Folding phones have officially arrived but will they ever catch on?

Thanks to companies such as Samsung and LG, foldable phone leaks have been keeping the tech rumor mill spinning incessantly since at least 2015. But the honor of releasing the world's first foldable smartphone was actually taken by Royole, a lesser-known Chinese firm, last December. The FlexPai, featuring a display that could bend through 180 degrees, was a sign of things to come and the foldable phone era was finally upon us. Last week, Samsung showcased their Galaxy Fold handset followed soon after by Huawei’s offering, the Mate X. But are foldable phones just a gimmick, or are they a sign of things to come?

Can manufacturers boost sales through innovation?
For the past decade, the iconic iPhone design of a rectangular touchscreen display with rounded corners has dominated the smartphone market. Manufacturers the world over have mimicked this basic shape and style with relatively little differentiation, especially after Google’s Android operating system caught on like wildfire. This was one reason why worldwide smartphone sales actually fell last year, after almost a decade of sustained growth.

To counteract this decline, manufacturers are introducing handsets with a number of innovative features. 2019 looks set to be the year that smartphone designs will finally start to evolve, if for no other reason than to boost sales.

Foldable phones are picking up where the ZTE Axon M left off
The concept of two separate folding screens that fold around a central hinge is nothing new. The Sprint-exclusive Kyocera Echo pioneered this concept several years ago and, last February, the dual-screen ZTE Axon M enticed buyers for whom one screen wasn’t enough.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Francisco Jeronimo, a devices analyst at research group IDC, noted that “Flexible displays are opening up” avenues that weren’t previously possible. In a crowded market that has already reached saturation levels, new screen technologies are “unleashing the creativity” of phone brands, he said. While foldable phones “won’t impact sales in the short term,” they “will start impacting perception,” he said.

Foldable screens are the perfect antidote to consumer apathy
Foldable screens such as the Galaxy Fold and the Mate X are ushering in a new era of how we interact with technology. But does the market really need it?

Yes, according to Conor Pierce, corporate vice-president at Samsung UK & Ireland. Consumers “have become slightly apathetic about the same form factor over a number of years,” he noted in a recent interview. Foldable phones are the perfect way to address this apathy.

Seeing a foldable phone from a distance causes a flash of confusion, making the casual observer wonder how a standard smartphone can become a tablet in front of their eyes. But Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X are very real products that you will soon be able to buy for a very hefty price tag – both manufacturers are planning to charge over $2,000 a piece for their first generation handsets. If they deliver on just half of their potential, they may just change smartphones as we know them.

Two very different visions of a foldable future
The two main foldable phones of the moment, the Galaxy Fold and the Mate X, work in very different ways and offer contrasting visions for the future of foldable phones, almost like a Betamax vs VHS videotape format war for the smartphone era. We can no longer assume that the incumbent firm, Samsung, will reign supreme: sales data shows that Huawei is rapidly gaining on both Samsung and Apple in terms of smartphone sales.

Samsung’s Galaxy Fold
Samsung’s latest handset, the Fold, folds inwards to protect its main display, with a smaller external screen for use when the phone is closed. Interestingly, Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei's mobile business, told Business Insider that at one point, Huawei was developing a similar concept, but scrapped it due to weight issues.

Huawei’s Mate X
While the Galaxy Fold closes around its primary display to protect it, the Mate X flips the script and its display becomes the casing when the phone is closed. The Mate X is literally all screen when folded: a 6.6-inch canvas area on the front and a 6.4-inch display on the back. This makes Huawei’s phone more elegant but comes with a caveat; the Mate X’s screen is plastic as, obviously, glass doesn’t fold. This plastic display will inevitably get scratched up a lot faster than glass, and it also lacks the smooth surface texture of glass.

What unites both the Fold and the Mate X is the need for extra RAM to power the larger displays and the complicated gearing systems inside each phone’s hinges. Quite how these designs will stand up to real-world, long-term use remains to be seen, as does the durability of the Mate X’s screen.

While there is a chance that the handsets currently on display will undergo changes before they go into production, there are significant issues to work out with both handsets. With no industry-wide consensus about even something as basic as which way the phones should fold (out or in), it is difficult to envisage foldable phones going mainstream anytime soon.

Foldable screens are just one among many new innovations
A number of new handset innovations have hit the market recently, robbing foldable screen technology of some of its mystique.

LG’s cost-effective second display
LG’s V50 ThinQ includes an optional detachable second display. This creates a cost-effective alternative to the folding screen concept; users can have one phone when they want it and clip their handset into a folding shell when they need a second screen, albeit one with a large divider between each half.

Nokia's 3D depth-sensing Pureview
Nokia’s latest PureView devices boast five cameras and ‘computational photography’ thanks to a 3D depth sensor.

Oppo’s 10x telephoto camera
Oppo recently showcased their 10x telephoto lens at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, something that was previously only possible with a traditional camera.

Sony’s UHD Xperia screen
Just when all eyes were focused on foldable screens, Sony unveiled the 21:9 cinematic aspect ratio screen on their new Xperia devices, designed for ultra-high-definition widescreen video.

Could the real trend be 5G, not foldable?
During an interview with the Financial Times, Alen Wu, global vice-president of Oppo pointed out that that “5G is the biggest buzzword in telecommunications right now.” The sheer number of new products at MWC featuring 5G connectivity supported Wu’s claims.

Even Huawei’s Mate X was notable as much for its 5G capabilities as for its crazy foldable screen. 5G could potentially usher in new cloud gaming possibilities and live streaming opportunities that completely redefine how people use their phones. “Nobody can exactly predict what the world will be like when 5G is really here,” said Wu.

Foldables have a chance to build momentum
For foldable phones to escape the criticism that they are mere gimmicks, they require real-world testing to prove their worth to consumers. If the phone’s capabilities are supported by software advances that make use of the screen’s potential, there’s a real chance that folding phones could become the next big thing. Only time, and the advent of 5G, will tell.