Is the world ready for foldable phones?

With new models on the horizon, we take a look at the first generation and ask if they were rushed to market

When thinking of foldable phones and tablets, Samsung and Huawei may be the names that first spring to mind, but in fact it’s the much smaller Royale Corporation that holds the dubious honour of being the first to market.

It may be for the best, though, that its device – the FlexPai – is a footnote in the history of this troubled field. An early review called it “charmingly awful”  and highlighted how slow the operating system was when switching screens. Its design also left a lot to be desired, looking like a cross between a tablet and one of Salvador Dalí’s clocks.

Not that Samsung and Huawei’s offerings have done much better. The Galaxy Fold and the Mate X were both were launched just before MWC 2019, to considerable fanfare and it seemed we had hit a bold new frontier in smartphone design.

Just one year later, though, and the Mate X is only available in China, while the Galaxy Fold is best described as ‘brittle’. 

A display of flexibility

“There are always problems with the ‘first’ of anything,” says Chris Harrison, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “For years, OEMs have been pushing to make screens bigger and bigger, increasing the size of phones and removing all the bezels. Today, there is nowhere to go if we want these devices to still fit in our pockets. For people who want a lot of screen real estate to watch movies, review spreadsheets, read a book, or really anything where a bigger screen enhances the experience, foldable phones are the logical next step.”

The fundamental technology of bendable displays has actually been in the works for over a decade; Samsung even released a concept video at CES 2013. It’s also not that much different from what we already have on normal smartphones, just with extremely thin layers of plastic polymer instead of glass.   

The real technical challenge with this new form factor is actually everything around the display. Vital components from the battery to the chassis have to be thought of differently to allow for multiple folds. The hinge on the Galaxy Fold is a good example of how complex the design can be, as it’s made up of a number of gears and rotors, similar to a watch. 

“People shouldn’t judge the idea on this first cohort of devices, but rather the second and third generations,” Harrison explains. “The technology will mature quickly, as we’ve seen with almost everything in the mobile computing space.” 

If you’re not first you’re last

According to Rob Baillie, a mobile device expert at Comparemymobile.com, foldables are less a response to demand than a solution looking for a problem.

He says that faults on Samsung’s Galaxy Fold suggested the company had perhaps rushed its designs in order to make sure it was one of the first to introduce a ‘folding phone’. 

“If Samsung had taken the time to perfect the phone, it wouldn’t have had to go back to the drawing board to get it right on the second try,” he says. “Making a screen durable enough to face being folded and unfolded numerous times is key.”

The Galaxy Fold was said to withstand being opened and closed 200,000 times, but review units distributed in April 2019 broke within a day. Reports of bumps and glitchy displays came flooding in and an internal Samsung investigation found that its hinge had wilted under the first inspection. Bits of debris were bouncing around inside and its launch was rescheduled, multiple times. 

It finally came out in September, but didn’t sell quite as well as Samsung would’ve liked. The company had to retract a statement in December claiming it sold one million units. It was still vague about the actual figures at CES 2020, with CEO Koh Dong-jin telling reporters: “I think we’ve sold 400,000 to 500,000 Galaxy Fold smartphones”.  

Doing it the Huawei

Similar to the Galaxy Fold, the launch date for Huawei’s Mate X was also pushed back, moving from April to “in the near future”. The company didn’t explain why, which opened up room for speculation that it wanted to avoid a Samsung-like fate. There was also a more complex issue playing out in the background, as the US government banned American businesses from trading with the Chinese company.

“The Huawei brand has definitely been impacted,” says Gartner research director Roberta Cozza. “Part of its success is the ability of Western Europe to get to Google services. They are a key part of the overall proposition of an Android phone, whether that’s Huawei, Samsung or any other player. This was a big blow for them in general. I think they couldn’t release some devices, so yes, it has definitely been a key limitation.” 

Huawei has been developing its own operating system, HarmonyOS, but that’s meant for IoT devices, not smartphones and certainly not foldable ones. It has also announced cash incentives to help develop its own ecosystem of apps, but as Cozza explains, developers may need more than just money.

“You could expect some of these brands to try and court developers to think about what could be possible on foldable devices,” she says. “It is a matter of growing an ecosystem of developers around these new form factors. With these things, it just takes time and I think it’s a bit of a catch-22, because developers will also want to see the volumes before committing. Innovation must bring clear benefits for users and I think that it’s still too early.”  

The shape of things to come

This is a category that’s in its infancy and, according to Cozza, we are going to see vendors try different form factors. We’re at a stage where they’re trying to work out what’s going really stick in the market. This has plenty of truth in it as Motorola and Samsung have launched new clamshell-type foldable devices. 

“The vendors that can afford to do it will continue to experiment around this and I think we are going to see some different form factors,” she adds. “The Motorola device was really interesting because it’s an iconic design and if we start to think who would buy this device, this is where the challenge has come.” 

The challenge, of course, is the price. At $1,500 (£1,145) the Razr is very much a luxury device and already subject to reports of fragility. It’s only slightly cheaper than the Z Flip, which also is also facing claims its glitchy.

That’s a lot of money to spend on flimsy technology, but if we want the future to unfold for everyone, some are going to have to stump up the cash, initially.

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