First to Fold

Royole’s Flexible-Display Phone Is a Sign of Things to Come

Someone has to be first and it may as well be Royole. According to its website, Royole is a company that specializes in flexible display components and solutions. It offers hats, T-shirts, a digital notepad and a head-mounted display with embedded flexible screens. These are examples of what can be done with displays that can bend around products and parts of the body.

Last week, Royole announced a smartphone with a flexible AMOLED screen that opens to become a 7.8-inch tablet-like device. Dubbed FlexPai, the phone runs an Android-based platform that the company calls Water OS. It supports LTE connectivity as well as GSM, CDMA, UMTS and TD-SCDMA technologies. This announcement follows the unveiling of the Nubia Alpha “wearable smartphone” at the IFA consumer electronics show in September (see IFA 2018: Major Themes).

Pricing for the FlexPai starts at $1,318, which hints at the cost of future flexible devices. We don’t expect Royole to move large volumes, but being tagged as “first” has drawn attention from the world’s media.

Royole shows that folding screens are about to become a new device design, albeit an expensive and special one. Well-known brands such as Samsung, Huawei, Lenovo and LG are expected to bring phones with folding designs to market in 2019, with the possible announcement of a Samsung device being teased ahead of its developer event this week, which CCS Insight will be attending.

Folding displays have been on product road maps for years, and CCS Insight has been tracking them since 2010. Components have taken a long time to catch up with ambitions, but these are now becoming reality. Looking beyond the hype, we believe the biggest challenge facing this new design is that it still appears to be a solution looking for a problem. When phone screens measured a mere four inches, having additional real estate was an alluring prospect. But as six-inch and larger high-resolution displays on top-tier handsets become the norm, questions remain about what benefits smartphones with folding screens can bring, especially considering their high pricing and likely teething problems.

This development is very much in line with our recent prediction that phones with folding screens will arrive in 2019 but will remain a niche category until 2022 (see CCS Insight Predictions for 2019 and Beyond). Although we believe these devices will be a magnet for gadget lovers, we expect their inevitable high cost and trade-offs in usability will hinder shipments.

If the price tag of Royole’s FlexPai phone is any indication, this emerging design could set a new high watermark, pushing retail prices toward $2,000. This should ring alarm bells among wireless operators, which normally subsidize or offer interest-free financing on smartphones. They could end up carrying the debt of an unproven product category for devices that users fall out of love with a long time before the end of their contractual obligations.

But of course, original equipment manufacturers see an opportunity to catch a rising star. As they begin releasing their commercial phones with folding screens in the coming months, they’ll undoubtedly spark excitement, but this isn’t always enough for success. Device makers and operators will have to show patience as developers create reasons to buy.

Flexible displays are just around the corner and the voyage of discovery has begun. Despite the challenges ahead, we remain confident that following some early missteps, folding-screen technology will continue to develop, partly thanks to users’ never-ending quest for larger and larger displays. It will take time, but we believe this technology holds potential. However, finding an attractive use over current rigid screens will be an essential factor in its success.