Smartphone Makers Seek Foldable Phones With Flex Appeal
Mobile-phone makers think they have a solution to slowing sales: smartphones with big displays that fold up like books.
At least five of the world’s leading sellers of phones, including Apple Inc., have sought patents for folding models, which would mark the biggest design change to the flat rectangular slabs that have been ubiquitous since the dawn of the smartphone era a decade ago. At least two companies— Samsung Electronics Co. and Huawei Technologies Co.—have confirmed plans to release handsets with foldable displays; Huawei is targeting a release for next year.
Smartphone companies see such an innovation as necessary to arrest a sales slowdown tied in part to a lengthening cycle of device replacement. These days, consumers see less of a need to upgrade for incremental annual improvements in software, screen quality and camera capability.
In addition, creating displays that are larger but don’t take up much space in a purse or pocket takes on urgency as service providers roll out next-generation 5G wireless networks, accelerating a boom in consumption of video, virtual reality and other visually engaging media.
First, though, smartphone makers must overcome some challenges, such as developing a device flexible enough to fold in half that doesn’t sacrifice display quality and durability. Other hurdles include supply-chain limitations for the required materials, higher building costs and the ultimate commercial question: Will consumers want these phones?
“It will take several years to persuade consumers that these foldable phone factors will bring you good benefits, a better experience,” said Jusy Hong, a smartphone analyst at IHS Markit. Regardless, “the smartphone market has matured, and we need something new.”