Folding phones are finally here. So what's the point in them?
Flexible display technology is on the cusp of becoming a Very Big Deal in the tech industry, in marketing and research terms, if nothing else.
Samsung's leading the field when it comes to PR buzz, but flexible display maker Royole was the first company to get a folding phone into the hands of the tech press, Xiaomi has just teased its new prototype and LG's all set to launch a high-end TV that rolls down into a box built into its base, which doubles as a Dolby Atmos sound bar.
Does anyone actually want them?
Excited to share this video of a special Xiaomi smartphone from our President and Co-founder Bin Lin. It is the world’s first ever double folding phone — that’s pretty cool, isn’t it? #xiaomi #foldingphone #technology pic.twitter.com/iBj0n3vIbW— Wang Xiang (@XiangW_) 23 January 2019
Manufacturers obviously think flexible is a fantastic idea, but the pressing question is how much real-world appeal the hardware really has.
Matthew Cockerill, creative director and head of studio London at Swift Creatives, says that, beyond the obvious benefit of putting bigger smartphones in our pockets, "with a nascent technology there are always more questions than answers. This technology is an innovation trigger for brands and designers who have to work out what the value of these products are for users."
The real challenge, he says, is to make folding tech viable once it's no longer a novelty: "In a plateauing smartphone market, it certainly offers an opportunity to reinvigorate the category."
Ron Mertens feels that public demand is a big question and that user appeal will probably depend heavily on the price and on the actual device in question, although the basic concept has legs: "If your phone could easily open into a tablet, while still retaining its form factor, price and performance - I think everyone will want that, right? But this could take some years to achieve."
On the TV front, Luke Miles, co-founder and creative director at New Territory, says that, "in terms of our living spaces, there is an opportunity to create a whole new category of objects that are more empathic to these environments. TV’s have always been thought of as traditional, black boxes that hang from the wall or sit on a stand, but folding screens would allow us to develop them, so they blend more elegantly into an interior. "
Even if the first generation of TVs, like LG's 65in Signature OLED TV R, just roll away neatly into their bases, it's a look that'll appeal to fans of minimalist or unobtrusive decor, as well as meaning that there'll be fewer concerns about accidentally knocking over a large and fragile screen when it's not in use.
What else could the folding screen tech be used for?
As well as the FlexPai smartphone, Royole has embedded flexible displays in hats and t-shirts
Although TVs and phones are the glamorous headline items when it comes to flexible displays, there are plenty of other applications for the technology.
Luke Miles says that folding screens mean we could create more ergonomic and responsive wearables: "the strap and technology would no longer need to be separated as they are today. They could essentially become flexible, living surfaces that contract and expand in tandem with your body, allowing you to move more freely. This would also have positive implications for the way in which data is collected via these devices."
There's also huge potential for flexible displays in the automotive sector, he adds: "Screens and information that can seamlessly transition from in front of the driver or passenger to either side of them. This will be particularly useful when autonomous vehicles begin to play a larger role in society. Passengers will begin to spend their time differently when travelling, so new types of interaction and information will need to be delivered."
And it's not just big or complex items. Foxconn subsidiary Innolux has made a round 1.39-inch 400x400 (287 PPI) panel since 2017 while the Cleer Mirage Smart Display Speaker accompanies your music with information and visuals on a wrap-around AMOLED screen.
Will they wear out?
A key question about folding phones is how much wear and tear they'll take before either hinges or screens give out - it's a been a critical focus of research into folding displays. Royole says that its Flexpai can be folded 200,000 times.
Ron Mertens says that "many companies have shown that their foldable displays can fold for 100,000 times and more. So it's pretty robust. The main problem will be the high production costs, mostly because yields are low as there are many failures as this is very new technology, but also because these are larger displays than normal smartphone ones."
Swift Creatives' Matthew Cockerill also highlights manufacturing and design tolerances as a key concern: "A major limitation will be the bend radius permissible (how tight a fold can be achieved) with these first-generation screens that dictate the overall form of the phone and the mechanical strain relief required to protect the fold in daily use. This will influence the hinge area of our once rigid smartphone."
That's in keeping with hands-on reports of Samsung's flexible phone leaked to The Korea Herald, in which an executive from a Samsung customer firm reports that: "When unfolded, Samsung’s foldable phone does not show any crease indicating it had been bent. However, completely folding the device will lead to a breakage. For this reason, Samsung is testing out the device so that the sides remain slightly lifted when folded. The prototype seen today leaves a crease mark when being folded, but this issue will be fixed in the finalised version."
A 2017 patent application updates the sturdy hinge design required to support Samsung's flexible OLED based smartphone design
Craig Bunyan, lead creative technologist at Seymourpowell, says that there's a durability argument for flexible display tech, too: "It might be less seductive than rolling up your laptop and putting it in your pocket, but the last few generations of large-form-factor smartphones have been plagued with bending problems. At its most basic, flexible screen technology could mean that we can actually sit on a 6in smartphone and not break it."
In the case of potential fully flexible devices of the future, such as the next evolution of wearable tech, manufacturers will have to consider the positioning, construction and materials of other components. However, flexible graphene battery tech is also in development.
