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Foldables are still looking for a breakout moment. Samsung wants to change that – CNET

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Tyler Reeves, a 28-year-old computer engineering student living in California, bought Samsung’s first Galaxy Fold shortly after it was launched in 2019. It was an expensive and brave choice for someone like Reeves, who enjoys outdoor sports like rock climbing and backpacking.

Most people would not like to take a nearly $2,000 phone up a mountain, especially since Samsung delayed the originally planned launch of the device on sustainability issues. But Reeves didn’t care. In fact, his first-gen Galaxy Fold is still in good condition, except for a few scratches.

“I tend to bring my phone to places you wouldn’t normally want to bring something like that,” he said.

Reeves is the exception rather than the norm. Flip phones are a nascent but growing part of the broader smartphone market, with sales expected to grow in 2021 compared to 2020. Research firm About says 11.5 million foldables were shipped in 2021, which is a 309% year-over-year increase. The company International Data Corporation pegs global shipments to 7.1 million in 2021, a jump of 264.3% compared to 2020. The industry is only expected to grow further, with shipments reaching 14 million units in 2022 according to Omdia.

Even though foldable devices represent a slice of the total market (286 million phones were shipped in the second quarter of 2022 alone, says the IDC), these statistics underscore a similar point. There are more and more people like Reeves, who are interested in buying flip phones.

Samsung is as convinced as ever that foldable phones are the future. It announced its fourth generation Galaxy Z Flip 4 and Galaxy Z Fold 4 on August 10, cementing these devices as regular fixtures in the tech giant’s sprawling phone lineup. With companies like Google and Apple also rumored to be working on phones that can bend and rotate, foldable phones aren’t going away anytime soon.

Answering the “why” behind foldables is easy for Samsung. Just think of all the other products in your life that fall in half, like laptops and notebooks. Their ability to fold is exactly what makes these tools useful.

“So this kind of a folding format is really something that has been with humanity for such a long time around the world,” said TM Roh, president and head of Samsung’s mobile experience business, in an interview with CNET. “And that really makes the case for the foldable form factor.”

What’s less clear is just how influential flip phones will be in our daily lives. Three years after the first crop of bendable devices arrived in 2019, their breakout moment has yet to arrive. The modern smartphone revolutionized the way we work, communicate, record personal memories and learn about the world. Tech companies are looking for the next big iteration of the personal computer, Samsung sees foldables as the key to answering that question.

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Z Flip 4 held side by side

The Galaxy Z Fold 4 (left) and Galaxy Z Flip 4 (right)

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Samsung is the king of flip phones today

Almost every major smartphone manufacturer has released or announced a foldable phone at this point. And those who haven’t are heavily rumored to be doing so.

Motorola just announced its third foldable Razr flip phone, while Chinese tech giant Oppo debuted the Find N in December 2021. Huawei, the second largest manufacturer of foldable phones behind Samsung, has already released several foldable phones, including its Mate X phone-tablet hybrid and P-series flip phone. Even Microsoft has released two foldable Android phones: the Surface Duo and Surface Duo 2.

Google is rumored to be working on it a foldable Pixelaccording to 9 to 5 Google, although a report of The Elec says the project has been delayed. Apple has begun early testing on a foldable iPhone, according to Bloomberg.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Microsoft’s Surface Duo 2, a less successful Android foldable.

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

But for now, Samsung leads the foldable phone market by a wide margin. Display Supply Chain Consultants reports that Samsung accounts for 74% of foldable phone shipments, while About says the South Korean electronics manufacturer is responsible for 88% of the foldable market. Samsung’s flip phone is especially popular, with both reports citing Z Flip 3 as the best-selling flip phone.

Samsung’s lead is not just about being early on the market. Its presence in the display supply chain also gives Samsung an advantage over the competition.

“The supply chain is always important,” said Ross Young, co-founder and CEO of Display Supply Chain Consultants. “And especially in this case, when so much of the technology and know-how is owned by one player, like Samsung.”

Young believes that current competitors are unlikely to challenge Samsung’s leading position. But who takes second place? Oppo is expected to tie Huawei next year through rumored upcoming foldables that could include a follow-up to the Find N and a clamshell-style flip phone similar to the Z Flip. Oppo’s rumored flip phone is expected to be aggressively priced, according to Young, possibly taking share away from Huawei and Samsung.

Foldables still need a breakout moment

Several hurdles prevent flip phones from becoming as ubiquitous as standard mobile devices. For one, they are more expensive than your average phone. And two, companies like Samsung are still figuring out how to use these bendable screens in a way that meaningfully differentiates them from standard phones. Since flip phones have only been widely available for about three years, it’s also unclear how well they’ll hold up over long periods of use.

For the most part, Roh agrees. Speaking to CNET in a rare interview through a translator, Roh pointed to three ways foldables could improve: they should be more affordable, battery life should be longer and the software should be better adapted to their unique screens.

