handle. Edge-to-edge screens, though, are the apex of that as far as regular screens are concerned. Adding more screen will now mean more phone.
The race to fit more screen in a smaller footprint is not dying anytime soon especially with phones now being hailed as the only computing device you’ll ever need. It was, at the end of the day, about choosing between either strapping another screen on the rear (which actually some tried) or well, turn to flexible display technologies. The industry chose the latter.
“With the way our technology and content consumption habits are evolving, smartphones are becoming the most important consumer technology we own. And all these companies are trying to let consumers do more on one single device, so that the necessity of buying or carrying other devices like Laptops, Tablets is reduced or entirely eliminated. Bigger screen on a foldable phone will give bigger real estate to run apps, consumer video, better gaming experience, enhanced multitasking – all of these are primary uses for any smartphone users these days, although with a compromised experience at best.”, added Singh.
For a while, though, foldable phones will remain merely a PR tool. The technology is still rather nascent and with starting prices rumored to be as high as $1700, it certainly won’t be a mass product at least until 2020. Announcing such experimental products so early is also a way for companies to understand how the market reacts and gather more insights for version two.
Google’s early involvement, however, does suggest foldable phones are here to stay. That, though, doesn’t mean Google is cooking one as well. The company simply wants to avoid repeating the same fragmented mess it let run with notch sizes. And software support for “foldables” won’t be, in fact, that much of a work for Android either, at least in terms of app resizing.
Apart from the fact that Android is already compatible with a plethora of screen sizes, it’s also available on Chrome OS where you can switch to an app’s tablet interface by clicking the maximize button or by flipping the orientation. That is why it didn’t announce any new software updates but outlined the existing tools companies can take advantage of.
Will They Bend the Future of the Smartphone?
Foldable phones are one of those technologies which happen once every few years and usually falls in the same bin as “3D TVs”. But they also offer a series of compelling reasons behind their existences, most of which are perfectly in line with the mainstream smartphone market.
They could be the answer to what a lot of phone makers are trying to chase which is building a smartphone that could eliminate the need for every other computing device in your lifestyle, they allow fitting a much bigger screen in a pocketable form factor, and more.
It will be a while, though, before we understand how companies are approaching their purpose. In addition to Samsung, a bunch of other OEMs like Huawei, LG, are also planning to reveal their foldable phones soon. So whether they’re the future of our smartphones, only the time will tell.