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How foldable smartphones transitioned from the drawing board to the board room

What’s driving consumer interest in this fledgling category? The answer might lie somewhere between ‘new user experience’ and ‘multi-tasking’.

September 18, 2022 / 02:28 PM IST
Samsung has leapfrogged its rivals, shipping about 9 out of every 10 foldables globally.

Samsung has leapfrogged its rivals, shipping about 9 out of every 10 foldables globally.

It’s 6 pm and I’m stretched on the pool deck in my beach villa at the Kandima Maldives. I didn’t just catch a splendid Maldivian sunset but also dashed off a couple of emails with one half of my smartphone display doubling up as a touch keypad. That’s not the only time when I’m glad I left my tab behind on a short ‘bleisure’ trip. Earlier in the day, the Samsung Galaxy Fold 4 also doubled up as my eBook reader as I flipped through Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise to World Domination with the Fold’s clever black screen mode with white text for a reading experience that was easy on the eye.

Samsung in pole position

It's tough to imagine how foldable smartphones went mainstream given their initial teething issues. The numbers confirm the story. Statista forecasts that the foldable smartphone segment will explode from its 0.6 million global sales numbers to a staggering 69.2 million by 2025. Samsung has leapfrogged its rivals, shipping about 9 out of every 10 foldables globally. According to Omdia, the category clocked 11.5 million units in global sales in 2021 with the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 garnering more than 50 percent of that pie. What’s driving consumer interest in this fledgling category? I think the answer might lie somewhere between ‘new user experience’ and ‘multi-tasking’.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 4 Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 4

The Genesis

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You have to go back to February and Nokia’s concept mobile device – Nokia Morph – that was first showcased at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City. It was presented as part of the museum’s ‘Design and The Elastic Mind’ exhibit. This was drawing board stuff at best, a peek into the possible future of the functionality of smartphones. In 2013 Samsung presented several concepts – codenamed Youm – for smartphones with flexible displays. We saw glimpses of this future with the Galaxy Note Edge where a portion of the screen sloped over the right-hand bezel. But it wasn’t Samsung that released first commercially available foldable smartphone with an OLED display. The credit for that goes to Chinese start-up Royole that unleashed the Royole Flexpai in 2018.

Samsung teased the prototype of its foldable device that finally debuted in 2019. The first-gen Galaxy Fold had multiple teething issues but Samsung went back to the drawing board and ironed them out gradually. These included the special protective layer and devices being prone to scratches. I’ve been keeping close tabs on Samsung’s foldables since first checking out the Z Fold 2 and I believe this year’s line-up is the real deal. Both the Z Fold 4 and the Z Flip 4 don’t feel like concept devices anymore, and that’s a great starting point.

Moto Moto

The landscape

Foldables have sort of settled into two clear camps. There’s the book-type foldable that opens into a mini tablet form factor and the clamshell style foldable that is a tribute of sorts to the iconic Moto Razr. Z Fold is the clear leader in the first category, a space that also has devices from Huawei and Vivo, while the Z Flip dominates the second category with the modern version of the Moto Razr being the only serious alternative.

Status symbol or Swiss army knife?

It’s very likely that sales numbers for the Fold 4 are driven by its appeal as a status symbol and one of the most expensive smartphones you can buy along with the iPhone 14 Pro Max. But it’s no longer the only purchase driver. After using the Fold 4 as one of my daily drivers and travel companions, I believe that Samsung is on to something. It’s a large gaming screen one minute and a Kindle alternative the next and yet it weighs just 10 percent more than the iPhone Pro Max models. It’s not just the multi-tasking capabilities, it’s also the promise of new user experiences and interaction scenarios. It’s the same with the Z Flip 4 that offers a whole new experience for selfie fiends. The cover display doubles up as a viewfinder, and you can choose from multiple of shooting options when the device is half open. Samsung has also added another cool party trick – FlexCam with selfie previews.

Fold 4 Samsung Galaxy Fold 4

Are foldables here to stay?

Ask any tech writer who has been reviewing smartphones for a while now and you’re likely to hear a bullish view on the future of foldables. The smartphone experience as we know it hasn’t changed radically except for major hardware improvements. It’s why we are excited about the possibilities for foldable devices. They are not perfect; for instance, you have to deal with wasted screen real estate or black bands while viewing videos. While devices like the Fold 4 are convenient to place on a table in a folded form, it’s tough to prop them up in their fully open form. While Samsung has improved the durability of the devices with water resistance, they are still not certified for dust resistance. It’s the same with apps, some apps have been optimised for a dual screen experience, others, like Instagram, still haven’t.

If you ask us if foldables are here to stay, the answer is a resounding yes. Devices like the Fold 4 have hit the right notes and there are more new experiences coming. We’ve been hearing about Apple’s moves in the background too. Enough said.
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Ashwin Rajagopalan
first published: Sep 18, 2022 02:24 pm
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