The Dawn of Folding Laptops and Smartphones

In a column I wrote recently on the 25th anniversary of IBM and Lenovo’s ThinkPad, I mentioned that I had a chance to interview Mr. Arimasa Natioh, who is considered the father of the Thinkpad. He created the special Yamato, Japan lab that designed this laptop and has shepherded its design and growth from the beginning.

At the end of the interview, I asked Naitoh-San what technology he has his eye on that he sees on the horizon that could impact future designs of the ThinkPad? He said that he believed that someday the technology would be available that would allow them to create a foldable laptop that perhaps could even fit in your pocket.

When he made this comment, I have to admit that my first reaction to this idea is that if this technology could ever become available, it would probably be at least another ten years into the future.

However, the idea of a foldable laptop or even a foldable smartphone intrigued me, and so I got on the phone last week with key suppliers I know in Asia and asked them about this idea and what their thoughts were on this concept. To my surprise, they told me that they are working on foldable OLED screens now and that they could have them ready for the market as early as early 2019.

This idea is not new and has been pretty much a vision for mobile manufacturers for some time. Indeed, Samsung has hinted that they could have a foldable smartphone on the market by late 2018. But when I heard these comments or rumors on this concept of foldable products I pretty much saw this as something much farther out in the future and not actually on the horizon.

It appears from talking to a couple of suppliers that indeed both smartphone and laptop computer makers are now seriously focused on finding ways to design new types of products that could take advantage of a foldable OLED screen. They even have a term of endearment to describe this kind of screen and call it FOLED.

Most smartphone and laptop vendors are feverishly trying to come up with multiple product ideas or concepts that could take advantage of this new component. Now I admit that I am still a bit skeptical that they can create a foldable OLED screen in this rumored time frame, but I no longer think that this is a pipe dream or that it is ten years out in the future.

At the laptop level I think Naitoh-San’s idea that a laptop could be designed to fit in your pocket could be highly futuristic, but I could imagine a laptop that today has a 13 inch screen being folded in half, which would make it much smaller to cart around and even be lighter and thinner in the not too distant future. And the idea of a foldable smartphone with as much as a 7” screen being folded and still fitting in a pocket now seems more feasible shortly.

What is most intriguing to me about the idea of a FOLED screen is that it gives laptop vendors and smartphone makers a utterly new component that they can let their imaginations run wild with and start a new round of innovation around mobile computing designs.
While a 7-8inch smartphone in its current format sounds ridiculous today, if it can be folded in half and fit comfortably in a pocket or purse and then unfolded so that it could turn into more of a tablet, it could move the smartphone into the realm of a serious productivity tool.

And if new laptops with FOLED screens could become smaller to carry around and made, even more, portable, especially in a 2-in-1 detachable format, it could change the way people work with their laptops in the future so that they become more versatile yet still deliver the kind of power needed for high-level productivity tasks.

Now I admit that while I do study design concepts for mobile as part of my research, I am pretty lousy at actually forecasting innovative designs. But I can imagine that if you give Jony Ive at Apple or the design gurus at most smartphone and PC makers a new palette of components to work with such as a folding OLED screen, they could turn out some pretty amazing new mobile products shortly.

Given the possible evolution, FOLED screens could deliver to mobile designers; I suspect that the current notion that tech companies are no longer innovating may fall by the wayside fast. And knowing that this type of component is just around the corner makes me even more excited about our mobile future and how these new products could impact our more mobile lifestyle.

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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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