The Next Big Merger

Will two device designs fold into one?

For those old enough to remember the turn of the century, there was a term used so often that it felt like it was mistreated — and misleading. The concept of “device convergence” was being used in every PowerPoint presentation delivered by executives from the mobile and PC industries. We all waited, and then we all forgot.

Although we don’t hear the term device convergence much these days, in the end, it really did happen. Mobile phones have evolved so far beyond offering just talk and text features that someone from the early ’90s wouldn’t recognize a handset. They’ve become our cameras and keys, our credit cards and transportation passes, our music players and movie players. Smartphones navigate us and advise us, they wake us and motivate us. They’re for work and for play.

So many things are now stuffed into our phones, and we’re always wondering what’s next. Could it be tablets? A recent GSMArena interview with Huawei CEO, Richard Yu, has us wondering if two device designs could really merge into one sooner than we realize.

When asked if half of Huawei’s devices could be foldables in a few years, Mr Yu thought that this could be true for its flagship-level products. Mr Yu certainly has the inside scoop and the feel for the market to estimate this trend.

Foldable phones are so special now that they’re little more than ultra-expensive tech bling. But we don’t doubt all major manufacturers are taking this design very seriously and looking to bring robust foldables to market, to reignite the flame of gadget excitement, boost average selling prices and ultimately take the design down the price curve. The smartphone market is definitely in need of a shiny new toy: despite the fact that people count on their phones for many aspects of their lives, it’s also true that people reach into their pockets to buy a new phone less often than before (see Global Mobile Phone Sales Will Decline in 2019). So, phone-makers are understandably hoping that foldable phones will soon become a must-have item.

But coming to the issue of design definitions, the question to ask is, are folding-screens devices phones that can be used as tablets, or are they cellular-connected tablets than can double as phones? And will consumers and enterprises find foldables to be truly practical as a single device?

True convergence has always been a long-term vision among device makers. This includes the ability of a phone to double as a PC. Samsung DeX, which enables a Galaxy phone to drive a full PC experience, is an example. Smartphones have the processing power to run most everyday applications. DeX enables some Galaxy phones to take advantage of a larger display.

We’ve already seen that large smartphones — and some are getting very large — have eaten into the market for tablets. For practical and price reasons, phones have become good substitutes for tablets. So, if half of smartphones in a few years serve as foldable tablets, will tablets go the way of the personal navigation device or standalone MP3 player? It sure appears likely.

If top device makers can really deliver robust foldables, which seems possible given the level of dedication to this new product category, we may have to rethink the classification of device form factors. This is a big merger, and mergers of all types take time and affect only parts of the market, but the end goal has been there for years and the enablers are arriving now. Device convergence is being revisited.