Foldable phones to lead flexible screen frontier

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SA will see foldable or flexible screen devices gaining traction in the next 12-18 months.
SA will see foldable or flexible screen devices gaining traction in the next 12-18 months.

Foldable phones, set to be the biggest smartphone trend of 2019, will lead to a new iteration of tablets, laptops, notebooks and TV sets with flexible displays.

This is according to ICT analysts, discussing the foldable and flexible displays that are expected to lead the next mobile frontier and move into other gadgets, as the technology progresses.

At Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2019 and Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019, vendors showcased the first-generation smartphones with flexible screens that can be rolled out to the size of a tablet, or folded down to smartwatch size, signalling that foldable is the way of the future.

One of the featured devices was the Royole FlexPai, billed as the first fully-flexible smartphone in the world.

Last month, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Fold, a smartphone with a flexible display that folds onto itself from 0- to 180-degrees and can be used folded or unfolded. When folded, the device has a slim 4.6-inch display and opens to become a 7.3-inch display tablet.

A few days later, Chinese tech conglomerate Huawei announced its Mate X, a 5G-enabled foldable phone that opens seamlessly from a 6.6-inch screen to an 8-inch tablet.

The Galaxy Fold will be available in April or May, with an expected price tag of $1 980 (R28 000). The Mate X will be available later this year for roughly EUR2 299 (R36 500). Both phones will be priced much higher locally, as import duties and mark-up will have to be incorporated.

The flexible screen trend is expected to gain momentum as manufacturers release tablets, notebooks, laptops and TVs in the new form factor.

While these devices are expected to bring a greater user experience for both work and entertainment purposes, experts express scepticism regarding the durability of the flexible display and the hefty price tag.

"As the designers perfect the foldable phone, we will start seeing more innovative ideas around this concept," says Ernst Wittmann, global account director MEA and country manager Southern Africa of phone manufacturer TCL Communications.

"We will start seeing changes in the traditional block-style mobile phones, tablets and notebooks, where the device size will be halved when in its folded state, but double in size when in the open state. As the foldable designs mature, we will see wearable products also evolving into this new and exciting form factor."

The idea of a foldable product is to provide a comfortable design when carried around in the pocket or briefcase; however, the user may be in constant fear of ending up with a broken screen, Wittmann adds.

Strategy Analytics forecasts global sales of 1.2 million foldable phones this year, which will rise to 64.9 million phones in 2023.

"With a mere 3.5% of projected global smartphone sales in 2023, this forecast signals that the foldable phone will be a specialist device for a while yet," notes Wittmann.

The iconic Motorola RAZR is rumoured to be re-launching this year as a smartphone with a foldable screen.

Chinese electronics company Xiaomi recently revealed a prototype tablet that can fold up into a phone, while Samsung has collaborated with display makers to develop laptops with foldable displays that use active-matrix organic light-emitting diode.

The Huawei Mate X.
The Huawei Mate X.

Welcome innovation refresh

Arnold Ponela, research analyst for mobile devices, image printing and document solutions for South and Sub-Saharan Africa at IDC, says the foldable device concept brings fresh innovation in an industry that had run out of creativity.

"Mobile phone innovations had hit a cliff and there were no ground-breaking innovations. Foldable phones have led the smartphone industry into a new era of an innovative form factor," he adds.

"Consumers are interested in large screen sizes but still want portable phones; hence, foldable phones make it possible to have a large display which you can fold in half and it becomes as portable as a smartphone. While the folding display offers a bigger workspace, immense mobility and convenience, among the cons is the thick and heavy size of the device, because as the screen size increases, it needs a bigger battery and additional hardware to run the system."

Siyathemba Magobiane, senior ICT consultant at Frost & Sullivan, points out that while the practical use cases of the foldable devices are unclear, the flexible display aims to create a state where phones can become tablets and tablets can become phones.

"The trend currently is more towards providing the consumer with the possibility to use a foldable device as a tablet with multi-tasking capability, and then fold it into portable phone that can fit into their pocket.

"While it still remains to be seen how foldable phones and tablets will be received by potential consumers, there has been concern among some analysts about durability and clarity of these displays."

The high price tag makes it unlikely they will be in direct competition to smartphones, with feature phones still being highly in demand, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, he notes.

The Samsung Galaxy Fold.
The Samsung Galaxy Fold.

Future of foldables

Dion Chang, trends expert and founder of trend research and consulting company Flux Trends, says the foldable concept has evolved beyond handheld devices into huge, flexible TV screens that allow the user to roll down or hide their TV sets.

One such product is LG's roll-able OLED TV, which was revealed at CES 2019. The concept foldable form factor has also birthed a new breed of wearable flexible display devices, he adds.

"At MWC 2019, smartphone provider Nubia unveiled a finished version of its alpha concept wearable device with a 4-inch, flexible, organic light-emitting diode display screen that wraps around the user's wrist. The device has smartphone connectivity and other features. The only question is whether this is just innovation for innovation's sake, or is there a real problem that these flexible displays are resolving."

Chang forecasts that in the next 12-18 months, we will see a wide range of foldable screen devices gaining traction in SA.

When Google's smart glasses, Google Glass, was first introduced, everybody thought it was the coolest innovation; however, it ended up being used mainly by corporates for training purposes, he notes.

"The big thing here is innovation reputation: many of these manufacturers just want to be the first to introduce these technologies to the market. And when these devices are rolled out, we need to assess if there is a real requirement for them, especially because price will be a huge factor that determines who uses them."

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