Samsung’s Flexible Display Smartphone Gamble

I attended last week’s Samsung Developer conference in San Francisco and saw them introduce the first flexible smartphone from a major player. If you follow my columns here on Techpinions, you know that I have been writing about flexible displays since I saw the first ones from BOE displayed at the Society of Displays (SID) conference in L.A. last May.

That design caused quite a stir at this show and proved that, at least in concept, display vendors like BOE could create a display that folds and, in turn, helps smartphone vendors create the equivalent of a smartphone/tablet like device for the first time. While Samsung did not show their flexible display publicly at SID, they were showing it to vendors in private suites and declaring that they too would supply folding displays for use in these multi-mode devices.

Although Samsung had publicly shared they were doing a flexible phone for months, last week’s developer conference was the devices coming out party. This new smartphone and tablet device is slated to ship before next summer, and it is estimated that it could be priced as high as $1700 in the US. Samsung expects to make about a million of these devices in its first year, and I suspect they will have a pretty big marketing campaign behind it when it officially launches.

While I applaud Samsung’s innovations with this new design, I am concerned that this is a big gamble for them in the short term. At the moment, I have seen no credible research that shows that consumers want a device like this. And with a 1 million run and potential pricing as high as $1700, only industry competitors and early adopters will buy them in this first iteration of a folding smartphone.

One significant risk for them is that this phone could serve as a way to verify the market for not only themselves but also competitors. At the very least it will test the waters for consumer interest. At worst, if they are successful and draw real interest, you can bet Apple, Huawei, and other top-level smartphone makers will follow suit. Apple has a history of letting others create a new product category and watch it develop and if it shows promise, they apply their design genius and tie it to their ecosystem of hardware mfg and supply chain management as well as their apps and services and even though a latecomer, Apple is known to quickly surpass the competition and become the volume leader with their own flexible smartphone/tablet product in the future.

But the thing that I am deeply concerned about with this Samsung Flexible device is that in its first generation, the product is not good and has serious flaws. That is the type of thing that will impact its acceptance, and if it delivers a mediocre to poor experience, it could poison the market for a device like this for years.

One fundamental flaw may be in their use of a plastic cover. Plastic is known to scratch and is more breakable then something like Corning’s Gorilla Glass that has proven to be an excellent cover for smartphones today. Samsung says they invented a new polymer for use in their cover for this device but gave little details on how scratch resistant and unbreakable it will be.

Another big hurdle for its success is software. The current mobile software would not work on a folding screen that stretches to as much as 9 inches when unfolded and would need serious support from software developers to work correctly. Samsung made this clear at their developer’s conference and planned to introduce an API for developers so they can modify software for a flexible device. I talked to a couple of developers who were impressed with the design of this flexible device but were not convinced it would be worth creating software for it unless they saw it selling in the multi-millions. Call it the proverbial Chicken and Egg problem magnified.

One last thing that concerns me is that ODM’s I talk to say that manufacturing flexible displays in volume is not easy. Yield rates are low now and it is not clear when they can perfect this type of display. Also, creating the flexible mechanics around this design is a not easy task either. There is a serious issue related to things like its bendable framework as well as creating the type of mobile motherboard design inside so that it too can flex thousands of times with complicated electronics on board.

The new Samsung foldable smartphone/tablet has potential, but there are many obstacles on its way to success. Samsung is known for creating quality products, so I do not doubt that when they ship this first device, it will be a relatively stable product. I hope for them and the industry that what is delivered is good enough to spur further exploration of this design. I do think it is a game changer and could spur a lot of smartphone refreshes in the next decade. But if this first version underperforms, it could deal a setback to these type of combo devices for some time, even if there is serious interest in this type of smartphone and tablet design.

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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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