Foldable phones could be the game-changer the industry needs

by Peter Griffin / 05 February, 2019
Photo/Getty Images

Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Foldable phones

Foldable phones are finally pocket-ready as the industry hits the upgrade button – but they won’t come cheap.

Do you want a foldable phone? That’s the question that could make or break the smartphone industry this year as its biggest players finalise phone models that open like a book to reveal a screen with the Holy Grail of flexible screen design – a seamless join.

Samsung’s foldable “F” will be the leading contender this year, though it won’t be the first onto the market. That honour goes to Royole’s FlexPai, unveiled last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

One reviewer described it as “charmingly awful”. It is chunky and the software appeared glitchy in demos, failing to reformat properly as the phone was opened and closed.

Huawei and LG have foldable phones in the works. Even Motorola’s classic Razr phone is tipped to return as a foldable.

Foldable screen prototypes have been around for ages, but it has taken a long time to get them ready for prime time. The key engineering challenge has been developing a hinge overlaid with a high-resolution display and protective glass that can stand being flexed hundreds of thousands of times during the phone’s lifespan.

Even with the Samsung F ready to debut, it is yet to be seen how the fold will stand up to the rigours of intensive day-to-day use and the weird and varied pressures people will place on it in the real world.

What’s the point of a foldable screen? Chiefly, it solves the current problem of increasing phone size to accommodate more screen real estate. Phone displays have become ridiculously large as people seek to use them for watching videos and playing games.

With a durable hinge under the screen’s centre and flexible glass, you can produce a modest-sized phone that expands to a roomy screen when unfolded. It also gives greater scope for multitasking. With enough room for two panes, you could have Twitter and your email open on one screen and a video playing on the other.

Unfolding first: Royole’s FlexPai.

Augmented reality could receive a boost on a foldable screen. The technology uses your camera to display a video feed of the real world in front of your screen, but overlaid with virtual objects, as popularised by the mobile game Pokémon Go. I’ve always preferred using AR on the roomier iPad. Unfolded, a smartphone will offer a more impressive AR experience.

Other functions will emerge as app makers redevelop their software to accommodate foldable phones and flipping between screen formats. Phone operating systems will also have to change. Google has already developed foldable compatibility for its Android operating system.

Microsoft is also working on a version of Windows 10 for the slew of foldable computers and tablets that are expected to follow foldable smartphones into the market.

Indeed, Microsoft itself is rumoured to have developed a foldable version of its Surface tablet-cum-laptop, codenamed Centaurus, tipped for release next year – reviving its ambitions of a decade ago, when it developed the Courier, a 7-inch dual-screen tablet that never made it to market and was consigned to irrelevancy months later when the first iPad debuted and kick-started tablet computing.

Renewed interest in foldables is driven more by economic imperative than users asking for a flexible screen. Smartphone sales are shrinking as people hold onto their phones for longer. Apple has had to revise down its sales forecast for the iPhone. Samsung’s shares have slumped as fears grow that its Galaxy line is running out of steam.

The phone industry needs a hit of innovation to restart that upgrade cycle again. Foldables have a reasonable chance of succeeding in the long term. But one thing is for sure, they won’t come cheap in the next couple of years.

What comes after foldable? They are already in the works and the laundry theme continues with patents already filed for rollable and stretchable phones.

This article was first published in the February 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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