The announcement of the first iPhone by Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) nearly a decade ago was a seminal moment in the evolution of mobile technology. Since then, mobile has seen growth and innovation like no other. The advancements in wireless technologies like 3G/4G and NFC, the rise of the mobile web, the increasing popularity of an app-based ecosystem, larger batteries, more computing power, better and larger displays, improved multimedia capabilities are just some of the innovations we have been privy to over the last decade.
However, over the last few years, there is an increasing feeling of stagnation setting in. Smartphone upgrades are increasingly becoming more iterative instead of innovative. This was epitomised by the release of the iPhone 7 last year. This iterative nature of smartphone development is especially apparent in display technology. The last major innovation in the display department was made by Samsung with the introduction of the Galaxy S6 Edge. The S6 Edge featured a curved glass display which has slowly become immensely popular; so much so that Samsung has recently decided to completely ditch flat screen variants of their flagship smartphones.
Samsung Electronics Co Ltd. (KRX:005930) remains the only major OEM adopting the curved screen look for its smartphones. The underlining trend these days seems to be bezel reduction and bezel-less smartphones. And while these are all nice features, they are merely iterative updates and not sweeping innovations.
The Foldable Smartphone Dream
Despite the mundane nature of recent smartphone upgrades, there is a silver lining on the horizon. The idea of a foldable smartphone has long since been talked about by companies and users alike for a long time. However, if Samsung Display’s Kim Tae-woong is to be believed, we may have to wait a bit more for this dream to become reality. Kim claims that “Samsung Display is expected to commercialise foldable phones in 2019”. This news is in contradiction to some earlier leaks suggesting that suggested the launch of foldable smartphones in 2017.
There are numerous reasons why foldable smartphone technology is still some ways off:-
- The Business Aspect – Companies are in no hurry to introduce foldable smartphones to the market right now. Curved glass and bezel-free displays are still immensely popular now and are in huge demand. Samsung reportedly enjoys 20% operating profits with bezel-free displays. It makes sense to launch foldable screens once sales for bezel-free displays slow down. This especially applies to Samsung after the recent Note 7 fiasco. Samsung cannot afford to take any major risks right now and need to deliver sure-shot successes.
- Technological Barrier – Despite significant advancements, foldable smartphone technology still has issues that need to be worked out. Batteries and circuits are inflexible components that need to be accounted for. The durability of these smartphones is also under question.
- Adoption Of OLED panels – Flexible displays lend themselves much better to OLED displays rather than LCD since OLED technology doesn’t rely on chips to create light. Many popular smartphones like the iPhone still use LCD displays. The rise of foldable smartphones requires more widespread OLED adoption.
- Preserving Image Quality – So far, most flexible displays that have been demoed have featured a plastic polymer screen. This raises the concern of inferior image quality and clarity when compared to glass screens. Corning’s flexible Willow Glass could be a possible solution to this issue.
- Exorbitant Pricing – Just like any cutting edge technology, foldable smartphones are likely to be extremely expensive to manufacture in the beginning. Mass consumer adoption will require prices to come down to acceptable levels.
The Chasing Pack
Samsung is not the only one investing in the idea of foldable smartphones. As we previously reported, Apple too has filed a patent for a foldable iPhone design. Other manufacturers like Nokia, LG, OPPO, Microsoft are all also developing their own designs. Current technological limitations mean that we probably won’t be seeing completely foldable smartphones in the near future. More likely, these devices will have a rigid spine holding all the components that can’t be flexed, while the rest of the device is flexible. Another possible implementation could be foldability along a set boundary allowing for “flip phone” like designs. We also previously reported on the possibility of a Samsung manufactured a foldable smartphone that unfurls into a tablet form factor.
There is a lot riding on the idea of a foldable smartphone. In the smartphone industry, it is often the company which packs the most innovation in its devices that tastes the most success. A report by Strategy Analytics claims that foldable smartphones could capture as much as 12% of the flexible display market in 2022! This would indicate that the market for foldable devices is a lucrative one, and companies will want to take advantage of this fact.
- Recent reports indicate we won’t be seeing commercially available foldable smartphones until 2019.
- Certain business and technological limitations are currently responsible for the delay in the launch of foldable smartphones.
- Major industry leaders such as Nokia, OPPO, Microsoft, LG, Samsung and Apple are all working on their own foldable mobile designs.
- We can expect rapid adoption of foldable smartphones, with a significant 20% share of the flexible display market by 2019.