Is There a Market for Folding Smartphones?

Last May I attended the Display Conference in Los Angeles where multiple display vendors showed their early versions of foldable and flexible displays. The most impressive prototype I saw came from Chinese display maker BOE and was a foldable smartphone that morphed into a mini-tablet when opened.

Early last fall, Samsung used their developers’ conference in San Francisco to give us a peek at their first foldable smartphone and last week it was officially announced at their UnPacked event. The new Samsung foldable phone is called the Galaxy Fold.

While foldable smartphones break new ground and maybe the next big innovative step in smartphone design, it begs the question of whether there is a market for a foldable phone today and in the future. Samsung is the first to test these waters and Huawei, Oppo, ZTE, Royale, and others will bring similar products to the market later this year.

At first, they will be costly. Samsung’s Galaxy fold starts at $1980. Huawei’s is priced at $2600. I suspect most of the early versions coming from competitors will be priced in these ranges too. This is par for the course of most early models when new designs and innovative products come to market. And over time, with more competition, prices will come down.

It is too early to tell if there is a market for foldable phones that double as a small tablet when opened, especially given the size of the screen in tablet mode. I was at the AllThingsD conference when Steve Jobs dissed a tablet under 9.7 inches, and even though Apple has introduced its own smaller iPad, it has not been a big seller for them. A smartphone that serves as a tablet too is the feature that I question real interest from consumers.

On the surface, the business case is that an unfolded smartphone would give users more screen real estate to watch movies, videos and could even be used for productivity apps. But if the smaller tablets have not been big hits as standalone tablets, would users flock to foldable phones, so they have a pocketable tablet? To me, that is the big question. Yes, the idea of a dual-purpose smartphone is intriguing, but I am unsure that a small tablet is enough to get people to go out and buy a foldable smartphone at any price.

However, I sense two important things are happening with the introduction of foldable devices.

The first is that we finally see innovative new designs and approaches to smartphones and that is a welcomed development. While smartphones have become smarter and more versatile since the iPhone set the tone for smartphone design in 2007, all products after that were in the same design mold.

Foldable screens give vendors a new palette of materials to work with that should set off a new design battle that will make smartphones different than in the past.

The second is that I sense that a foldable smartphone will define the next ten years of smartphone design and innovation. It will set off a decade of unique phone designs because of new types of screens and materials that make it possible for smartphones to most likely morph into new device forms, allowing for new kinds of applications and services.

A good example of this type of foldable innovation, beyond what we have seen from Samsung, Huawei, Oppo, and Royale is a new Razr coming from Motorola. They have filed a patent for a flip phone that has a foldable display. In this case, it gives the user a smaller pocketable design, yet when unfolded, they get a 5 or 6-inch screen to work with.

With a flexible screen, another design could see the light of day. How about a smartwatch on your wrist? Nubia has shown off a smartphone that fist on your wrist and sports a 4-inch screen. As you can see from the picture below, the screen is very wide, and it uses a custom Android-based OS. That should mean that apps may be needed to be designed just for this wrist bases smartphone, which would be a challenge in its own right. But it is another good example of how a folding screen can be used in new and innovative designs.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that smartphone designs in their current formats have been innovative with the addition of better cameras, more memory, faster processors, etc. But with foldable displays, and things like 3D cameras, AR and VR feature added to the smartphones of this next decade, we are on the cusp of a new era in smartphones that will drive the next design leap of mobile and handheld computing innovation.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *