Foldable phone outlook hinges on the bend

Samsung Galaxy Fold

Samsung Galaxy Fold

Handset-makers are racing to launch their first smartphones with folding screens but analysts warn the technology is still too rudimentary — and expensive — to woo consumers in large numbers.

Samsung, the world’s biggest seller of smartphones, unveiled a handset that folds open like a book to become a tablet at an event in San Francisco on Wednesday, becoming the first major manufacturer to offer the long-awaited feature.

China’s Huawei, the world’s second-biggest smartphone seller, immediately followed in Samsung’s footsteps and presented its own phone with a folding screen — the Mate X — on Sunday in Barcelona at the start of the Mobile World Congress trade fair.

The Mate X’s screen wraps around the outside so users can still view it when it’s closed, unlike Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, which has a screen that folds shut.

Huawei’s foldable phone will sell for €2 299 when it goes on sale by midyear, even more than Samsung’s, which is priced starting at €1 745.

The audience at both events gasped when the prices of the devices were announced.

China’s Xiaomi, South Korea’s LG and other handset-makers have said they are working on their own phones with foldable screens.

Foldable handsets represent a significant break with the dominant shape smartphones have taken since Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone in 2007 — a dark black rectangle with a single touch screen.

Global smartphone shipments fell 4.1% in 2018 to a total of 1.4-billion as people hold on to their phones longer because of a lack of new features, according to research firm IDC.

Handset-makers hope foldable phones will help to revive smartphone sales.

But Ben Wood, an analyst at tech research consultancy CCS Insight, said the appeal of foldable phones would be limited for now to “gadget lovers” who want the latest tech. The research firm predicts foldable phones will remain a niche category until 2022. They say that, aside from its steep price tag, problems with the devices include poor readability in sunlight and a bulky design needed to protect the screen’s fold.

Analysts have also expressed concerns about the durability of the devices because folds are where problems are most likely to develop in electronic devices.

“Generally the trend has been to have a design that does not have any mechanical elements in a smartphone to make them more durable,” said Ian Fogg, a senior mobile industry analyst at OpenSignal, which collects and analyses data from mobile networks.

Both Samsung and Huawei said their devices can withstand the wear-and-tear of more than 100 000 folds.

Analysts also questioned whether the phones will work as well when they are folded up as they do when they are unfolded.

IDC senior analyst Ryan Reith said he was sceptical that smartphones with foldable screens will work well because apps will need to be “tweaked” to ensure that they work on the smaller screen when the phone is folded up.

“It needs to make sure that there is seamless switch from one [screen] to the other.
There is a lot of work that has to come with that,” said Reith.

British technology market analyst firm Canalys said it expects foldable phones will remain “exclusively ultra-luxury devices”, and that fewer than two million would be sold worldwide this year.

“But high shipment numbers are not the priority. The goal is to capture consumer awareness, and each vendor wants to prove it can achieve the greatest technological advances with its new industrial designs,” said Canalys senior director Nicole Peng.

Research firm Strategy Analytics forecasts worldwide sales of foldable phones will rise to about 64.9-million in 2023 — but that would be just 3.5% of global smartphone sales in that year. — AFP

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