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The Origami Smartphone Arrives

By Michael Castelluccio
April 1, 2019
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There are many reasons why a foldable phone just doesn’t seem practical. The screen can’t be glass, so how many times can you bend a plastic display 180° before pixels begin to fail? Besides, who wants something the size of a tablet in their pocket? Even folded, what would it weigh? And can you even use a normal Android operating system with something that doubles its screen size with a flip?

 

Well, you can, they did, and we’ll soon see how many will be interested enough to be early adopters. At Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain, in February 2019, both Samsung and Huawei debuted smartphones that unfold to tablet-size computers with 7.3″ and 6.6″ screens, respectively.

 

If we learned anything from the numerous foot-in-the-mouth reviews of the first large smartphones from Samsung more than 15 years ago, we probably should reserve judgment. Back in 2012 when Samsung released its Galaxy Note, the largest smartphone yet, there was a lot of cackling. Tech columnist Farhad Manjoo, for instance, wrote a snarky review called “The Rise of the Enormo-Phone” on Slate.com. He opened with, “I think it’s supposed to be a combination phone, tablet PC, cafeteria tray, and full-body riot shield.” When he settled down to provide reasons for his amusement, he concluded, “The Galaxy Note is the comic culmination (I hope!) of an awful new trend in the phone business. This trend goes against all reason.”

 

Joining a chorus of naysayers, Manjoo concluded, “I’ve argued before that smartphones—even the iPhone—have reached the limits of industrial design.”

 

Well, time has passed, Manjoo has moved on to become The New York Times “State of the Art” columnist, and Samsung’s Enormo-Phone has firmly established itself with the public as viable, desirable, and no reason for laughter. And the limits of industrial design, apparently, haven’t been reached.

 

MORE ROOM

 

The unfolded bodies of the Huawei Mate X and Samsung Galaxy Fold have room for dual batteries, guaranteeing much longer battery life. The larger screen makes reading spreadsheets and ebooks more comfortable, and that’s also true for other media like videos and games. Both phones fold down to a manageable screen size for all the normal tasks managed by narrower phones. So that just leaves the question about weight (Galaxy Fold’s is unknown; Mate X’s is 10.4 oz.) and the challenge of making a screen that won’t develop a visible “crease” caused by wear.

 

Any concerns about the Android OS handling the screen-switching tasks are, we’re told, misguided. Samsung says you can run three apps alongside each other on the Galaxy Fold, and any app you’re running on the front of the phone will switch immediately to the middle once you fold it open. Huawei’s Mate X folds another way, with the screen wrapping around the outside rather than hidden inside when it’s closed. When it’s opened, the Mate X has an 8″ screen—when closed, you have screens front and back as well as a grip along one side for the camera controls.

 

HURDLES

 

Probably the biggest impediment to successful launches will be the price of these new phones. Huawei’s Mate X will retail for $2,600, and the Galaxy Fold will be $1,980. Quartz (qz.com) points out that for one Mate X you could buy 2.6 iPhone XSs. On the MWC show floor, an even more ridiculous contrast was offered by one of the five new low-cost feature phones from Nokia (now owned by HMD, a Finnish manufacturer). The least expensive Nokia will retail at €30 ($37.69). You could actually get 69 Nokias for just two cents more than the price of one Mate X.

 

But make no mistake. This new format for smartphones is being taken seriously by most of the major players. A number of manufacturers and developers are working on their own folding smartphones.

 

The world’s first foldable phone was launched in China in November 2018. The FlexPei from Royole has a 7.8″ foldable AMOLED screen. Those who track patents think Motorola will release a new RAZR flip phone with a 6+” flexible screen. Xiaomi has a double-folding phone at the prototype stage. Chinese phone maker Oppo has announced that it’s ready to build its own folding phone if the interest is there in the Chinese market. ZTE made an unsuccessful attempt with its Axon M in 2017 but promises it will create a successful bendable phone. LG is experimenting with side-by-side dual displays on a phone but nothing serious yet on folding displays. And Apple? No word from Cupertino, but the company did file a patent illustrating four ways to fold or wrap the screen in a “hidden flexible display device.”

 

With the rollout of 5G now pushed out to late 2019 or early 2020, there’s a fair chance that your first 5G handset might include some implementation of the new foldable screen. Huawei’s Mate X is expected in June 2019, and the Samsung Galaxy Fold will be available in April 2019.

 

Michael Castelluccio has been the Technology Editor for Strategic Finance for 24 years. His SF TECHNOTES blog is in its 21st year. You can contact Mike at mcastelluccio@imanet.org.


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