The Z Flip 4 and Z Fold 4 are the result of Samsung’s latest effort to address these issues and prove the promise behind foldable phones. But these phones also illustrate the challenge involved. Both phones include new software features meant to make better use of their bendable screens along with upgraded cameras. The Z Flip 4 also has a larger battery than its predecessor.

But Samsung’s new foldables also feel more like iterative updates that lack some of the wow factor found in previous foldables. It’s a challenging balance to strike, but Roh is confident these devices will get better over time.

“We will continue our efforts to perfect the experience with a thinner and even more portable device,” he said. “And this will play an important role in bringing about that breakthrough for mainstreaming the foldable category.”

The Galaxy Z Fold 4 has a tablet-sized screen inside.

Richard Peterson/CNET

Both new phones are also priced higher than the average smartphone – especially the $1,800 Z Fold 4. It’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma: prices need to be more accessible for foldable phones to gain wider traction. But the cost probably won’t come down until foldables become more mainstream. That’s often the case with new mobile technologies, such as 5G support, which once commanded premium prices but can now be found in phones costing less than $500.

Samsung has not reduced the prices of the Galaxy Z Flip 4 and Z Fold 4 compared to last year, although it continues to sell the Z Flip 3 with a $100 discount.

“It’s definitely a challenge that we’re addressing, and we’re going to have to address,” Roh said of the Z Fold’s price.

Even though Samsung is convinced of the promise behind foldable phones, the question of whether they will ever replace traditional smartphones is not so simple to answer. Foldables will likely drive sales of high-end, premium phones in the future, possibly playing a similar role to the Galaxy S22 Ultra and iPhone 13 Pro Max, according to Roh. But regular bar-style phones will continue to exist as affordable options.

“I wouldn’t see just a bar type, or just a folding, or just another potentially new form factor dominating the market,” he said. But I prefer to see the different categories coexist.”

A big thing that could determine whether foldables will be a hit would be Apple deciding to join the fold. After all, it is of the world second-largest phone maker behind Samsung.

Although Apple has filed patents for devices with foldable screens, there is little evidence to suggest that a foldable iPhone is in development. Bloomberg’s report from early 2021 is the most concrete indication we’ve seen yet, but even that story suggested Apple was only experimenting with the technology. Analysts like Young and TF International Securities Ming-Chi Kuowho has a reputation for making Apple product predictions, predicts that 2025 is the earliest we’ll see a foldable iPhone.

“You just pick up any device and it will work instantly,” said David McQueen, research director for ABI Research, referring to Apple devices. “And I think that’s probably the key to why Apple was so successful.”

samsung-ces-2022-foldable-main-2.png

Samsung Display revealed several foldable concepts at CES 2022, including the Flex S tablet shown here.

Samsung

Where flip phones go next

Samsung’s current foldables are barely three years old, but the company is already thinking about where it might go next. And there’s a good reason why: It took eight years for Samsung to launch its first-gen foldables after conceptualizing them, Roh says.

The tech giant has provided a few of these ideas at CES 2022 in January. The Flex S concept, for example, has an accordion-style tri-folding display that folds out into a tablet. The Flex G concept also folds in two places, but the left and right panels fold over the inner screen to provide protection. Then there’s the Flex Slidable, which, as its name suggests, has an expandable screen.

Roh could not comment specifically on which, if any, would come to market. But he said these designs, like many others, are under consideration.

“It’s all you’ve seen [at CES] plus more,” he said.

Young agrees that there are plenty of ways for folding book style, large format to evolve.

“The rollable concept has a lot of potential to replace that book-type device in my mind,” Young said. “Because it gets a lot thinner. And it has to be a lot lighter.”

There is certainly no shortage of interest from tech companies. TCL, which has yet to release a foldable phone, has also been busy developing prototypes. In February, the Chinese electronics maker demonstrated foldable phone concepts with hinges that can bend 360 degrees and rollable displays.

But new types of large-screen foldables could also present more manufacturing challenges for the industry, especially if companies plan to use bendable glass in future designs. It can be challenging for supply chains to properly handle that type of glass because flip phones are still relatively new, according to Mathias Mydlak, senior manager of business development for glassmaker Schott’s ultra-thin glass cover product group. Schott’s flexible glass is used in the Vivo X Folda book-style flip phone that debuted in April.

As smartphones have matured, annual updates have started to feel more incremental and less innovative. Flip phones are Samsung’s way of changing that, but it will take more than three years to figure out what the next big smartphone evolution could be. Samsung is off to a strong start, even if it has only convinced niche shoppers like Reeves for now.

“It’s going to be another foldable,” Reeves said when asked what phone he plans to buy when it comes time to replace his aging Galaxy Fold. “I don’t think I could go back.”


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