Tech Talk: Are Folding Smartphones Ready For Primetime?

Folding smartphones have been cropping up in patents and in the news across the web over the past several months but the cautious approach of some manufacturers may indicate that the technology itself is not quite ready for primetime yet. Samsung, in particular, is expected to be very reserved with its own folding handset - the Samsung Galaxy X. There has even been some speculation that device will only be sold in the company's home market of South Korea. Other manufacturers have also announced their own folding devices or have patented versions of the underlying technology. However, those devices won't necessarily be placed at the top-end of the market despite the premium pricing. In fact, the pricing seems to stem mostly from the screens themselves and the development required to create the effect. For example, ZTE's Axon M is an AT&T exclusive and only packs in a Snapdragon 821 SoC, which is 2016's flagship chipset. That's as opposed to using the latest chipset - the Snapdragon 835. Beyond that, its screen has a somewhat lower resolution than might be preferred, at 1920x1080, with each of its two screens measuring 5.2-inches. Moreover, neither of the two manufacturers listed here is expected to move the folding technology into their respective flagships, at least for the next generation of devices.

None of that is to say that some caution isn't warranted or that it is something new to the smartphone market. For starters, companies like Samsung and ZTE already have a generally good idea as to how well their flagships will most likely sell. On the other hand, they really have no idea how the market will actually react to new innovations resulting in the complete physical redesign of a smartphone. In Samsung's case, the reasons for caution become a bit more obvious. The company is currently at the top of its game and is among the top smartphone manufacturers in every market. With strong competition from the likes of Huawei, Xiaomi, and others in several key markets, the company can't afford to make too many mistakes. The idea of a bendable or foldable smartphone can be exciting but it is ultimately untried and carries substantial risk in terms of both brand reputation and sales.

Samsung is also expected to launch the Galaxy X at a completely different event from its next-generation flagship - the Galaxy S9. The latest rumors suggest the Galaxy S9 will be debuted later, probably at its own Samsung Unpacked event, while the Galaxy X could be shown later this year or at one of the year's mobile-specific events - such as Mobile World Congress 2018 or the Consumer Electronics Show 2018. That would make sense since those two shows are a more traditional showcase for up-and-coming bleeding-edge innovations in the tech industry. That would also keep the devices separate in consumer's minds. Meanwhile, ZTE is following a similar track. The company already revealed its own foldable device near the middle of October and has recently informally confirmed a separate flagship in the form of a true follow-up to last year's Axon 7. So, for these two companies at least, neither is ready to mess with its top-selling formula yet.

Moving past the speculation to look at the patents for the technology itself - and in ZTE's case, its Axon M - it's easy to see why either company would be hesitant. The design of these new devices, if those are anything to go off of, is arguably not that exciting. As is usually the case with first-generation iterations of a new technology, these are not necessarily the best representations of what could ultimately be possible.  Starting again with Samsung, the most recent patents that may be tied to the Galaxy X show something akin to a classic flip phone, where the entire inside of the device transforms into a more modern smartphone when opened up. At the same time, the design doesn't appear to fold down completely, which may be a clear disadvantage it has compared to those older phones. ZTE's Axon M, on the other hand, shows gaps between its two screens when unfurled. That effectively diminishes the intended impact of creating a complete expanded display. Both designs present clear problems in that they may not be at all what the consumer market really wants from a foldable handset and, as outlined above, the manufacturers appear to be aware of that.

There is no guarantee that Samsung's own Galaxy X design will follow its patents precisely. It may be the case that the patents are intended as more of a guideline for mechanisms to fold the device itself, as opposed to showing anything like the final product. With that being said, each company pushing the new technology appears to be taking a measured path. Mobile manufacturers have traditionally introduced similarly innovative features in the past using variants on their more popular devices. Historically, that has seen reasonable success and that appears to be the path chosen by ZTE again with its use of the Axon branding. Samsung's own alleged decision to release the Galaxy X on its own, however, does show a separation from that method of introduction. That could plausibly be viewed as a sign that the company isn't ready to associate its folding technology with its renowned Galaxy S family of devices just yet or as hinting at a heightened sense of caution. The company could eventually choose to provide it with Galaxy S branding when the handset launches, of course, but as of this writing that doesn't seem to be the direction it is headed.

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About the Author
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Daniel Golightly

Senior Staff Writer
Daniel has been writing for AndroidHeadlines since 2016. As a Senior Staff Writer for the site, Daniel specializes in reviewing a diverse range of technology products and covering topics related to Chrome OS and Chromebooks. Daniel holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering and has a background in Writing and Graphics Design that drives his passion for Android, Google products, the science behind the technology, and the direction it's heading. Contact him at [email protected]
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