Ultimately, Bunyan says, it's not just screens that'll have to flex: "Any device which is to take full advantage of a folding screen must also make it possible to bend and flex the associated electronics behind that screen."
For the forthcoming generation of flexible TV screens, the mechanisms are more forgiving, as rollable screens such as LG's 65in Signature OLED TV R don't have to endure the intense flexing of folding devices.
Samsung also has a rollable TV patent, indicating that this could be a form factor we'll see a lot of in the sitting rooms and offices of the wealthy in years to come.
Which apps are on board?
Google announced screen continuity and multi-resume support for Android at the November 7 Android Dev Summit 2018, meaning that the mobile OS now has native support for folding screens in various configurations.
Royole got in early with its FlexPai launch just days before Samsung's first big reveal. That means it missed out on Google's secretly developed support for folding screens in Android, instead implementing its own Water OS user interface on top of an earlier version of the OS. However, it says it'll be investing $30 million to fuel the creation of apps for its platform.
Samsung has also published guidance and an emulator for developers working on apps for flexible displays.
So far, there haven't been many solid app announcements, but native Android apps such as Google Maps have been shown in example images of flexible screens, and news app Flipboard has said that it will support the forthcoming flexible Galaxy's folding capabilities.
When will flexible hardware go on sale?
You can already buy the first flexible screen devices, and we're not just talking about gently curved monitors and smartphones. Royole's FlexPai Developer Model, priced at £1,209, is available to preorder immediately, although the company says if you order now, there's a 60-90 day shipping delay "due to the overwhelming response since the launch of FlexPai".
When it comes to mass-market fulfilment, though, we should be looking to bigger names, according to OLED-Info's Ron Mertens, who reckons that "only Samsung Display is actually ready to produce foldable OLEDs in meaningful quantities".
After eight years of hints, Samsung has been seriously teasing its Infinity Flex phone display technology since November 2018, when we were given a glimpse of it at the Samsung Developer Conference.
Since then, rumours that leaked out of a secret Galaxy Flex demo at CES 2019 earlier this month indicate that the phone is close to launch-readiness. An anonymous Korea Herald source says Samsung plans to produce a small run of 1 million folding Galaxy devices, anticipated to launch in the first half of 2019.
Their target audience? "Men in their 40s" who remember the glory days of folding feature phones and who have enough money to afford the anticipated 1.5 million won ($1,336 or £1,022) price.
We could get a launch date, or at least a better look at the hardware, at Mobile World Congress at the end of February or even at the Samsung Galaxy UNPACKED 2019 event in London on February 20.
In the realm of TVs, we could see LG's roll-up 4K 65in Signature OLED TV R display available to buy "sometime this spring", according to The Verge.
Will there be a folding iPhone?
Samsung's arch-rival Apple has its own flexible smartphone patents, which alone is enough to start excited rumours flying, on top of its folding display research collaboration with LG.
However, the limited production capacity for flexible displays, along with the relatively disappointing sales performance of its most cutting edge devices means we're probably not going to see a folding iPhone in the immediate future.
Ron Mertens breaks it down: "I don't think this company will release an extremely low-volume, high-end product. Samsung could release a Galaxy Fold with a price tag of $2,000 and hope to sell a few tens of thousands of pieces (or hundreds of thousands, maybe). It will enable them to test the technology, see market acceptance and get more experience with foldable screens. But I don't see Apple doing that in the next few years."
Who's making flexible hardware and what for?
Samsung: Samsung's Infinity Flex originates with its displays division, based on flexible AMOLED technology first demonstrated in 2011. Its 7.3in foldable display with a 1,532x2,152 resolution at 360PPI (pixels per inch) is what we'll be seeing in future folding smartphones. Samsung is the most serious contender when it comes to having the ability to mass manufacture folding phone screens right now.
Royole: Display-making startup Royole launched its FlexPai with a 7.8in 1,920x1,440 (308PPI) AMOLED display, effectively demonstrating its folding screen tech, but also makes the Flexible+ display range for wearables.
LG: LG's rollable TV screens are well on the way to becoming a commercial reality, and it's also reported to be working with Apple, Google and Microsoft to develop a folding smartphone screen by 2020, says Ron Mertens of OLED-Info.
BOE: Mertens also highlights Chinese display-maker BOE, currently developing some impressive high-resolution foldable screens. Its device manufacturing partners reportedly include Huawei, along with two other unnamed device makers.
Visionox: OLED producer Visionox is also a major player in the Chinese foldable market, partnering with smartphone maker Nubia to create the Alpha. The Alpha, a long, slim foldable device that transforms from a skinny phone into a wrap-around smartwatch, appears to have missed its projected 2018 shipping date, but Mertens says that we may yet see it at MWC.
Xiaomi: When it comes to better-known device makers, Xiaomi is only at the prototype stage, as demonstrated in a Weibo video by company president and co-founder Lin Bin, who says the firm will consider mass production if it gets positive feedback. We don't know where Xiaomi is sourcing its displays, however.
Lenovo: Lenovo-owned Motorola, meanwhile, is reportedly planning to bring back its iconic Razr flip phone as a high-end folding Android device. Lenovo has demonstrated a number of foldable phone prototypes over the years, but it's not clear who its flexible display manufacturing partner is.