Future Smartphone Market Set to Take a More Flexible Approach

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By David McQueen | 1Q 2019 | IN-5413

Royole’s FlexiPai, the first smartphone to be truly identified as foldable, came to market in November 2018 and paved the way for a whole host of vendors set to venture into the foldable phone category. Now that Samsung has also announced its foldable Galaxy Fold and Huawei showed its Mate X at this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC), more smartphone vendors are gearing up to debut foldable devices over the coming months and foldable smartphones look set to be a major trend for 2019.

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Flexible and Foldable Smartphones Debut at MWC


Royole’s FlexiPai, the first smartphone to be truly identified as foldable, came to market in November 2018 and paved the way for a whole host of vendors set to venture into the foldable phone category. Now that Samsung has also announced its foldable Galaxy Fold and Huawei showed its Mate X at this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC), more smartphone vendors are gearing up to debut foldable devices over the coming months and foldable smartphones look set to be a major trend for 2019.

Who's Heading the Queue for Flexible Smartphones?


From clamshell to bar shapes, QWERTY to curved keyboards, and the use of 3D displays and dual screens, over the years, smartphones have had many design and form factor variations foisted upon them.The lack of smartphones with a foldable display today can be attributed to the complex manufacturing processes involved in making them and the requirement of the devices to be able to withstand the wear and tear of everyday use. However, with the launch of the FlexiPai in late 2018, the market took another twist (or fold!), which has set the tone for 2019 to become the year of the foldable phone. The implementation of such a form factor will be varied and subject to rumors and vendor patents being followed through; there appears to be a number of combinations and methods for bringing foldable smartphones to life. These, put simply, will use a single- or dual-fold, with the screen either folding outward or inward. The fold outward example has a flexible display that wraps around the body of the smartphone, while the fold inward model shuts like a book, closing the screen in on itself. Each design combination is also likely to carry a variety of “modes” that can be implemented through the complete or partial folding or unfolding of the device in order to transition from a more standard smartphone mode to compact, laptop, or tablet modes.

Following in Royole’s footsteps are a whole host of vendors committed to bringing out a foldable phone and considering the fold outward design of the FlexPai. This method is employed by Huawei’s foldable Mate X device, and is also expected to be used by those from OPPO, LG, Vivo, Lenovo, ZTE, TCL, and Xiaomi (which is believed to have a dual-fold device with two smaller sections that wrap around to the rear of a middle, smartphone-shaped, third). While many of these devices have been in development for a number of years, there is still much speculation about naming nomenclatures, and although respective launch timelines are not yet fully known, the majority are expected to appear sometime in 2019.

In contrast to those projections, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is the first foldable smartphone to be announced this year. It takes the fold inward approach, using its own Infinity Flex Display and a further screen on the outside when closed in smartphone mode. Similarly, Motorola is expected to take the fold inward approach with its re-booted RAZR device. However, this device will transform from smartphone to compact mode in the manner of its previous clamshell design, using a further smaller screen on the outside for notifications, etc. Such a fold-in design is also believed to be followed by Sony, which will allegedly use angled top and bottom edges to form a secondary display when the device is folded to compact.

Thus far, the specifications of many of these foldable devices that have not yet been launched are largely unknown. However, it is expected that most will unfold to provide a 7-8 inch tablet mode with a virtually 1:1 aspect ratio and a folded or unfolded smartphone display of around 4.5-6 inches. There is considerable anticipation in the market around the flexible form factor and the variety of ways they can be used to provide a richer user experience (UX), but perhaps the final use case is still not entirely clear. Is it to make the growing size of smartphones smaller and more pocketable, to turn a smartphone into a tablet or laptop experience, both, or any other combination therein? Xiaomi has already said that its folding phone will be a prototype and it would only consider putting it into production if there was enough consumer interest.

Indeed, there are high barriers to market entry here; a great deal of technology and hardware innovation needs to be perfected if a seamless and intuitive user experience is to be provided, particularly as these devices transition from one mode to another. Aside from sourcing robust, flexible/folding OLED screen technology, there are other hardware issues that also need to be overcome, including battery types and size, and the placement of prominent components such as antennas, cameras, and fingerprint scanners. Moreover, an integral part of any foldable device will be its hinge, and many vendors have resorted to patented joint/hinge designs to solve this problem. These should ultimately create elegant, near-invisible solutions that minimize bulk and stress points, a highly noticeable attribute that will undoubtedly contribute massively to foldable smartphones’ future success (or lack thereof).

