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Samsung’s foldable smartphone pre-production review fiasco

Samsung’s foldable smartphone pre-production review fiasco

Forget about my excoriation of the business or use case for foldable phones, as detailed in this column on 12 November 2018. These phones, which you can fold, not just slightly, but all the way by 180 degrees, are for real, and have actually been manufactured –  for example by a little known company with the name Royole – who, on 5 November 2018 launched FlexPai, a 7.8-inch tablet that can be folded into a smartphone. Reviewers suggest the phone is not at the level of the iPhones and Galaxies quality-wise, but it is nevertheless the first real, working, foldable phone.

It takes quite a bit 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 their vaults of innovation. Moreover, Samsung’s revenue (profit) for Q4, 2018 represents a 10-(29-) percent decline compared to the same quarter a year before. The company attributes the drops to a slowdown in the smartphone market, and a decline in memory chip demand.  Underperformance of Samsung’s devices relative to those from Huawei and Xiaomi, contribute to Samsung’s challenges. Thus, the company is hoping that foldable phones could be a means of turning things around.

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As pointed out in the referenced November article, 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.

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I have pointed out that the use, and hence, business, model for these phones is not that obvious, nor has it been properly articulated. Despite the huge investment into the device, 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/use case for foldable phones. Obviously, this will not be sufficient to sell the proposed devices in volumes. This personal disposition of mine notwithstanding, Samsung and Huawei are convinced foldable phones would revive flagging smartphone sales. When you add the cost factor – Galaxy Fold will retain for over $2,000 – I am even more convinced of the challenges.

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Ben Sin alludes to the appeal of foldable smartphones in his 17 April 2019 article in Forbes magazine: “The appeal of a device that can be both a tablet and a smartphone, depending on how the user folds it, is obvious. The idea has been a gadget fantasy for many years, but it wasn’t attainable until the development of organic light emitting diode (OLED) displays, which are flexible unlike LCD screens. Samsung Electronics, a leader in OLED, is naturally the first out the gate, with the Galaxy Fold hitting stores this month. But China’s Huawei isn’t far behind: it too will release the foldable Mate X in June, using Chinese display maker BOE’s OLED panels.” Sin also has a few unanswered questions about foldable phones: “Will the display show signs of creasing or color distortion at the folding point? Does such a radical design make the device more prone to malfunction? Will the device’s software be able to keep up with the constantly shifting screen size and orientation?”

On 15 April 2019, Samsung proudly distributed the Galaxy Fold to gadget reviewers across the United States on schedule for the planned release of the device to the public on 26 April 2019. However, within two days testers started reporting problems with the foldable smartphone, including the observation that the all-important central flexible screen started to break under normal use.

Galaxy Fold reviewers have uncovered two types of failures thus far. The first results when a plastic film which covers the display is removed, though Samsung had advised testers to not remove the film. In the second and more serious failure, the screen stops working if debris gets underneath the panel, which can happen through the hinge part of the device.

These issues with Galaxy Fold are reminiscent of the high-profile failure that Samsung had with Galaxy Note 7 in 2016, when the phone would burst into flames and explode because of battery problems. This led to two recalls and eventual discontinuation of the model.

As it stands, the high price point of Galaxy Fold, plus the recent technical issues, not to mention the apparent absence of a compelling case for acquisition, may not work well in favor of the foldable device.

Samsung’s revenue (profit) for Q4, 2018 represents a 10-(29-) percent decline compared to the same quarter a year before.

Samsung attributed the drops to a slowdown in the smartphone market, and a decline in memory chip demand.

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