Fold­able phone on the hori­zon

New Straits Times - - SUNDAY VIBES / SAVVY -

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.


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