Foldable phone on the horizon
The concept of a flexible or foldable phone has been around for some time now. After many years of false promises, it looks like the dawn of foldable phones is finally arriving soon. I’m talking about next year. Last week at its developer conference, Samsung unveiled its Infinity
Flex Display, which it calls “the foundation of the smartphone of tomorrow”. It was an unusual reveal though, with much of it shrouded in secrecy. The company actually cut the lights when showing its phone which was semi-hidden in a case, lest those present got too good a look at the secretive device.
What was revealed was that when unfolded, the device looks like a 7.3 inch (18.5 cm) tablet and when closed, a smaller cover display on the handset’s other side comes into play. The display is OLED and the cover is made of a composite polymer (basically a kind of plastic) rather than glass because glass doesn’t bend. Apparently, the new polymer allows the phone to be bent “hundreds of thousands of times” without degrading. The company said it plans to start production within months.
The journey to this point has been a long one, roughly a decade long. In 2008, the company for the first time unveiled an OLED screen that was bendable and by 2011, it actually showed off a prototype phone that had a foldable display. By 2013, the product actually had a name: “Youm” but apparently there were issues with protecting the screen from moisture and air damage and no such phone was launched.
In 2014, Samsung posted a video showing a concept for a foldable phone with a small display on the outside (somewhat similar in concept to what was unveiled last week). By 2015, a foldable phone codenamed “Project Valley” was supposed to be in the works. Fast forward three years and we still don’t have a foldable phone although it now finally seems to be really around the corner. Samsung could very well launch it by the Mobile World Congress in February 2019.
Samsung is by far not the only phone-maker trying to come out with a foldable phone. Its Chinese rival, Huawei, is hot on its tracks and is scrambling to come out with its own foldable phone. Even less is known about Huawei’s foldable phone although in March patent diagrams of Huawei’s device emerged. It showed a book-like phone that can be opened up to create a larger tablet (not much different from Samsung’s concept).
Although there is close to zero information about an Apple foldable phone, you can’t rule this out. Last November, it was revealed that Apple had filed a patent for “Electronic Devices with Flexible Displays”.
Actually, a relatively unknown Chinese company called Royole had recently unveiled an actual working foldable phone which it calls FlexPai (also a dual-screen phone). Early reviews have been negative with reviewers calling the device bulky and very much “first generation” with a slowish and buggy operating system.
Many observers conclude that the Royole will be a bit player in the foldable phone game and it will be what Samsung, Huawei and Apple come out with that matters.
What Royole has proven though is that foldable phones can be made. But just because something can be done doesn’t always mean it should be. Does the world need a foldable phone? Like most things in life, there are pros and cons involved. Let’s have a closer look at them.
1. The most obvious one is that we will soon have phones with considerably bigger screen sizes — basically double what you are used to today. That is a radical change.
2. The phone should also be tougher than the glass-display phones of today simply because plastic is more durable and not to mention flexible. Shattered phone screens should be a thing of the past.
3. With the new design should come new ways of using a phone. For watching videos or playing games, you can suddenly have a decent-sized screen akin to a tablet. You could also do more multitasking.
4. Productivity could also improve with one side of the display being a virtual keyboard for example, allowing for faster and more accurate typing. Then, for once, the phone can be used as a content creation device rather than just a content consumption device.
1. It’s fairly safe to assume that colours will not be as good on foldable phones simply because plastic display can never match glass displays in terms of colour performance. But you never know with technology. Perhaps one of the phone makers might come up with a new polymer that will actually display colours brilliantly.
2. You can also assume a slower frame rate (the frequency at which text, picture, video, are displayed) for the same reason — plastic displays cannot perform as well as glass ones. Again, the constant march of technology might fix that problem though.
3. It’s a safe bet that a foldable phone will be very expensive at first. In time, that price will drop but only if there is a huge uptake of such phones by the public. If it’s a failure, the price will remain high.
So, are foldable phones a good idea? That is very hard to say in the absence of actual products that we can try, touch and feel. But the phone industry has been stagnant for many years in terms of new product design.
A foldable phone would be a radical departure from the norm and potentially something that could stimulate consumer interest in phones again. Currently worldwide sales of phones have fallen for practically all phone brands.
Excitement over a new design would cool down very fast though if it doesn’t also come with new features and added usefulness. It must offer consumers new ways of doing things or it will soon be viewed as an expensive gimmick.
oon yeoh IS A CONSULTANT WITH EXPERIENCES IN PRINT, ONLINE AND MOBILE MEDIA. REACH HIM AT OONYEOH@ GMAIL.COM future prOOf