The Folding Stuff

Flexible screens aplenty at MWC as new chapter in device diversity begins

In the months and weeks running up to MWC 2019, it became increasingly apparent that new devices with flexible displays could be a big story at the show, but even the most optimistic commentators failed to predict the frenzy of so-called “foldables” that would appear in Barcelona.

Flexible screen technology isn’t a new concept. I first saw it in labs in 2010, and in 2011 prototype displays made their public debut at CES. But it has taken until now, nearly a decade later, for the first commercial products to emerge. Spearheading them was the Royole FlexPai smartphone, which surfaced in 2018, just before Samsung showcased its Infinity Flex Display at its developer event in November that year (see Instant Insight: Samsung Developer Conference, 2018).

The week before MWC, Samsung revealed its first commercial smartphone with a flexible screen, the Galaxy Fold, at a launch event attended by CCS Insight. In Barcelona, Huawei introduced the Mate X, and other phone-makers including TCL, Oppo and more lifted the veil on various prototype devices. We believe many additional products were also at the show but remained behind the scenes.

These folding devices come at an important time for the smartphone industry, when phone-makers are struggling to differentiate their products and consumers are indifferent to this homogeneous “sea of smartphone sameness”. Over the past few years, manufacturers have delivered incremental improvements: better cameras, bigger and brighter screens and features such as wireless charging. However, one trait that’s essentially stayed the same is the black touch-screen monobloc.

It’s a long way from the device diversity of the past, a topic that I recently discussed with the Financial Times (see below). For 20 years, device-makers innovated with all manner of industrial designs, introducing phones that folded, twisted and curved, until the iPhone set the dominant design that would define the market for more than a decade.

We believe the foldable devices on parade at MWC will kick-start another period of device diversity. However, we caution that the products we’ve seen so far are first-generation designs illustrating the various approaches device-makers are using to create these products. Fundamental decisions are being made on areas such as hinge technology and how to implement the screen: for example, whether to fold the display into the device, as is the case with the Samsung Galaxy Fold, or wrap it around the outside of the device like with the Huawei Mate X. And that’s before you take into account the complexities of the software and user experience. It’s no coincidence that few people have had the chance to get hands-on time with these new products so far, and this highlights there’s still plenty of work to be done.

It has also surprised us that the ultrapremium pricing of these devices, signalling the era of the €2,000 smartphone, has come as a shock to many. New technology is expensive because it’s hard to make. It’s amazing how quickly people forget that the first mobile phones launched in 1985 came with a $4,000 price tag at the time. Ramping up production is a huge challenge. We’re already hearing that the supply of flexible displays will be constrained for many months. Over time, consumer electronics products always slide down the price curve and it will be the same for foldable smartphones.

It’s exciting to be at the birth of a new chapter in device design, and flexible displays will have an impact on consumers electronics way beyond smartphones alone. We’re in the Stone Age of foldable smartphones. Our concerns that they’re a solution looking for a problem remain valid, but as with all innovation, once a product becomes a reality it starts to become more refined and uses for it emerge. I’m sure that in a few years’ time, when smartphones with flexible screens become more widespread, we’ll look back at these early devices and reflect on what a long way we’ve come.

Ben Wood, CCS Insight’s chief of research, led our team of research analysts attending MWC. Event reports on various topics covered at the show will be published in the coming days for CCS Insight clients.

CCS Insight’s Ben Wood with the Huawei Mate X folding phone