The Folding Screen Dream

Flexible Displays Seem Inevitable But “Why Buy?” Question Remains

On 25 July, Samsung Display announced that its flexible OLED panel has been certified by UL, a US-based, government-approved company that tests electronic products for safety and performance.

Samsung’s press release gives few details, but it does whet the appetite about the potential for new device designs. The media quickly jumped on the story. The availability of a flexible display from a major component supplier is being described as a major enabler for folding smartphones, which has been a vision of the handset and PC industries for years and is approaching fruition.

In October 2017, ZTE released a dual-screen hinged smartphone, the Axon M, a phone that was remarkably similar to the NEC Medias W N-05E that launched in February 2013. But the screens of these phones don’t actually fold or even bend. The Axon M features two separate 5.2-inch displays that sit side by side when the phone is open. It resembles a tablet with a line of interference running down the middle (see Seeing Double).

Although the Axon M became part of AT&T’s official smartphone portfolio, giving it some premium exposure in the US market, we believe it hasn’t sold particularly well. Nonetheless, user reviews are respectable and praise the innovation of the product. In the age of lookalike devices, ZTE dared to try something new.

Given the slowdown of smartphone sales caused by several factors such as incremental innovation and the removal of subsidies in the US, device makers, eager for something revolutionary, are intent on rolling out something fresh to entice consumers.

We think it’s safe to say that more folding designs and other new device form factors are inevitable during the coming years. We’re keen to see distinctive devices, but fear that even great new products can die on the vine if they lack a reason to buy. This new look will be innovative, but also expensive, testing the boundaries of consumers’ willingness to pay.

The technical enablers might be falling into place, but device manufacturers need to ensure their products offer convincing reasons for customers to purchase, working with developers to provide new apps that take advantage of the expanded display real estate. It’s encouraging to think that an industry that’s fallen into an evolutionary path might soon get a revolutionary development, but we’re more excited about the possible new uses this design could bring.