In addition, and to ensure a smooth UX, it is essential that the operating system (OS) and user interface (UI) are both optimized and work effectively on the device, making sure there is a seamless experience as it transitions from smartphone to tablet and/or laptop modes. Notably, Google has confirmed that Android will support folding displays, which will be welcome news for developers, and both Samsung and Huawei are believed to be adapting their own UI software, too. As a prime example, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold uses “app continuity,” which is invoked as the device moves from smartphone to tablet mode and has the ability to three-app multitask when folded out as a tablet.

Of further importance will be the ongoing effect of dust and water ingress (IP ratings) on this type of device, especially around its hinge, and the robustness of a screen that is wrapped around the outside of a smartphone. Users’ ability to implement added protection to such a potentially wide expanse of “screen estate,” especially for phones that fold outward, will be difficult to achieve with standard accessories. Some level of innovation in the sector will therefore be required to best serve these form factors while responding to any new issues that may arise from their continued use. Notably, during the announcement of the Huawei Mate X at MWC an accessory protection case was also detailed and is expected to be shipped with the device.

As for pricing, with the FlexPai currently available for US$1,300, the Galaxy Fold for US$1,980 (€2,000 in Europe), and the Huawei X Mate priced at US$2,600 (around €2,299), these soon-to-be-released foldable smartphones are all expected to come with a high price tag. However, with “value” smartphone vendors also in the mix, notably OPPO and Vivo, there is every possibility that pricing could dip below the US$1,000 mark. The greater use of the fold outward design may also help pricing, as it is believed to be technically easier to implement and also does not have the added costs of an additional screen. Regardless, these still relatively high prices suggest availability will be restricted to certain demographics and regions, likely to initially target South Korea, the United States, and some European markets; lower priced devices from some vendors would help widen the addressable market.

Is the Market Ready and Where to Next for Flexible Displays?


Despite the obvious and immediate barriers to their effective use--notably extreme hardware innovation, smooth and optimized user experiences, and current eye-wateringly high prices--foldable displays are set to become an important form factor in future product portfolios and bring much needed innovation to device design. Specifically, it would be no surprise if Samsung’s Infinity Flex Display finds its way into several more devices in the future.

Although the market is still waiting for foldable smartphones from many vendors, there are already rumors of other secondary designs in the works from Motorola (fold outward) and Samsung (fold inward to compact). Apple, however, still has yet to announce itself to the market. It is highly likely, though, that Apple is exploring the idea of a foldable phone because of some patents it holds. But, as usual, the company will not make a move until folding smartphones have gained some market traction, there is consensus on an optimal folding format, and it has perfected its own design and hinge.

After years of complacency in the smartphone market spent waiting for a modicum of design innovation, there is little doubt that foldable smartphones are set to become the next technology innovation trend. This is expected to be broadened to other solutions, with Intel and Microsoft said to be behind some new foldable concepts and adaptations for the tablet PC and laptop markets. If these initiatives do come to fruition, they could spark a new battlefront in the mobile devices market that would completely redefine smartphone, tablet, and laptop form factors, with competing vendors from all sectors clambering for a share of a literally transformational device market.

The use of foldable displays may also go some way to help galvanize an industry on the wane, creating improved UXs while stimulating smartphone replacement rates. With Samsung already stating that it plans to ship a million foldable devices in 2019, ABI Research expects the market to reach around 8 million units by the year’s end. As most of the major vendors are expected to launch at least one such device over the next 18 months, the market is forecast to grow to 52 million by 2022, about 3% of total smartphone sales. However, each vendor will need to tread carefully when accommodating foldable smartphones into their portfolios, as they are sure to command high ASPs in the short- to mid-term and this at a time of prevailing consumer smartphone price fatigue. Moreover, vendors need to ensure that these introductions provide clear purpose to consumers and offer strong reasons for purchase, or else they run the risk of becoming low volume, high priced niche products.