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Why flexible screens are the future, but smartphones with folding screens probably aren’t.
by Olivier Blanchard | November 9, 2018

On November 8, The Verge’s Tom Warren published a piece titled “The Foldable Phones Are Coming,” outlining Samsung’s tease of a smart phone with a folding screen at a developer conference earlier this week. I encourage you to read his article(s), as they will give you a pretty good understanding of the rumors floating around these devices. There’s also this piece from T3, this piece from CNet, this piece from Engadget, and this other piece from The Verge.

In my opinion though, while what Royole and Samsung are demonstrating is an astounding engineering achievement, smartphones with foldable screens will probably never be a successful product category. Not in 2019, not in 2025, not ever, and here are all the reasons why:

1. Did anyone ever stop to ask why anyone would need or want a smartphone with a folding or flexible screen?

The problem here is purpose. What purpose does this kind of phone serve? We all have smartphones. When have you ever looked at your phone and thought to yourself “man, I really wish I could fold this screen!” When have you ever heard anyone say “you know, what would really make this phone better is a folding screen!” Never and never. What smartphone users actually ask for: a longer battery life, less weight, less bulk, faster downloads, faster processing, better sound, wireless charging, faster charging, better AI, a better camera… But a folding screen? What pain point does a folding screen address? What problem does it solve?

“But it folds out into a tablet,” I hear you say. Yes, that’s true… and we will get to that in a second. Beside that though? If you can think of another possible purpose for a folding screen on a smartphone, let me know in the comments.

2. Pricing is going to be a problem.

Okay. Let’s be honest here. We are well past the point of diminishing returns when it comes to new smartphone value vs new smartphone price. $1,000-$1,200 for a premium smartphone nowadays isn’t all that unusual, and it falls on me to remind everyone that you can buy a perfectly decent tablet or laptop for half that price. These are devices that you can actually be productive on. A smartphone, for its portability, versatility, and convenience, shouldn’t cost as much as a premium laptop or pro-level tablet, and certainly not more.

It’s okay if you don’t agree. If you aren’t on a budget, good for you. Most people though, can’t afford to buy a new $1,000 smartphone every year, or a new laptop, or a new tablet. The average smartphone owner right now upgrades his or her phone roughly every two years. Part of the reason is that incremental improvements in speed, memory, and camera quality don’t necessarily motivate consumers to replace a perfectly great phone with a new version that will only perform 15-25% better, but at the heart of that calculus lies pricing. If phones prices were closer to $400, almost everyone would upgrade every 12 months. As it is, the cycle is 2 years and slowing. At this rate, it could look like 2.5 years between upgrades before too long.

So… the bet here is that consumers are going to be motivated to upgrade to a new category of smartphone with… essentially 3 screens? 1+1 on the inner folding display, and a third on the outside? Really? And people expect this phone to be priced the same as a phone with only one screen? I don’t think that’s likely. My guess is that these phones will inch their way into the $1,500 range (or $1,2,99 – 1,499 in Marketing parlance), and I doubt very much that the majority of consumers will be in a rush to play along with this.

3. Who wants a brick in their pocket?

Regardless of what screen size you prefer, we can probably all agree that consumers want their smartphones to be as thin and light as possible. At the very least, nobody wants to be carrying a brick in their pocket. Am I wrong?

Making a phone as thick as a trucker’s wallet (folded, the phone will have to be at least twice as thick as a standard smartphone today) and as heavy as a can of Monster Java (twice the materials + the extra battery volume required to give it decent autonomy) isn’t exactly going to be a winning selling point for anyone.

Seriously. Who wants a brick in their pocket? Nobody this side of 1986.

4. Good luck selling a $1,000+ smartphone that won’t work with any kind of reasonable protective cover.

That design precludes any kind of workable protective cover like the ones currently available for smartphones, so either phone-makers expect consumers to not protect their expensive new folding smartphones from screen-shattering tumbles, or they expect consumers to have to slip them into unsightly protective contraptions that won’t allow them to completely close. I don’t think that will fly with most consumers either. (And no, a thin book cover design like the ones originally sold with iPads won’t really fly for most consumers for a device this important to their daily lives.)

