Foldable Android smartphones are set to debut in a big way early next year, one known industry insider from China said this week. Besides Samsung, whose ambitions to launch a bendable handset are a well-documented affair the company itself already confirmed, three more manufacturers will be introducing their own foldable smartphones in the first quarter of the year, the source claims. The announcements will all take place at either Las Vegas-based Consumer Electronics Show in January or the next iteration of Mobile World Congress which will be returning to Barcelona in late February.
No other details on the matter have been given, though LG is already widely expected to be one of the three manufacturers in question. The sole fact that numerous foldable handsets will be announced in the coming weeks doesn't necessarily guarantee any one of them will become available for purchase in the immediate future. As MWC is a more smartphone-focused show than CES, it's likely to host more such product debuts than the January trade show.
Background: Besides Samsung, several other phone makers already confirmed their ambitions to launch foldable smartphones in the near future; LG, Huawei, and OPPO are all seeking to do so next year but not all of them may necessarily introduce such products in the first three months of 2019. Huawei is understood to have delayed its bendable handset project on several occasions by now, as did Samsung, though the latter is now expected to be the first company in the world to commercialize a mainstream foldable phone. Huawei almost certainly won't be announcing its foldable device in the first quarter of the year as that's when it's seeking to debut the P30 series of Android flagships that it intends to make the sole focus of its first-quarter marketing efforts in the premium segment of the market. Furthermore, the Chinese company already confirmed its first foldable device will also have 5G capabilities, whereas it separately said it isn't planning on debuting a 5G handset prior to mid-2019.
LG Electronics was sending similar signals up until recently, claiming it isn't pressured to be among the first OEMs to commercialize foldable smartphones and instead wants to deliver some truly meaningful innovations with such a seminal device. However, reliable industry insider Evan Blass recently claimed the South Korean manufacturer will be unveiling its first bendable handset at CES. The device will likely be an early prototype and may not end up hitting the market until the second half of the year. The summer of 2019 is also the approximate launch window of OPPO's first foldable smartphone, though little details about that gadget are currently known.
Manufacturers are presently pursuing two basic design concepts with such handsets – one that seeks to emulate booklets and has already been used (on a rudimentary level) by the ZTE Axon M, and another one that's more akin to an evolution of the flip phone form factor, using a single screen that can be bent in half. The latter philosophy is most notably being used by Samsung whose Galaxy F is expected to resemble a wallet when fully folded. Its drawbacks are twofold; one, such display panels still have questionable durability and no amount of quality-assurance control can replace bringing a product to the masses and seeing how it performs over time.
A low level of wear-and-tear tolerance already delayed the Galaxy F project on at least one occasion, according to previous reports. The second issue comes in the form of low manufacturing yield rates as bendable display panels remain tricky to produce on a large scale. As the world's largest and most advanced maker of OLED modules, Samsung Display is understood to have somewhat addressed this concern over the last year but it's presently unclear whether any one of its rivals is close to doing so itself. Huawei is working on its foldable smartphone project in collaboration with Chinese panel maker BOE and reportedly wants to deliver a device that's akin to a tablet but has the added benefit of being more compact due to its bendable nature. Samsung mobile chief DJ Koh recently said the Seoul-based technology juggernaut wants its first foldable mobile device to be much more than a tablet as it believes it would have a hard time pitching it to consumers otherwise.
Xiaomi, ZTE, and even Google are currently also exploring bendable handsets but are believed to be much further away from commercializing them than Samsung, Huawei, OPPO, and LG. While most of the world's major smartphone manufacturers already voiced a high level of optimism about the commercial prospects of such devices, analysts believe consumers won't be quick to embrace them until developers start delivering a massive volume of apps taking advantage of their unique form factors. Another likely deterrent is the price of foldable smartphones as the first generation of those products is expected to venture far beyond the four-digit territory.
Impact: While still widely seen as more of a hi-tech fantasy than a commercially viable product category, foldable form factors are already being positioned as the golden standard for premium smartphones. Even as many issues related to their durability and manufacturing scalability remain, virtually all of the world's largest handset makers are already committing significant resources toward their commercialization and see them as a feasible growth engine for the next decade and beyond.
None of that means foldable smartphones will be enjoying mainstream popularity anytime soon, especially as the first several generations of those devices will likely have massive price tags attached to them, once again pushing the boundaries of what's considered standard flagship pricing. While a scenario wherein consumers accept prices in the ballpark of $1,500 isn't entirely unfeasible, it's more likely that bendable handsets will start gaining traction once technologies enabling the thereof become more affordable, allowing manufacturers to pass some of those production savings on to consumers. How long will it take for such a development to run its course remains to be seen but one thing is certain – following years of research and development, the world will be given its first proper look at foldable smartphones in a matter of weeks.