Foldable Devices Glass Challenge

Let it be known, the challenges initially stated by many companies and industry experts, that creating a durable cover glass for foldable phones that is on par with modern smartphones today, is as difficult as initially stated. We have yet to see a folding screen device release to the public that has not come with some issues. It is important to note, this is new ground, so we should assume some bumps in the road, but these are problems worth solving. The question is who will get it right and how? We have no idea, but we know many are working hard to solve the problems of durability that are, for the moment, inherent with folding devices.

The Verge has been aggressive in their testing of the Galaxy Flip Z’s durability, as well as pressing Samsung to reveal who their supplier was. Samsung rather provided this description of the screen solution.

Galaxy Z Flip features an Infinity Flex Display with Samsung’s Ultra Thin Glass (UTG) to deliver a sleek, premium look and offer an immersive viewing experience,” a spokesperson said by email. “Samsung’s first-of-its-kind UTG technology is different from other Galaxy flagship devices. While the display does bend, it should be handled with care. Also, Galaxy Z Flip has a protective layer on top of the UTG similar to Galaxy Fold.

Interestingly, last night a company named Schott, who Ben Bajarin wrote about when he shared insights from Display Week last year, came forward as the supplier of the cover glass solution for the Galaxy Z Flip. Schott released this statement to confirm this yesterday:

“SCHOTT has been producing ultra-thin glass for more than 25 years – based on this strong heritage, we are extremely happy to help shaping the future of foldable phones with this breathtaking material. We can confirm that we deliver SCHOTT ultra-thin glass to Samsung. Kindly note that we cannot comment on any processing details of the raw glass material or the display technology itself. In case you want to learn more about Samsung’s foldable glass display technology, please reach out to them
directly.

Although Schott will not comment on the scratching issue, and they and Samsung are working to deal with this, this particular problem underscores how difficult it is to create even folding glass covers that are totally scratch-free and today it is not a perfect science.

Some of the media thought this glass cover was from Corning, but Corning put out their own release to clarify that they are working on a folding glass cover but it will not be ready for 12-18 months:

“Corning is currently working on several glass-based products that we see as the ultimate solution set for foldable device designs. To meet the everyday activities and demands of consumers, we believe that future designs will need to address durability, scratch resistance, and optical clarity – all attributes of a glass cover solution. Corning’s work in this area is focused on developing an ultra-thin, durable, and optically advantaged glass solution for the inside cover of a continuous display that can bend at a tight radius hundreds of thousands of times without significant damage at the fold. We’re actively developing these solutions and sampling them with our customers and expect the timing of commercialization to be within the next 12-18 months.” In addition, imagery of our ultra-thin, bendable glass in development can be found here.

I have had the opportunity of seeing Corning’s work on folding glass when I visited their headquarters last June. The video in the link above shows how it can fold and, more importantly, the material they are folding is actually glass and not some type of coating. From a materials science standpoint, this is not only impressive but seems to defy the laws of physics.

Corning shared with me how this particular glass was developed, and while I can’t divulge what they shared about the process or materials used, due to an NDA, I have no doubt that, as Corning says, they will have a Gorilla Glass quality covers for foldable smartphones in the near future.

To date, Samsung and many others doing folding phones or design concepts, have had issues with everything from broken hinges, glass that breaks or scratches and actual breakage after as little as 10,000 folds. I have heard many reviewers who have tested the few folding smartphones already in release, telling their audience that these products are not ready for the mass market.

Their recommendations are to wait and let the various vendors of folding smartphones work the bugs out of these first-generation models before buying them. At the moment, only the early adopters have bought these phones anyway and these buyers go into these purchases knowing that they are early models and in many ways, untested in the market.

As one who has tracked product launches for decades, all of these folding phones remind me of many early products that came to market with flaws, but in version 3 or 4, the vendors got the bugs out and finally created a model that worked. I sense that folding phones are in this same category. Early models blazed new territory but are not ready for the mass market. Besides being too expensive at first, and even though the companies have put them through rugged tests, many still can’t stand up to the rigorous daily usage they get since they have moving parts that are not perfected yet.

History suggests that in even 2nd generation models, these products could still be vulnerable and can have flaws. But historically speaking, the third generation models finally have the right components, gone through enough testing to get the bugs out and finally become ready for broader market acceptance. Once these folding smartphones are perceived as viable alternatives to mainstream smartphones, we will see if the public actually bites and they take off.

There is one other shoe that could drop that could make folding smartphones go mainstream and that is if and when Apple jumps into this market. We know they have multiple patents on folding smartphones, but as in the past, Apple seems to be sitting back and letting those who are bringing folding smartphones to the market now, take the slings and arrows from the reviewers and learn about market interest and demand vicariously.

Once they are sure there is a market, then they jump in with models that have Apple’s design language, ease of use, and tight-software integration. But even Apple is susceptible to the three times the charm metaphor. Many may not remember that the original iPhone was not a big seller and sold less than 1 million in its first year. Version 2 of the iPhone was more stable and a better version but it too was not a big hit. But the year after Apple released the 2nd version of the iPhone, they began to work aggressively with softer developers and help spur the creation of over a thousand apps by the time iPhone 3 came to market. It was the third generation iPhone that skyrocketed due to strong demand and access to new apps, and Apple continues to set iPhone sales records with their iPhone franchise.

As I have written before, we are in the very early days of foldable smartphones and I believe it is too early to forecast strong demand based on what we have seen so far. And if history repeats itself, it may take the third generation of folding smartphones to hit the market before we can see if demand is sustainable.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

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