Caixin
Jan 25, 2019 07:28 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Foldable-Phone Arms Race Could End In Tears

The Royole FlexPai tablet and phone is exhibited at CES 2019 in Las Vegas on Jan. 8 Photo: VCG
The Royole FlexPai tablet and phone is exhibited at CES 2019 in Las Vegas on Jan. 8 Photo: VCG

A handful of handset-makers have announced they will launch foldable smartphones this year but analysts say they could be poorly received given the possibility of higher price tags, bulkiness, shorter battery life and a lack of supporting apps.

Their remarks came after Xiaomi Corp. President Lin Bin on Wednesday debuted the company’s foldable phone prototype in a video post on social media site Weibo. He said user feedback would be the key to getting Xiaomi to mass-produce the phone, and asked fans to suggest a name for it.

Foldable phones typically use two or more bendable organic light emitting diode (OLED) panels and function as a handset when folded, but form a larger screen resembling a tablet when unfolded.

Huawei said on Thursday it would unveil what it billed as the world’s first foldable fifth-generation (5G) smartphone at next month’s annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

The phone will include the company’s own Kirin 980 chipset and new Balong 5,000 modem, which it claims is twice as fast as those produced by rival Qualcomm Inc.

While observers agreed that 5G and bendable phones will be new lifelines amid slowing replacement demand and a shipment downturn, they said handset-makers shouldn’t get excited just yet.

All View Cloud TV division General Manager Dong Min believes foldable phones will not become mainstream for another six years.

“Foldable phones are definitely the next big thing going forward. But based on what panel-makers have estimated, exponential growth in demand will only happen by 2025,” Dong told Caixin.

Currently, only Samsung Display Co. Ltd. and LG Display Co. Ltd. from South Korea, and BOE Technology Group Co. Ltd. in China are capable of commercially supplying foldable screens, and it’s likely Samsung would prioritize supply to its own smartphones above those of rivals, Dong said.

The screens, the key technology, are made of layers of glass and polymer film. They must be able to bend at a tight radius hundreds of thousands of times without damage.

Other challenges include components such as electrodes, circuit boards and batteries that must meet the same design requirements. Then there are issues of battery life, and the lack of an established user interface and relevant apps.

Guohai Securities Co. said in a research note in November that given those hurdles foldable phones are likely to be expensive. Making the products viable will involve a great deal of research and development from component makers.

The brokerage predicted the first such phone from Samsung may retail for as much as $1,790. The Korean tech giant and a Chinese rival both announced foldable phone plans in November. Samsung is expected to sell its 7.3-inch model in the first half of 2019.

Meanwhile Royole Corp. has already taken its 7.8-inch foldable FlexPai to market in China, where it retails at 8,999 yuan ($1,325). The phone has a flexible middle section that allows it to be folded with the rear side facing inwards, converting it into a dual-screen phone.

Contact reporter Jason Tan (jasontan@caixin.com)

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