Major tech companies will gather under one roof at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, later this month to discuss the future of mobility. With the smartphone market slowing and consumers are holding onto their phones for longer, manufacturers are pinning their hopes on 5G and foldable devices to kickstart the upgrade cycle in markets like the US and China.
All the major smartphone makers are working on foldable phones. Samsung might launch a foldable phone (likely to be called the Galaxy F) on February 20 in San Francisco. Huawei and Oppo are expected to launch their first foldable phones at the MWC 2019. Xiaomi and Motorola too have plans to launch foldable smartphones.
The smartphone market is starting to saturate across the developed world, where consumers are thinking twice before shelling out more for newer models. A lack of innovation and limited new features are stopping buyers from putting their money on new smartphones.
This means people are holding on to phones for longer as they don’t see any value in upgrading to the latest models. The rising price of smartphones has also slowed down the market to some extent. As a result, Counterpoint’s latest figures on smartphone sales suggest that the worldwide smartphone shipments dropped four per cent during 2018 as the global smartphone market declined for the first time ever.
Vendors clearly understand that they are struggling to sell new smartphones to consumers. And the only way they see the market can bounce back is by introducing foldable phones.
“I think that’s the kind of issue people have had for the last year or two and Apple is the prime example and also Samsung,” William Stofega, Program Director, Mobile Device Technology and Trends at IDC, told indianexpress.com over phone. “People aren’t really as interested in paying up for a high price device that doesn’t really do much more than their old device.”
“All the innovation that’s happened in the last five years are more evolutionary, not anything particularly interesting,” Stofega said, adding that this has been the problem with the industry “It’s kind of really working its way through, if you see how manufacturers like Apple are having trouble justifying the price of a new phone when there is little difference compared to prior models,” Stofega added.
A foldable phone is a cross between a tablet and a smartphone
Manufacturers have been talking about a foldable phone for years now. In fact, Samsung first teased a foldable smartphone in 2014. But what exactly is a foldable phone? Is it a tablet or a smartphone, or a cross between the two?
The biggest advantage of having a foldable phone over the standard smartphone is the extended real estate on the screen. Over the years, manufacturers have tried to increase the screen size of smartphones and have hit a threshold on what can be offered for single hand usage. Foldable screens give the ability to double the screen size while keeping the same device footprint.
So for all practical purposes, a foldable phone is actually a tablet that can fold in half and fit in your pocket. There will be no gap between the screens and the display will be a continuous experience.
Stofega lists two big advantages of this form factor. First, foldable screens will be less prone to breaking and damage as the touchscreen will be covered when not in use. Secondly, having a phone that can instantly convert into a larger display will be an advantage.
Uncertainty over the need for a foldable phone
The foldable phone is an interesting idea. But why does a consumer need one is still not clear. That’s the question you will keep hearing a lot this year. Even if you buy a foldable phone, chances are that you will still need a laptop for work. And that’s not going to change anytime soon. It didn’t change with the tablet. Also, it is unclear if a foldable phone will solve issues over battery life and performance.
“I don’t think that there is any real specific need where people are saying I need a foldable smartphone,” Stofega says, adding that people might actually demand better battery life or durable screens.
Even if brands claim that foldable phones will change the way we use phones, there is no guarantee if consumers also gravitate towards such devices. Stofega cites the example of LG Optimus 3D, an ambitious phone that could capture and view content in 3D, but ended up giving people a headache. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be up to the people whether they can find a use case for it,” Stofega added.
Technical challenges could be a hindrance
Designing a foldable smartphone will be a challenge. The performance of the touchscreen, its brightness and sensitivity to touch, will be crucial. A foldable phone also requires a new set of components and mass production will be a challenge too as it means adopting new manufacturing techniques and increased investment in R&D.
