Foldable smartphones are here, but still far from mass adoption

Both Huawei and Samsung recently unveiled foldable phones at 2019's Mobile World Congress but get ready to break the bank for them.
Huawei's foldable Mate X will be available from the middle of the year.
Huawei's foldable Mate X will be available from the middle of the year.PHOTO: REUTERS

BARCELONA - The latest in smartphones getting all the buzz these days have been a long time in coming, but do not expect these new foldable wonders to have mass appeal anytime soon.

Earlier this week, Huawei became the latest manufacturer to show off a foldable smartphone in Barcelona at a press conference before Mobile World Congress, the largest trade show for the mobile industry.

So far, three firms have announced such devices, which have large flexible displays - typically from 7 to 8 inches - that can be folded into standard smartphone-sized dimensions.

The first, the Royole FlexPai, has been available in China from US$1,300 (S$1,756) since last December.

The Royole FlexPai has been available in China from US$1,300 (S$1,756) since last December. PHOTO: ROYOLE

The Samsung Galaxy Fold, which was announced last week, will be available on April 26 from US$1,980 (S$2,675) in the United States.

It arrives in Singapore in the second quarter of the year.

At 2,299 euros (S$3,523), Huawei's foldable Mate X is the costliest of the three. It will be available from the middle of the year.

Other smartphone makers are also betting on this form factor: Xiaomi and Oppo have both teased videos and photos of foldable devices, while LG has added an optional second screen accessory for its latest V50 ThinQ handset to double the screen real estate.

It does not take much imagination to see its potential.

Standing in a packed train carriage? In its compact form, the foldable smartphone is easy to use with one hand.

Unfold the device to play games, watch videos or read the news on a larger screen if you manage to get a seat during your daily commute.

There are other potential uses, such as having more apps on the screen and better selfies because a foldable phone may not require a front camera anymore.

For those looking to have a single computing device, a foldable phone fits the bill.

A decade in the making

Samsung Electronics' president and head of research and development, Mr Roh Tae-moon, told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview that it took Samsung around 10 years to develop the technologies to make a foldable smartphone.

"During the development period, different form factors were analysed. Infolding, outfolding, vertical folding, horizontal folding, rotational and rollable."

He revealed that the infolding option - where the screen is on the inside - was picked because of its familiarity.

"It is an intuitive action that people are familiar with, like when you open your notebook."

He said another reason for the Galaxy Fold's design is that it would offer the most protection to the screen.

It took Samsung around 10 years to develop the technologies to make a foldable smartphone. PHOTO: SAMSUNG

Because glass cannot be bent, the foldable display has a surface made from polymer.

The outfolding approach - used by Huawei and Royole in their foldable phones - was the "easiest to implement while infolding was the most challenging", but that Samsung went with the latter option because it led to a better user experience, he added.

The size for the Galaxy Fold, which has a 7.3-inch screen, was also the result of much trial and error.

"It was about having the right balance between folded and unfolded use cases," he said.

He explained that when unfolded, the device should offer a nice grip and portability while still being very usable when folded.

The display's 4:3 aspect ratio was derived after looking into existing and emerging mobile content. This aspect ratio lets Samsung fit three active apps on the screen at the same time.


He added that Samsung has been working with partners to create an ecosystem for foldable phones.

Google had previously announced support for the form factor in the Android mobile operating system.

Not for the masses yet

Mr Parv Sharma, an analyst at market research firm Counterpoint Research, said foldable phones can liven up a smartphone market that has been increasingly stagnant,

"They (foldable smartphones) will help consumers do more with a bigger screen size. This means better productivity and greater content consumption on the go," he said.

Mr Thomas Husson, vice-president at Forrester Research, said the consumer benefits of foldable phones are still unclear.

He said that while "top smartphone brands will claim to have reinvented smartphone design. it will take longer for these foldable screens to deliver differentiated experiences".

Market research firm Canalys predicts fewer than two million foldable smartphones will ship this year, citing the high cost of the devices as the reason.

Canalys senior director Nicole Peng said: "Samsung and Huawei will account for the majority of foldable smartphones shipped in 2019.

"But high shipment numbers are not the priority. Each vendor wants to prove it can achieve the greatest technological advances with its new industrial designs."