The basic shape of the smartphone has remained remarkably steady for nearly a decade. Screens have increased in size, bezels have shrunk, home buttons (and headphone jacks) have disappeared, but if you spotted someone across the room using a smartphone in 2009, it would look very much like someone using a smartphone in 2019.
That will change in 2019 and 2020, as a host of phone manufacturers, set free by bendable AMOLED screens — and made semi-desperate by flat or falling global smartphone sales — are set to roll out smartphones that can unfold into tablets, and then fold back down into something resembling a very thick smartphone.
There are already at least three foldable phones on the horizon this month. Of those, the most significant is Samsung’s foldable phone, rumored to be called either the Galaxy X or the Galaxy F. At the Annual Developer Conference in San Francisco in November, the device was shown onstage, but dim lighting and a stage-managed presentation meant that we only got a vague notion of what the phone would look like. More will likely be revealed at Samsung Unpacked event on February 20, where Samsung will roll out its 2019 lineup of Galaxy phones, but early rumors put the foldable phone at around $2,000, making even Apple’s highest-end phones seem like a bargain.
There’s Royole’s FlexPai, which was shown off at CES. Royole, founded by Stanford engineering grads, is first to the market, already selling the FlexPai in China for of 8,999 yuan, or around $1,300. (Americans can buy a developer’s version for about the same price.) Those who’ve gotten hands-on time with it have been less than impressed — the FlexPai may fold down, but folded down it’s a very, very bulky piece of hardware.
Meanwhile, Lenovo is set to relaunch the Motorola Razr brand with a flip phone of sorts, but with a fully foldable screen inside. The phone hasn’t been shown yet, but per The Wall Street Journal, it would cost around $1,500 and be a Verizon exclusive.
Xiaomi, a Chinese phone manufacturer relatively unknown in the U.S. but with major traction in China and Europe, had president Bin Lin playing with a working prototype that uses more of a trifold presentation. The video above, originally posted on Chinese social network Weibo, was more tease than actual pitch, with Xiaomi seemingly wanting to test the waters for enthusiasm for the phone.
So what to make of all this? First, the price point that foldable smartphones are settling into, at least for this first generation, is eye-watering. Even the cheapest foldable phone so far will cost more than Apple’s priciest iPhone. If foldables prove to be a hit with buyers, the manufacturing-cost curve on the ultraflexible AMOLED screens would likely drop, but it’s not clear that prices would fall for consumers. Samsung in particular needs a phone with fat profit margins — it sells the most phones of any manufacturer in the world, but even its flagships are sold on much thinner margins than its main competitor Apple can command.
Given that phone manufacturers tend to follow each other’s moves closely, it’s likely that more foldables will be announced and released before the end of 2019. Which leads to the next question: Who is the buyer for a foldable phone? Someone who wants the screen size of a tablet, but with something that they can wedge into their pocket? Would, say, an 8-inch-square screen be worth an extra $1,000 to a phone buyer?
Another factor: AMOLED screens can bend, but lithium-ion batteries can’t. How much battery life will foldables have, considering one of the biggest drains on a phone’s life is powering the screen?
And while the gee-whiz form factor will be major selling point, how will that form factor work out? Today’s larger phone barely fit in pants pockets, and it seems unlikely even a tucked-up foldable will slip easily into a pair of jeans. If your foldable phone also requires a bag to carry it, how much is that folding action really getting you?
Of course, plenty of people were skeptical of phablets when they first hit the market in 2011 and 2012 — did people really need phones with screens bigger than the iPhone 4’s 3.5-inch display? Yes, it turns out, they very much did, especially as 4G data speeds meant that streaming video over data signals was a real possibility.
It may turn out that foldables could find their own sweet spot — or possibly even supplant that rectangle of screen that we’ve known as the smartphone, given enough time and consumer enthusiasm. Or foldables may be more like what happened as flat-screen HDTVs started to stall out in growth, and manufacturers turned to curved screens as a way to try to spur new sales. After a year or two of curiosity, curved screens disappeared, the price of TVs continued to fall, and television manufacturing continued to be a very difficult industry to be in.