Smartphones are an incredibly mature market and have been around for more than a decade now if you count the first iPhone as the market start point. Pedants can point to earlier handsets with smartphone-style features from the likes of Blackberry and Microsoft, but the first iPhone is usually seen as a good starting point for what we'd accept as a "smartphone" right now.
That means they're a very mature market, and most phones, even in the mid-range space can provide for the needs of most users. Still, there's a problem, and it's one that foldable phones should be uniquely positioned to solve in a way that current mobile models simply don't.
Why foldable phones?
There's a big problem with current phones – they're big.
Most consumers want larger screens to enjoy content on, and it's easy to buy up a large-screened device. However, actually picking it up and using it can be a more challenging affair, especially if you have smaller hands.
Folding phones as currently proposed fix both problems at once, providing you with a smaller display phone for immediate out-of-pocket use such as social media, phone calls and simple games, while folded-out modes should be closer to the types of experiences you can currently enjoy on a full tablet.
Having a larger screen isn't just about having big-screen Netflix content in your pocket, either. With a flexible display you could more easily view multiple applications at once or enjoy applications specifically written with foldable screens in mind. Google has already announced Android support for what it simply calls "foldables" at its developer summit, so that should make it easier for Android developers to create new app experiences.
Will foldable phones be durable?
The issues of creating a flexible display that can stand up to the kinds of punishment that regular phone users inflict on their devices, as well as being able to be folded and unfolded potentially thousands of times over their lifespan, aren't trivial.
That's why at a technology level, manufacturers have been talking about flexible display development for some decades now, and why those manufacturers who are on the record about their challenges have said that they've had to work with entirely new materials and processes to make foldable phones a reality.
Nobody's released precise details around durability, or even desirable features such as IP-rated water and dust resistance, but it would be sheer folly for any of them to release a foldable phone that wasn't at least as robust as current model phones. That does mean that hefty drops would still be a bad idea, but the essential folding mechanisms will need to be sound, unless they fancy having thousands of annoyed customers seeking warranty repairs all at once.
Who's working on foldable phones?
The short answer to this is that nearly every smartphone manufacturer you can think of is. Some are more public and forthright about their foldable phone plans, but it's very clear that it's an area of intense interest from every big brand. Here's what we know so far about the folding phone plans of the major makers:
ZTE has had a "foldable" phone available in other markets for more than a year now, although you've got to carefully decide what you consider a "foldable" phone to be. That's because the ZTE Axon M could also be described as a "dual screen" or even "hinged" smartphone.
It's a US$725 Android 7 ("Nougat") phone with two 5.2-inch Full HD displays, capable of running two apps side by side – which makes perfect sense if you consider that it's essentially two phones more or less bolted together. The "full screen" mode gives you a 6.5-inch display with a noticeable split in the middle, and while it does fold, it's not quite what most manufacturers are talking about when they reference foldable phones.
You've probably never heard of Royole, a Chinese manufacturer notable in this space for launching the Royole FlexPai, a phone with an actual foldable display screen. Initially, it'll only be available in the Chinese market and in the US for those who want to develop for it.
Early reviews, such as this one from The Verge suggests that while the Royole FlexPai does indeed fold as advertised, it's otherwise a somewhat cheap-feeling device with a highly modified "WaterOS", apparently based on Android 9.0.
However, it does highlight that getting the software mix right for a user interface across a device that's one part tablet, one part phone will be tricky.
Samsung was the first of the big smartphone manufacturers to officially announce a foldable phone, getting ahead of Mobile World Congress 2019 with the unveiling of the Samsung Galaxy Fold.
The Galaxy Fold takes a dual-screen approach to deliver folding functionality. Unfolded, you've got a 7.3-inch tablet-like display well-suited for multi-tasking. Fold it inwards and the phone automatically switches to a secondary 4.6-inch display on its back side.
Chinese manufacturer Huawei has been pushing aggressively ahead with its own vision of the future of smartphones, with impressive devices such as the Huawei Mate 20 Pro, but it's also working hard on its own foldable smartphone. It took time at Mobile World Congress 2019 to show off the fruits of its labour, unveiling the impressive Huawei Mate X.
Unlike Samsung's Galaxy Fold, the Huawei Mate X has just a single screen that folds outwards such that you're holding it by the screen when it's folded. On the plus side, this allows Huawei to maximise screen real estate both in folded and unfolded configurations, with the Mate X functioning as both a 6.6-inch folded smartphone and an 8-inch tablet.
This approach also adds some nifty functionality to the Mate X's camera. When taking photos with the rear camera, subjects can see a live feed of what they look like on the folded part of the Mate X's screen. Similarly, you can use the Mate X's rear cameras for your selfies while still benefiting from real-time visual feedback.
Huawei's flagship camera phone
The Huawei Mate 20 Pro combines the power of Huawei's own Kirin 980 chip, an exceptional battery and a class-leading triple camera array.
- Amazing camera.
- Battery life that easily beats any other handset.
- Kirin 980 processor is top notch.
- Reverse wireless charging.
Apple, of course, hasn't said a single sweet word about foldable phones. That's not surprising because Apple rarely shows off any kind of prototype device ahead of launch, excluding the still missing-in-action Apple AirPower charging mat.
Equally, mention "bending" a phone around anyone from Apple, and they get notably nervous before asking you to leave the building, thanks to the whole "bendgate" issue that affected the iPhone 6.