And, the flexible OLED screen has to be able to withstand the pressures of being bent several times a day. “The challenge is going to be designing a durable and flexible display that doesn’t crease over the thousands of times it will get folded and unfolded,” said Bikram Mittra, Head of Industrial Design, Kohler K&B India. “The display technology would also have to ensure that it doesn’t fatigue over time (resulting in dead pixels, etc) as well as ensure that there is no ghost line at the point of folding and the display remains visually clean and seamless.”
“A plastic front screen would be preferable to glass due to the possibility of flexibility. However, the manufacturer will have to ensure that the plastic is as scratch resistant and has a tactile feel similar to glass,” he adds.
Mittra says the internal circuitry of the device also presents challenges as they will have to be evenly distributed on both halves of the device with the centre seam having flexible connectors/wiring. This also limits the size of the battery usable as the maximum battery dimensions will be limited.
Another major concern is to make a foldable phone slim, light and pocketable. The world’s first foldable smartphone FlexPai can’t fit in a pocket as it is several times thicker than the standard smartphone. “Ensuring battery life that can power such a large screen (or two screens) would be a challenge while keeping the weight and size of the device low,” he added.
“The main challenge is keeping the device as slim as possible in a folded position,” Mittra said, adding that the while the outer casing materials can be plastic or metal, the hinge needs a flexible bellows-like joint with rubber or plastic.
“Both the physical product design and interface would need to be ergonomically designed so that the device is easy and nimble to use when the user wants to send a quick text but also allow the user to quickly open to fullscreen to check an email.”
The software is going to be another key issue with a foldable phone. Although Google is already extending support for foldable phones, it’s not known if developers are also eager to port apps to this environment. “The way apps and graphics resize seamlessly from half to full mode is going to challenge and redefine interface design for mobile devices,” Mittra said.
Price will decide the fate of foldable phones
As for any new product category, a foldable phone will likely to be priced on a higher side. The Samsung Galaxy F is said to cost upwards of $1800; the FlexPai is not cheap either. It costs $1300 for the base model with limited availability in China. The new Moto Razr will reportedly cost $1500 and that Lenovo is thinking to produce only 200,000 units.
So expect the foldable phones to be fairly limited in availability and considering that they will be exuberantly priced, vendors will launch these devices in mainly developed markets. The mass-scale adoption of foldable phones itself will drive prices down as the production costs scale.
Early adopters and the person that is typically buying the newest and greatest are likely to be the target audience. Stofega believes a foldable phone will test how much users can pay for the flagship smartphone. Now that a typical phone cost over $1000, it will be interesting to see how consumers react when vendors ask them to pay a lot more for the so-called foldable smartphones that can fold or bend.
Chinese smartphone makers rush to launch foldable phones
Chinese smartphones makers seem to be in a rush to be ahead of Samsung and Apple in the foldable phone race. But startup Royole, with its FlexPai, a phone that is limited to China at the moment, has beaten everyone.
Huawei, the world’s second-largest smartphone maker, recently sent out invites for what seems to be a foldable phone that is it launching at MWC 2019. Oppo too seems to be preparing for an MWC launch of such a phone.
Xiaomi president and co-founder Lin Bin had teased a working prototype of a foldable phone fishing for positive responses to help take a call on whether the time is right for commercial production. According to the Wall Street Journal, Motorola plans to reintroduce the iconic Moto Razr with a foldable screen.
Check out this special video from #Xiaomi President and Co-founder Bin Lin, showing off a very special phone prototype… 😎
— Donovan Sung (@donovansung) January 23, 2019
Stofega questions the capability of some of these companies to deliver a foldable phone. “Some of the Chinese OEMs have been thought of before as Follow Me brands rather than innovation leaders. But that looks like that’s changing,” he said.
While Samsung too has teased a foldable prototype, don’t expect rival Apple to jump on this bandwagon right away. “Apple is the company that waits… they are likely to wait to see and learn from others,” Stofega said, adding that while Cupertino might consider such a phone, they won’t go ahead if there is any problem with the mechanics or design.