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On the business or user case for foldable phones

In the past week or so, a few smartphone manufacturers, including Samsung, have unveiled their versions of phones that you can fold, not just slightly, but all the way by 180 degrees. Beating everyone else to actually manufacture and showcase foldable phones is the electronic company by the name Royole, who, on 5 November 2018 launched FlexPai, a 7.8-inch tablet that can be folded into a smartphone. Although reviewers suggest the phone is not at the level of the iPhones and Galaxies quality-wise, it is nevertheless the first real, working, foldable phone. Samsung’s version of foldable phones is expected to be available sometimes next year. Meanwhile LG unveiled its foldable phone plans in January 2018, but we have not seen any devices yet.

Curiously, Royole, a company founded in Fairmont, California, US, in 2012, seems to focus on “flexible” stuff: foldable smartphone and flexible electronics, including flexible displays and flexible sensors. The company seems to be operating effectively outside of the US, in China, where it reportedly maintains over a million-square feet production campus in Shenzhen, China; with an office also in Hong Kong. The FlexPai will be available as a consumer device in China, with a retail price of approximately $1,300 for 128 GB of storage. The device will come with a 2.8 GHz, eight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, a display resolution of 1920 x 1440 when fully expanded, and a modest 3,800 mAh battery.

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FlexPai appears to be work in progress nonetheless, a situation that is apparently compounded by the use of Royole’s own operating system (OS) – called Water OS – which reportedly is a fork from Android 9.0. Reviewers have suggested that Water OS is not robust, and that FlexPai is exceedingly sluggish, while apps in it are continuously opened accidentally, and the orientation of the phone keeps changing randomly. FlexPai innovation can be found in the hardware, wherein an AMOLED display is virtually unbreakable. This makes me want to ask “So what?”

The automatic thought in my mind when I first learned of foldable phones was that the innovation, though somewhat impressive from material science standpoint, doesn’t really have a user case to support it. Innovations have to simplify our lives or enable us do our work more optimally; and, if I am to put an engineering spin to this, they (innovations) have to fulfil a human need.  What real needs do foldable phones fulfil relative to un-foldable ones? Even with Royole’s focus on flexible gadgets, the company doesn’t seem to have done a good job of making the business or user case for flexible phones.

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To be sure, we are all aware that it takes quite a lot to impress smartphone consumers these days, since they seem to have “seen it all.” It’s no cliché that the demand for smartphones has saturated, requiring manufacturers to dig deeper into the vault of innovation. Moreover, for Samsung, it has been a challenging year for its mobile division, with global smartphone market share losing approximately 13 percent in the last quarter, compared to the same period last year. Both demand saturation and underperformance of Samsung’s devices relative to those from Huawei and Xiaomi, contribute tremendously to Samsung’s challenges. The company is hoping that foldable screens could be a means of strengthening its competitiveness – though competitors are also looking into that direction as well. The challenge is really on for Samsung if you realize that next year (2019) will mark the tenth anniversary of the company’s Galaxy smartphones. What better way to celebrate this than with a radically differentiated smartphone design?

So bets are being hedged by many device manufacturers, not just Samsung, on flexible phones, as the next big thing. Samsung revealed details of its foldable phones on 7 November 2018 at a conference in San Francisco for technology developers from around the world. It unveiled a foldable smartphone prototype featuring the company’s Infinity Flex Display. When unfolded, the smartphone is 7.3 inches, but 4.58 inches when folded in half. The prototype looked as if two smartphones were attached using in-folding technology. While the cover display will have a screen dimension ratio of 21:9, the main display will have a ratio of 4.2 to 3. When folded in half, the phone would be smaller than current 6-inch phones. Even Samsung hasn’t told us why we should want foldable phones. The statement “the seamless transition of application experience from the smaller display to the larger main display is key” attributable to Samsung, is the closest we’ve heard regarding a business/user case for foldable phones. Obviously, this will not be sufficient to sell the proposed devices!

In conclusion, the business and/or user case for foldable phones have not been made by proponents of the technology. That is, the exact design and user experience of foldable phones have not been articulated. What we know we are getting is a tablet-sized screen that can be folded to fit in your pocket, perhaps with a second display on the outside that you can use as a phone.

 


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