Still, Apple wants to position its iPhone brand as the premium priced, most desirable and cutting edge place to be in smartphones, and that means it's at least looking at foldable options. We know this because Apple has filed for a patent for "Electronic Devices With Flexible Displays".
Apple's patent is quite broad in scope, so it could use that patent across many of its lines, noting in its patent filing that a flexible display "may be a laptop computer, a tablet computer, a cellular telephone, a wristwatch, or other electronic device (e.g., a portable device, handheld device, etc.)."
Apple's more affordable flagship
The iPhone XR provides Apple's latest processor and operating system in a package that's more affordably priced than the iPhone XS Max.
- Good battery life
- A12 Bionic processor is still great
- Wide choice of colours
It's rather open, then, as to when and how Apple might introduce a folding iPhone. It's only really just iterated onto its "iPhone X" line of design thinking, and it's usually quite slow to change up designs for the sake of it.
Its patent filing is no doubt genuine, but this may be a case where it has undertaken the necessary R&D work and is pre-emptively staking a claim that could be valuable simply for licensing out to competitors – or for stopping them from coming to market.
Or it could have a foldable iPhone XI sitting in Cupertino right now, ready to release in 2019. Only Tim Cook knows for sure, and he won't return our phone calls for some reason.
LG has got considerable form in the flexible display space, thanks to the work of LG Display, one of the many companies under the wider LG company umbrella. At CES 2018, LG Display showed off a flexible OLED display to select media as well as creating a canyon of flexible OLED TVs for attendees to walk through.
Interestingly, at Mobile World Congress 2019 LG revealed a different take on the foldable phone with the LG V50 ThinQ. Rather than making use of foldable screen technology, the V50 ThinQ supports an optional second-screen attachment that turns the V50 ThinQ into a pseudo-clam-shell phone. The second screen can be used independently of the primary screen, making it easy to multi-task with a video on one screen and a web browser on the other.
It's also possible LG has a more traditional foldable phone in the works. There's evidence with a patent filed that shows off LG's ambitions in what LG specifically calls out as "mobile products".
One interesting quirk here is that while one of LG's designs shows off a three-app display, similar to Samsung's Infinity Flex, there's also a proposed option for a foldable phone with a transparent section for notification display.
That does point to one of the more exciting aspects of foldable phone design. While most manufacturers have settled into rather rigid design styles for their existing smartphones, once you can flex the display, it's an entirely different proposition. We may see numerous different styles of foldable phones as well as different sizes for different users.
Motorola is a brand more closely identified with budget and mid-range phones, but it's also not afraid to innovate, as can be seen from its commitment to its moto mod range of handsets – most recently the Motorola Moto Z3 Play
here in Australia.
So what's Motorola doing in the foldable phone space? All signs point to the resurrection of the once-iconic Motorola RAZR brand. If you've been a phone user from before the smartphone era, you probably remember the RAZR, which was the must-have handset of the early 2000s.
Speaking to TechRadar, Yang Yuanqing, CEO of Lenovo (owners of the Motorola brand for phones) said:
"With the new technology, particularly foldable screens, I think you will see more and more innovation on our smartphone design. So hopefully what you just described [the Motorola Razr brand] will be developed or realised very soon".
Once again, there's a patent, spotted by LetsGoDigital, that details a flip-out two-screen phone with multiple cameras, based on earlier Motorola prototypes. Clearly Motorola's working on concept designs at the very least, although there have only been a few rumblings around potential release dates.
While Lenovo has folded all of its phone work under the Motorola brand, it's also worth remembering that we only see a fraction of its phone output in Australia, where Motorola's primarily a budget player, so the costs of a Motorola Moto RAZR foldable might mean we never see it released here in Australia.
Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi has virtually no presence in Australia aside from handsets directly imported by consumers, but it very much wants to be part of the foldable phone story. While it hasn't revealed precise timing on when it will launch a foldable phone, it did release a teaser for its engineering sample, with a three-part folding design as shown above. It's said to be running Xiaomi's own MIUI firmware on top of the Android operating system.
When can I buy a foldable phone?
Technically, you could buy a foldable phone right now, as long as you were happy to splash out on the somewhat mediocre sounding ZTE Axon M. Most reviews haven't been that kind, and it's a rather old phone now, but you can find one online for around $550, down from that $US750 launch price.
You can pre-order the Royole FlexPai now if you're in China or the US, but that's arguably not a wise move as it's not clear what kind of mobile band support it might have. Plenty of phones developed for the Chinese market skip out on full band support for all of Australia's mobile networks, so you could end up with a foldable phone novelty that can't properly access our mobile phone networks.
As for the likes of Samsung, Huawei and the rest, the broad answer is that we should see the first proper mass-market foldable phones arrive in 2019.
We'd expect to see further hype – and just maybe a launch or two – at Mobile World Congress 2019, but it seems more likely that we'd see actual on-sale units closer to the middle or end of 2019.
How much will foldable phones cost?
As noted, the low-end ZTE Axon M isn't expensive, but then it's not exactly a foldable phone.
The Royole FlexPai gives us a clearer vision of where foldable phone pricing is likely to head, with a listed US price of US$1300, or around $1800. That's from an essentially unknown brand rushing to hit market first.
It's fair to expect that the established brands will deliver foldable phones of better quality, but at higher prices. We're expecting the first models to easily tip over the $2,000 mark. Given Apple's already travelled into that territory with the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max in higher storage variants, we're already in that space to an extent.
As such, if you want to be among the first owners of a brand-name foldable phone in 2019, it would be wise to start saving now.
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