5. Is that foldable screen really going to be reliable, or is it just a quality control disaster waiting to happen?

Phone manufacturers are going to have a tough time convincing consumers that a foldable screen isn’t a likely point of failure on a pocket device. Even assuming that these screens don’t eventually start cracking, breaking or developing weird spots and distortions near the folding surface, I doubt very much that screen sensitivity will remain consistent and reliable from edge to edge. I don’t know this or a fact, but that is a question that device makers will have to answer convincingly.

6. Is a foldable screen really going to last 2-2.5 years?

My previous point was just a general observation about components failing after a few months of heavy use in a certain percentage of devices. Quality control issues are just par for the course, and moving parts are always a vulnerability.

This additional point though is about durability. Fold and unfold the same piece of plastic or fabric or whatever material, and you weaken it a little every time. Two years of folding and unfolding and folding and unfolding is a long time. I’m not sure that most consumers will be willing to take their chances with that, especially in first and second generation devices using this tech.

7. I guess these phones won’t be usable with mobile VR headsets?

Self-explanatory. The form factor doesn’t lend itself to it.

8. The form factor overall makes no sense.

Think of that design concept this way:

  • When consumers will be using it as a phone, it will be heavier, thicker, and less pleasant to use than standard premium smartphones.
  • When consumers use it as a tablet, it will still be smaller and thicker than every other tablet out there, and with a screen I don’t expect to be as reliable as screens used in standard (non-folding) tablets.

Ergo: By trying to combine a phone and a tablet into a single device in this way, what you end up with is half a phone and half a tablet. For $1,000+, I just don’t see the point. Consumers would be better off buying a solid non-folding smartphone and a mid-range tablet, and invest in a fashionable messenger bag to carry them both in.

Having said that…

I’ve said it twice already, so let me make it a third: folding and flexible screens are a brilliant engineering achievement. I don’t want my skepticism of smartphones with folding screens to detract from that. I think that folding screens are going to open up very exciting new possibilities for device-makers. It’s just that… right now, this seems like a technology in search of a purpose, and smart phones aren’t it.

Where I actually expect folding (or rather flexible) screens to be successful at scale.

  • The Automotive Industry: Everywhere I look, I see signs that connected vehicles are going to be a pretty massive market between now and 2045. That means a lot of onboard entertainment and data sharing, which in turn means more displays. Folding screens = almost every surface can be a screen. You can wrap a screen around the back of a seat, for instance, or turn an elaborately curved dashboard into one giant display. The sky is the limit. I think folding screens are going to revolutionize automotive design, at least from a cockpit and entertainment system standpoint.
  • Display advertising: If you can fold a display, you can wrap it around anything, and give it any shape you want. Being able to more easily merge digital displays and curved or bent surfaces means you can effectively turn any structure into a billboard, from columns and spheres to curved subway tunnels and the outside of vehicles.
  • Smart living spaces: Folding screens means anything can be turned into a display or interactive screen. That means furniture, walls, and so on. Displays can essentially turn into heavy skins for pretty much any backdrop you want. Having that kind of flexibility will allow device-makers and furniture manufacturers and architects to create entirely new types of products. (Smart home hub displays won’t have to look like tablets anymore.)
  • Fashion: Folding screens bring us a giant step closer to wearable screens. While we may not yet have reached a point where fabrics can effectively take the place of a display or screen, the ability to embed a screen in a garment or fashion accessory just took a pretty serious evolutionary step with folding and flexible screens. Proof of concept is only the beginning.
  • Wearables: The ability to fold or bend a screen is also a game changer for all manners of wearables, from the kind we wear on our wrists to the kinds we may want to wear on our heads. A screen that molds to the contour of a forearm, for instance, or a visor that can be adjusted by hand to curve to a user’s exact specifications could be pretty exciting for product designers and consumers. The healthcare and wellness applications alone are worth hours of discussion.

Okay, that’s it. I’ve said my piece. We will have to wait and see if I am right, but no matter how much money device-makers put into folding phones over the next 12-24 months, I just don’t think the category is going to take off. The folding phone isn’t where the future of folding and flexible screen lives.

Feel free to share your thoughts and reactions in the comments.

Cheers,

Olivier

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