MWC 2019 is in full flow in Barcelona, with foldable phones making their presence felt in news reports, and prototypes from a range of manufacturers stealing the show. With examples such as the Huawei Mate X demonstrating that foldable design and development are already at an advanced stage, Futuresource Consulting explores the use cases, production issues and business opportunities surrounding this rising trend.
“Prototype foldable phones are nothing new,” says James Manning Smith, Market Analyst at Futuresource Consulting. “Back in 2016, LG demonstrated a screen that folded like a newspaper, placing down a marker for others to aim for. What’s changed today is the design processes that are driving innovations, alongside a shift in balance between the market opportunities and inhibitors. Samsung plans to release its Fold in April, with Huawei to follow in June with the Mate X, asking a higher price but also bringing the added hype sticker of 5G. However, given that both handsets come with premium price points, they, like Royole’s Flexpai before them, will act more like proof of concept rather than genuine drivers of market growth. Notably, LG have pivoted away from a flexible phone in the short run, instead applying a modular approach. The V50 ThinQ has a dual-screen add-on that attempts to augment the standard handset without adding a huge price tag.”
Although the use case for flexible screens can embrace a range of consumer and B2B categories, the smartphone is the most likely device to benefit from flexible screen technology. Smartwatches, tablets, TVs, head mounted displays, automotive and video wall are all opportunities for flexible and foldable displays that Futuresource is tracking. However, the market size and rapid lifecycle of smartphones offers a scale which ensures the financial benefits can be achieved far quicker than many other products.
“Aesthetic appeal is a primary trigger for smartphone purchase,” says Smith, “and a foldable display offers more options and greater consumer pull, even if the practical benefits beyond durability are less obvious. Smartphone design has remained largely unchanged for the last decade, so a flexible screen offers the prospect of a move from the now common rectangle. It starts to build out a new set of USPs, which – if positioned correctly – could quickly capture the hearts and hands of consumers.
“What’s more, we’re likely to see added durability as flexible displays employ plastic rather than a protective glass covering. They are more resistant to water and dust, and also less prone to shattering as a result of being dropped. This benefits both consumers and vendors, as the cost of replacing or repairing handsets under warranty decreases and consumers gain more confidence in their expensive device, confident that the tech can withstand whatever their day-to-day lives throw at them.
“However, devices which repeatedly fold, bend and twist will be subject to constant and repeated stresses, so it remains to be seen how these products perform under extreme use conditions. While some breakages are inevitable, these will have to be minimised for consumers to wholeheartedly adopt flexible phones. Reliability and safety will have to be ensured from launch.”
The higher manufacturing costs of flexible screens will result in smartphones retailing at highly premium prices (as reflected in the retail price of the Mate X and Samsung Fold). While this is in part also the result of other technological innovations, not least 5G modems, commanding premium prices, the flexible screen presents a significant manufacturing cost to vendors. This will inhibit mass adoption at launch, and it is likely that only enthusiastic early adopters with deep pockets will purchase flexible phones in 2019. As flexible screen technology becomes more ubiquitous, competitive pressures will drive prices down.
Beyond the screen, other components have also needed to be made compatible with a flexible form factor, most notably the battery. Although not as problematic for foldable devices, once phones begin to migrate towards a rollable design, the battery will be the biggest challenge. Highly-flexible lithium-ion battery technology is being developed by a wide range of companies, from start-ups to multi-nationals, though many are currently focused on smaller, less power-hungry devices, such as wearables.
“Other key component considerations are SoC (system on chip), camera module, memory and storage,” says Smith, “all of which need to be capable of inclusion in a flexible device as we continue to move down this flexible pathway.”
“We could be poised upon the threshold of a new foldable smartphone era,” says Smith. “Apple has always been seen as the pioneer of new product categories, but this time the rest of the market is powering ahead. Prototypes unveiled at MWC point to an R&D roadmap in the advanced stages of pre-launch. Huawei, TCL (Blackberry), Galaxy and Chinese brand Oppo are all poised to make an entrance, while LG is keeping its foldable technology waiting in the wings. Perhaps the biggest determining factor still has to be resolved. Consumer demand for these devices is still unknown and only time will tell whether the demand is there.“
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