The smartphone market has become rather boring over the past few years. The devices all look the same and, as we’ve talked about before, the manufacturers have been forced to differentiate by talking about camera quality and other less obvious benefits for each device iteration. While these enhancements are all solid updates, they don’t have the external allure of fundamental design changes. Consumers clearly agree, as they are keeping their devices longer, seeing less reason to upgrade what has become a very expensive purchase. But that may be about to change as we enter the era of foldable screens, potentially giving consumers a reason to lust after the next smartphone innovation.
Within the next six months, we can expect to see early foldable smartphone iterations from LG, Huawei and – of course – Samsung. Indeed at last week’s Samsung Developer Conference – a software-focused event – Samsung gave the world the first real peak at its interpretation of the future of smartphones. From the limited view that was offered, the screen conversion looks smooth. Opening the device from a smartphone format to a larger “tablet-esque” format (albeit a square tablet) was seamless. And we can expect similar smoothness and functionality from the other OEMs when – presumably at CES or Mobile World Congress – the foldable form factor becomes the topic of conversation.
There are, of course, at least a handful of caveats to the success of these new devices. The obvious one is price: there’s no indication yet as to just how expensive these devices will be, but it’s safe to say that they’ll make our eyes water. Consider that a typical flagship product today costs in excess of $1,000; we should expect that these new phones will be far closer to $2,000. Royale, a relatively unknown Chinese OEM, which launched the first foldable smartphone about a week ago, is expected to price its device around $1,300; but, we can expect the larger, established brands of Samsung, LG, and Huawei to be looking for a premium value to help recoup their investment. These devices will not be cheap to manufacture, but that’s quite an investment for most consumers, potentially making this more of an enterprise play.
The second concern is regarding the size of these devices. Samsung was incredibly coy about the device it demoed, ensuring that the audience focused on the screen transformation and not on the external design, which was hidden from view. On the plus side, these new foldable designs use thinner screens than with previous smartphones in order to gain flexibility. But, there’s a fairly hefty concern that the average consumer may think these devices are a little on the bulky side, as their expectations have been set by shows such as HBO’s WestWorld, where the near-future cast uses ultra-thin foldable technology that looks out of this world… and, of course, is.
The last challenge to keep in mind is that these are all Android-based tablets and Android-based tablets have never held the appeal of Apple’s iPad. So perhaps the combination of a bulkier form factor and the fact that this is Android-based may slow market acceptance. Perhaps. But what if it doesn’t? What if these three major manufacturers do succeed in launching compelling foldable devices in early 2019? While it may not sway too many iPhone customers away from Apple, we could certainly see a greater impact on the iPad market, particularly those iPad users who currently own an Android phone.