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Bend me, fold me, any way you want me

Read time 7min 20sec

Is it just me or have smartphones got boring in recent years? It feels like we’ve reached a plateau of innovation and each new iteration has featured slightly improved camera resolution, faster chipsets, brighter or higher definition screens and more storage. It’s like the basic evolution boxes are being ticked, but nothing that really grabs you by the collar and screams ‘be excited’ is being created. Could it be that there was so much innovation in the smartphone category in the early years, that the black glass slab is the pinnacle of perfection?

Not afraid to push the boundaries, Samsung did make a splash in 2019 when it launched a foldable smartphone in its hugely popular Galaxy range. Unfortunately, having handed out review models to selected press, it was soon discovered that in the real world, the screens couldn’t stand up to the pressure placed upon them, and they cracked down the middle. And that’s not been the end of the woes either. Samsung’s subsequent Galaxy Z Flip and Motorola’s Razr foldable devices both suffered screen cracks once out in the market. But these setbacks haven’t dented vendors’ enthusiasm, or, more likely, deterred them from trying to realise some of the heavy investments they’ve already ploughed into R&D over recent years. Foldable screens were the talk of CES last year, with Lenovo, Dell and TCL all showcasing laptops sporting the tech. In December, Lenovo was the first to launch a foldable laptop, the ThinkPad X1 Fold, into the local market, albeit for pre-order, with models expected to be in the country in Q1 this year. Moving the dynamic screen category on, CES this year saw rollable smartphones on show from the likes of LG, TCL and OPPO. While foldable devices typically open out like a book (although OPPO’s concept trifold model, designed in partnership with Japan’s Nendo, has two folds elongating the device), rollable devices grow from one side, magically extending the screen size.

Factors for success

Moving beyond the brittle screens, there are a number of factors at play behind the likelihood of success of these new screen types, says Ranjit Atwal, research director, Gartner.

“The foldable screen is still limited in terms of utility or the satisfaction you'll get from that type of device. WhatsApp tried to do something different on a foldable screen with its applications; there was a multidimensional type of interface and that becomes interesting in terms of how to use the real estate. But most app developers haven't gone in that direction.”

Lenovo’s country GM Thibault Dousson was able to get one of the first X1 Fold devices in the country, and has been using it as his primary PC for a couple of months. He’s impressed with the versatility and doesn’t think applications will be an issue for the foldable laptop category. Running Windows 10, the device is more attuned to having multiple application tiles open at the same time. And, he says, in that scenario having a foldable screen makes sense.

“You can have it as a split screen (like a laptop) or just one screen (like a tablet). Or when you split the screen like a book, you could have, say, Excel open on one side and your banking app open on the other, or Netflix and Twitter. Based on my experience, there are more than enough apps to take advantage of the foldable screen,” says Dousson.

Thibault Dousson, Lenovo
Thibault Dousson, Lenovo

Bigger than a foldable smartphone, the folded X1 is about the size of a Moleskin notebook and opens to a screen of 13.3”, making it much more portable compared to a traditional laptop. There’s also a Bluetooth keyboard that fits neatly into the folded device for storage. Dousson says he can easily fit the device into the cubby of his car, so he no longer needs a backpack to travel with it. However, as a result of the lockdowns, he’s not had the chance to really test it out to its fullest, by taking it on an international trip.

The implications of the pandemic could well stunt the development of the dynamic screen device category. As users around the world have been more restricted in their movements, the need for mobility has been reduced and a larger phone screen won’t have had the chance to come into its own.

And phones and laptops supporting the new screen technologies don’t come cheap, yet.

“There's still a cost issue,” says Atwal.

“The price is higher than it needs to be to break into the mainstream.”

Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 is currently retailing online from R30 000 to R47 000, while the X1 Fold is priced from R69 999.

“If the price points don't decrease, while the economy recovers, choices will have to be made. This past year, the smartphone market was down 10%, which is significant,” says Atwal. “We'd expect it to be up 10% in 2021, but that's the recovery of where it lost out. It won't be until 2022, 2023 that we will start to see the range of devices coming to market.”

Choice of devices will also need to widen to spur the market. A widescale offering of cheaper devices by Chinese manufacturers will be important, but the underlying screen technology price point would need to come down to enable that. Then there’s the Apple factor, he says.

“If Apple decides we're going to have a foldable phone, then that opens up the market. The influence of Apple is huge in this.”

Technical challenges

But that might not be so cut and dry. Atwal says Apple has become more focused on content and applications. “It’s building out the ecosystem and the content, and the smartphone is the window. It’s doing some stuff on the front-end, but it’s not revolutionary. Everything is about content now.”

And the technical hurdles?

Dousson is confident that the challenges faced early on by some vendors can be solved.

“There were a lot of technical challenges when we worked on the foldable laptop. But we’ve put the technology into the ThinkPad range because we wanted to it to be testament to its durability and specifically the high-level testing it’s undergone. We asked Intel to help us on the mechanical and electrical challenges with the screen we have and LG to perfect the folding display. It took us about six years to develop. We didn’t just launch this product; we really spent a lot of time on it.”

Having also got a foldable smartphone, Dousson is a convert to the possibilities of the technology. “I think foldable technology will bring new form factors and innovation. I can see a lot of phone companies and IT companies going into the foldable technology,” he says.

Atwal isn’t so sure. “In terms of innovation, the smartphone industry is reflecting the PC market, which has typically been pretty slow. We've seen what they call innovation, but we still don't have all-day battery life on a PC. Across that whole segment, there’s a need for margin, revenue, and managing cost; it's still incremental innovation.”

The global smartphone market is projected to sell 1.5 billion devices in 2021, rising to 1.68 billion in 2024, says Atwal. “Even by 2024, if you took 10% of that market, that's 168 million, which would be a good market size (for dynamic screen devices).”

It’s easy to get excited over the first real wave of ‘fresh’ innovation hitting the smartphone and laptop market in a while, and pushing us towards a more sci-fi reality. A Covid-stricken economy, high price points and a technology that has already been blighted with reliability issues mean the rise of the dynamic screen market is probably another couple of years off before we see real expansion.

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