Market Questions for Foldable Devices

In June of 2018, I attended the annual Society of Information Display Conference in Los Angeles, and I saw prototypes of foldable displays from BOE, a Chinese display manufacturer. I got to play with a folding phone that used their flexible display and wrote that the era of foldable smartphones was on the horizon.

I was very impressed with the conceptual idea of a folding phone, and since then, Samsung has brought a version to market that had a bumpy start but is now scheduled to deliver their “fixed” foldable phone later this month.

To date, most of the foldable phones that are being designed are created to fold in half from the center out. The idea behind this is that when unfolded, the screen goes from a single 6.0-inch screen to one that when opened, can have a screen that diagonally reaches up to 10 inches, thus creating a kind of mini-tablet.

The other folding smartphone design is one that has been shown by Motorola, and it folds in half, from top to bottom. While this design does not add a larger screen surface that one gets in a smartphone that folds out from the center, it allows for a bigger screen, and when folded in half, it is a smaller form factor that is easier to carry around.

While these new foldable phones are an engineering marvel, there is one big question about folding smartphones that have not been answered. That question is if there is an actual market or business case for folding smartphones and if there will be any real demand by a mainstream mobile phone user?

I wrote about this in detail in my Tech.pinions column in April of this year and laid out the fact that the jury is out on whether these folding phones are an anomaly or represent a real market opportunity.

In talking with two folding display vendors recently, they told me that it is unlikely that they will make the kind of investments needed to expand their foldable display manufacturing lines given the demand for more mainstream displays, especially OLED displays, that are in high demand and very profitable.

In fact, BOE, who showed me their first foldable display in mid-2018, has just landed a lucrative contract with Apple to work on OLED displays for them. The display vendors tell me that the next big demand in displays will be for OLED in premium phones and then as they ramp up their manufacturing lines to create them in greater numbers, we will see OLED displays in mid-range smartphones as early as 2021.

I do love the ingenuity and technical designs of a foldable smartphone, but I am just not convinced that they will ever garner real demand by mainstream users. Most likely they will remain a product that attracts early adopters and some verticals and no-one else.

On the other hand, I am becoming more bullish on folding laptops. In May, Lenovo introduced their first foldable in their Thinkpad X1 line of laptops. I got to spend some real hands-on time with it in May and again recently at a private event in North Carolina. This is still a prototype, but it was designed by Lenovo’s stellar Yamoto, Japan labs, the group that created the solid Thinkpad line of laptops.

I have tracked laptops since their entry into the market in 1985 and have a good feel for these products design and functionality. This new Lenovo foldable and two others that will be introduced later this year or early next year could represent the next big step in portable computing.

To get a look at how the Lenovo X1 foldable works, check out this video from the Verge.

The keyboard on this foldable PC is external so to use it you would stand the unfolded laptop up and place the Bluetooth keyboard in front of it. Surprisingly, this works well and is not at all an odd configuration.

In the folded mode, it feels like a book. Unfold it, and it is a large tablet. The more I got to play with it, the more I began to realize that this design for portable computing could be a game-changer.

At first, it will be way too expensive for the mass market and instead will find its ways into vertical markets where I suspect it will get serious interest initially. Over time, if the prices come down, it could find a niche market with road warriors and executives who want the ultimate in portability and will be willing to pay the premium prices for this type of mobile computing experience.

The cost of the foldable display in a laptop is close to triple the price of a foldable display in a smartphone, and making them in large volumes is not really in the cards for these specialty display manufacturers, at least in the near future.

While I believe that foldable laptops may fair better than foldable smartphones, at best I see them eventually being only about 10-12% of laptops shipped by 2022.

At this point of our research, and with what we know of other foldable laptops in the works, I sense there will be greater interest in this foldable form factor over folding smartphones and, at the very least, will help drive new innovation with laptops for mobile users in the future.

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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