The World Is No Longer Flat

Manufacturers prepare for a new era of smartphone design

It’s been more than a decade since mobile phone users began to move away from classic handsets with numeric keypads to touch-screen devices. That change took time and is still happening in some markets, but billions of users around the globe have adjusted to the flexibility of full-touch screen technology.

Although the move to touch-screen technology was an advancement, things in the mobile phone space have become terribly boring. Year after year, as executives from major smartphone brands take to the stage for their perennial flagship unveilings, we all pretty much know the general picture in advance: they’re about to show off a black rectangle. The evolution has certainly been impressive, with thinner bezels, sharper displays and amazing imaging technologies stuffed into a single product, but the form variety was always an easy predication.

But now another big shift is poised to emerge. Enabled by new display technologies, smartphones are changing shape. Foldables and even “rollables” are starting to appear, with a growing number of products being commercialized or at least conceptualized.

Samsung and Motorola have already introduced several foldables. Microsoft’s Surface Duo is another spin on design innovation, and one of the most interesting products to have launched in 2020 (see Surface Duo: Opening a New Chapter). For now, these are niche products thanks to their steep prices: customers have to shell out $2,000 to get their hands on a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2 from AT&T, for example, and the Surface Duo is now available for $1,200 directly from Microsoft. But scale is only a few years away, as prices will come down. It’s the way of the device world.

Over the past few months, we’ve been excited to see prototypes and rumours of new designs from many smartphone brands. The industry is getting ready to shape shift. And there’s a delight in the variety of solutions cropping up: several companies are working on foldables, others, including LG, Oppo and TCL, are developing rollables. These are devices that allow users to expand the display by rolling them open, a bit like papyrus scrolls used millennia ago.

Oppo’s X 2021 concept phone, teased recently, is a magical device that transforms from an ordinary smartphone with a 6.7-inch display into a 7.4-inch tablet. TCL showed off a similar, albeit non-working, concept earlier in 2020. Oppo is part of BBK Electronics, the world’s second largest smartphone-maker (see BB King). There’s clearly lots of innovation going on in this company, and when devices like its Oppo X 2021 get commercialized they will spice up the global smartphone market.

LG is also expected to launch a rollable smartphone in 2021, and clearly has the display know-how to beat out many rivals. It has introduced TVs with rolling screens and is using its talents with flexible display technology in its components business for such things as car dashboards. And like LG, TCL has a display pedigree that will enable it to rethink smartphone design.

Even Apple is rumoured to be working on a foldable iPhone, with filed patents and chatter in the supply chain appearing to back this up. The company has successfully been using a strategy of second-mover advantage, allowing rivals to act as a warm-up act before it takes centre stage. A foldable iPhone might be a few years off, but Apple is undoubtedly getting ready.

The biggest uncertainly of any market is rarely the technology and almost always the consumer. Will people be swayed by a new design generation? Phone-makers and Google’s Android team are certainly feverishly working with developers to given people a reason to switch. The apps have to be out there.

For the past few decades, device-makers including brands in the handset, tablet and PC worlds have pictured a fusion of their products into a single offering, bringing together several different device categories into a more perfect union. The technology enablers are now out there, allowing this vision to come true, with several devices rolled into one.