For more than a decade, the iPhone defined the overall shape and style of a smartphone. Despite Apple’s patent litigation against its main rival Samsung, that simple and iconic concept of a black rectangular touchscreen with rounded corners has been mimicked by manufacturers the world over.
Rising demand from billions of new customers meant that, for many years, handset makers could get away with little real differentiation and still prosper, especially as Google’s low-cost Android operating system swept the market.
However, after a bruising 2018 that saw the industry’s first decline in sales volumes, this is shaping up to be the year that smartphone designs are finally starting to evolve. The first major change: folding phones.
“Clearly there is a need for differentiation but the technology was not ready to bring that differentiation to life,” said Francisco Jeronimo, a devices analyst at research group IDC. “Flexible displays are opening that door. [They are] unleashing the creativity of those brands that are seeing the market getting to saturation levels.”
Conor Pierce, corporate vice-president at Samsung UK & Ireland, said: “The market needs it.”
“I think people have become slightly apathetic about the same form factor over a number of years,” he added. “This is really exciting — a new era of how we interact with technology.”
The folding smartphones announced during the past week by Samsung and Huawei are just the most prominent sign of manufacturers’ new willingness to experiment with different — if sometimes perplexing — new features and designs.
At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the Chinese smartphone maker Oppo showed off a phone with a 10x telephoto lens, the kind of zoom that was previously only possible in traditional cameras.
If you want to try the latest technology in this planet, you will pay that premium
Clement Wong, Huawei’s director of product marketing
Nokia went a step further in camera upgrades by embedding five cameras in the rear of its latest Pureview device, as well as a 3D depth sensor, to offer new kinds of “computational photography”. Sony unveiled Xperia devices with an elongated screen in the cinematic 21:9 aspect ratio, designed for ultra-high-definition widescreen video.
Perhaps the most unusual device unveiled in Barcelona was LG’s V50 ThinQ, which includes an optional detachable second display, creating a lower-cost twist on the folding screen concept.
While many of the new products on show at MWC also included 5G connectivity, it is clear that device makers believe they need to do more than add a higher-speed data connection to boost sales and stand out from the competition.
“5G is the biggest buzzword in telecommunications right now,” said Alen Wu, global vice-president of Oppo. But while he suggested that cloud gaming systems and high-definition video would take advantage of 5G’s potential, it was not yet clear how consumers would adopt the new standard. “Nobody can exactly predict what the world will be like when 5G is really here.”
Smartphone makers feel they “need to disrupt the market again with concepts that make people feel they need a new device”, Mr Jeronimo said. “We will see a lot of experimentation.”
Folding screens are the most radical among these ideas — especially given that Samsung and Huawei are both charging upwards of $2,000 for their first-generation products.
“If you want to try the latest technology in this planet, you will pay that premium,” said Clement Wong, Huawei’s director of product marketing.
Mr Pierce said the Galaxy Fold’s $1,980 price tag reflected the fact it was “many years in the making”.
“I expect foldable phones in time to replace the current format across the entire range,” he added. “It will take many years for that to happen because it needs to become more affordable.”
As well as the novel flexible OLED screens, developed by Samsung, that allow the devices to fold, both companies employed a complex system of gearing inside the hinge to ensure that the display does not crease or crumple when it is unfolded. Contributing to the high cost is the extra RAM memory that is needed to power the bigger display.
However, how these devices will stand up to long-term, real-world usage remains uncertain. Unlike most glass-fronted phones, Huawei’s Mate X uses a plastic casing to protect the screen, which wraps around the exterior of the device when folded.
“At the moment we are in very limited production for this phone,” said Mr Wong, adding that the Mate X device had been put through the same reliability tests as its other smartphones.
Not everyone in the mobile industry is convinced that meaningful numbers of consumers will buy these first-generation folding devices. The chief of one leading European network operator said he foresaw very limited sales of the Mate X, given its high price, while some in the industry have speculated that Samsung rushed out its rival Galaxy Fold before it was ready, in order to pre-empt Huawei. Both phones are due for release in the coming months.
But Mr Pierce rejected suggestions that Samsung had been too fast, saying: “We are very focused on our own plan. We don’t bring technology to the market until it’s ready.
“There’s maybe more fine tuning to be done,” he added. “But we set a deadline, it will be launched at the end of April in the US . . . So we are ready.”
Oppo had explored foldable devices in its R&D labs two years ago but decided to put development “on the back burner”, Mr Wu said.
“All this time, we haven’t been able to identify a core need that a folding display can address,” he said. “If you want to get a larger screen, that can easily be addressed with a tablet . . . We are adopting a waiting and seeing approach.”
Nonetheless, even if they win few buyers, the very existence of Huawei and Samsung’s “foldables” could create a halo effect on the rest of their line-up.
“The awareness that they will get from that device is extremely important,” said Mr Jeronimo. Becoming an “aspirational brand” is especially important for Huawei, which, Mr Jeronimo forecasts, could overtake Samsung to become the world’s largest smartphone vendor, by unit volumes, within the next 12 to 15 months. “This [device] is a very important milestone for Huawei.”
If foldables do escape accusations that they are a mere gimmick and gain real momentum among consumers, it could put pressure on slower adopters, including the smartphone’s original pioneer: Apple.
“It won’t impact sales in the short term but it will start impacting perception,” Mr Jeronimo said.
Study Source: The Financial Times