Smart­phone mak­ers hop­ing to put flex­i­ble screens in fold

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Money - By Michael Liedtke

SAN FRAN­CISCO — For the past few years, the smart­phone in­dus­try has been search­ing for a break­through to re­vive a mar­ket mired in an in­no­va­tion lull and a sales slump. A po­ten­tial cat­a­lyst is on the hori­zon in the form of flex­i­ble screens that can be folded in half with­out break­ing.

Sam­sung and sev­eral ri­vals are pre­par­ing to roll out such screens to make de­vices more ver­sa­tile for work and plea­sure. The fold­able screens could in­crease dis­play space to the size of a mini-tablet, but fold like a wal­let so they re­vert to the size of reg­u­lar phones.

But there are ques­tions about price and dura­bil­ity.

If the new phones ful­fill their mak­ers’ am­bi­tions, they will be­come a leap ahead for an in­dus­try whose ori­gins can be traced to the old flip phones that con­sumers once em­braced as cool and con­ve­nient. Fold­able-screen phones, though, won’t need hinges be­cause they have con­tin­u­ous dis­plays that can bend.

In an in­di­ca­tion of how dif­fi­cult it is to make a flex­i­ble screen that’s also durable, Sam­sung first an­nounced plans to build a fold­ing-screen phone five years ago. It wasn’t un­til Wed­nes­day, though, that Sam­sung fi­nally pro­vided a glimpse at what it’s been work­ing on.

“We have been liv­ing in a world where the size of a screen could only be as large as the de­vice it­self,” said Justin Deni­son, Sam­sung’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent of mo­bile prod­uct mar­ket­ing. “We have just en­tered a new di­men­sion.”

Ex­cept for a fleet­ing look at a de­vice he held in a hand, Deni­son pro­vided scant in­for­ma­tion about the phone. Sam­sung says it will be ready to hit the mar­ket at some point next year. Cal­i­for­nia-based Roy­ole Corp. hopes to be­gin sell­ing its FlexPai fold­able-screen phone, which can be folded like a wal­let, next month in China. It will sell for about $1,300.

Smart­phone mak­ers are look­ing for some­thing to ex­cite con­sumers as they re­place phones less of­ten be­cause new mod­els are pricey and aren’t that much dif­fer­ent from their pre­de­ces­sors be­yond slightly bet­ter cam­eras and bat­ter­ies.

That’s the main rea­son world­wide smart­phone sales have fallen from the pre­vi­ous year for four con­sec­u­tive quar­ters, ac­cord­ing to IDC. Add it all up, and smart­phone sales de­clined by 4 per­cent dur­ing 12 months end­ing in Septem­ber. Sam­sung, the world’s lead­ing seller of smart­phones, suf­fered a 7 per­cent de­cline in ship­ments dur­ing that pe­riod, based on IDC’s cal­cu­la­tions.

But it’s not clear whether flex­i­ble-screen phones will have mass ap­peal, es­pe­cially when the bendy de­vices are ex­pected to cost more than $1,000.

Roy­ole Corp., a small Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pany, is hop­ing to sell early ver­sions of its FlexPai fold­able­screen phone for $1,300 to $1,500 once it comes to the U.S. — some­thing that won’t hap­pen un­til next year, at the ear­li­est.

For now, it will be avail­able in China start­ing next

month, at a price equiv­a­lent to about $1,300.

While the idea of a de­vice be­ing able to bend into dif­fer­ent shapes may sound good, IDC an­a­lyst Ra­mon Lla­mas is skep­ti­cal about how prac­ti­cal and durable they will be.

One of the big­gest ques­tions is whether the qual­ity of the screens will de­grade as they get re­peat­edly folded.

“Are peo­ple re­ally go­ing to want to watch a Net­flix show on these de­vices if there is a crease down the mid­dle of it?” Lla­mas said.

Roy­ole said its FlexPai can be bent more than 200,000 times with­out de­te­ri­o­rat­ing.

Other fold­able-screen phones run­ning Google’s An­droid soft­ware are ex­pected to be avail­able too.

Huawei con­firmed last month that it is work­ing on a phone with a flex­i­ble screen.

LG Elec­tron­ics is widely ex­pected to un­veil one at the CES gadget show in Las Ve­gas in Jan­uary.

“Ev­ery­one has been think­ing about the same ques­tion: ‘What’s next? Is there noth­ing more from a smart­phone?’ ” Roy­ole CEO Bill Liu said.

MICHAEL LIEDTKE/AP

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