Samsung’s Foldable Future

Foldable devices spark new wave of design excitement

Once upon a time in the handset industry there was real excitement going into each new product launch. Would the phone slide or swivel? Would it be vertical or horizontal? Would it open and close?

Then things changed. Handset design became standardized in the black rectangular touch-screen monobloc and manufacturers fell into line. Devices became flat screens to neatly access apps and content. Although practical, this has led to increasingly uninspiring products for customers hoping for a device that would be a break from the sea of smartphone sameness. With smartphones now an essential part of the fabric of daily life, manufacturers have found it increasingly difficult to stand out with flashy designs.

But things could be changing, thanks to evolving screen technologies and the long-term vision of devices that can bend or roll. Flexible screens are a reality, and the appetite for new form factors is being tested. For example, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is gaining attention thanks to the company’s brand strength, marketing and its tenacity with flexible-display technology.

The difficulties that Samsung experienced with the first iteration of its Galaxy Fold are well known. They were the result of a combination of design flaws that allowed particle ingress into the device as well as overzealous reviewers ripping off what was meant to be a permanent protective layer from the screen. So, it’s little surprise that concerns have been raised about how robust and scratch-resistant smartphones with flexible displays will be, particularly after long-term usage after being opened and closed thousands of times.

Having used the “improved” Samsung Galaxy Fold daily for over a month, I’ve been extremely impressed by how robust the device is. I was initially almost scared to breathe on the flexible display, but I now use it with complete confidence, albeit with a level of care that’s way over and above that with other smartphones. It’s a clear sign that this new display technology has potential, and Samsung underlined this on a call for analysts on Tuesday, saying that it plans to “introduce new products into the affordable line-up” to maintain its leadership in smartphones with flexible displays, while it continues to “focus on developing new form factors in the foldable category”.

On Monday, at the Samsung Developer Conference in San Jose, California, the South Korean smartphone maker showed off a new foldable smartphone concept design that looks a lot like the old clamshell designs we all knew from a decade ago. Unlike the Galaxy Fold, which folds out horizontally to give a tablet-like experience, the new device folds vertically, making it smaller. Depending on a user’s preference, this vertical fold could take up the form of a regular flat-screen smartphone or a compact one that can easily fit in a pocket.

A video teaser shown at the Developer Conference was light on detail. It’s hard to come to firm conclusions about the device with little information known about the components, eventual availability or price. But it was a clear statement of intent from Samsung, coming shortly before the widely rumoured unveiling of Motorola’s foldable device, which is expected to draw heavily on the design DNA of the iconic Motorola Razr V3. Given the extraordinary popularity of the Razr series, I have little doubt that such a device will receive international attention. Before there was the iPhone, the Motorola Razr was the phone to have.

But Samsung and Motorola aren’t the only manufacturers vying to create a market for foldable phones. Brands including Huawei, TCL and Xiaomi have teased foldable smartphone concepts and we expect more to follow. In fact, last week Huawei finally started taking orders in China for its eagerly awaited Mate X foldable smartphone. However, I have serious reservations about how robust the phone will be for daily use, given Huawei’s decision to wrap the flexible display around the outside of the device. There’s also Apple, of course, which holds patents in foldable displays.

For those who say the handset market has become dull over the past decade with little evolution in smartphone design, there’s now hope. There will be vertical and horizontal form factors and perhaps accordion-like zigzags. From a very selfish perspective, I really hope the fun is sneaking back into the smartphone business after a decade of monobloc sameness.