Apple poised to enter the foldy-phone fray

A patent for a new foldable phone has emerged in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, signalling Apple’s entry into the desperate battle for innovation.

Filed on March 28, the document describes an electronic device with ‘bendable or flexible layers’ to move towards creating a new form-factor for the iLeader. Although Apple has been relatively quiet in the foldable arena to date, it wasn’t going to be too long before the smartphone giant made some noise.

While this innovation might have appeared to be a flash-in-the-pan, the idea of a foldable device will keep imaginative engineers busy. The smartphone industry has been crying out for innovation for years, and while the initial introduction of foldable devices might have been a flop, there is certainly potential in the long-run.

Although the underlying theme of Mobile World Congress this year was the gradual movement towards 5G, devices always seem to wrestle some attention in the headlines. The return of Nokia devices snatched it in 2017, while a Matrix style device caught attention last year, but it was foldable devices in Barcelona this February.

samsung foldable phone

Samsung was the first to start talking about the concept last summer, while Huawei certainly attempted to steal some of the thunder. However, it was Samsung who won the race at Mobile World Congress, though the devices have failed to live up to expectations. Reviewers for a host of different media titles reported faults with the devices, leading to numerous delays and recalls. The official release date was supposed to be May, before being pushed back to June, and now it seems there might be further delays with no concrete date in sight.

And while Samsung is facing engineering difficulties, Huawei’s are much more troublesome. A major disruption to its global supply chain, owed to the White House, puts the prospects of many devices in question, most notably due to Google putting its relationship with Huawei on pause.

The foldable devices segment has seemingly ground to a halt, fading from the headlines after claiming its 15 minutes of fame.

And then Apple makes its debut on the folding stage.

If we were being honest with ourselves, this was always going to be nothing more than a minor set back for foldable devices. The smartphone segment has been searching for innovation, with the last genuine disruption coming back in the noughties when Apple ditched the keyboard. A lack of buttons might have disturbed consumers at the beginning, but who would go back to that era now?

The same will be said about foldable phones. Once they enter the market, consumers will find reason to like them. Whether it is multi-taskers on the tube, gamers with more real estate to enjoy, or watching movies on a wider screen. There are usecases now, and new ones will emerge in the coming years. The devices might not intrigue everyone, but there will be a place in the technology.

It also gives smartphone manufacturers a reason to ask consumers to spend more money. Right now, consumers are being asked to spend extortionate amounts on incremental upgrades. Demand has gone down, we have seen this in the smartphone shipment figures each quarter, and the refurbished devices market is growing steadily. Consumers are sick of taking out second mortgages for much the same.

And when Apple decides to showcase its own device, you can pretty much guarantee there will be queues around the corner.

Line at Apple store

Apple is the master of creating and cultivating a brand identity and loyalty amongst its customers. Some might say the closed ecosystem is forced loyalty, but many Apple customers life and breathe the brand. There are a few faltering at the moment, you can see that through Apple’s sliding market share, but they may well be brought back by genuine innovation.

However, what is worth noting is that Apple does make excellent products. It would be unfair to credit all of its success to the marketing department; the engineers do chip in as well.

Most of the time the specs are market leading and the reviews are some of the highest around. Apple’s engineers live through a culture of perfection, dating back to the leadership of Steve Jobs, which is represented through the price of the products and the loyalty of the customers.

One of the issues which all manufacturers will face is the thickness of the phone. Smartphones are increasingly becoming sleek devices, incredibly light and not that intrusive. Foldable devices which we have seen so far certainly do not fit this description. Such is the challenge of doubling the size of the screen, and the power demands which accompany this real estate, these devices are bulky. It might turn off some consumers.

LG has come up with an interesting concept, somewhat of a halfway house, with its latest device, the V50ThinQ 5G. The smartphone can be plugged into a separate module, which includes a second screen. This product effectively has the same advantages of a foldable screen, double the screen space, but the phone can be taken out of the module for everyday use. It isn’t the full-blown promise, but it is an interesting addition.

fznor

Another minor irk for some reviewing the devices is that they are not completely flat. Even when fully extended, there is still a slight bend in the screen. This is really nit-picking, as it won’t impact experience that much, but hyper-techno-enthusiasts will pick on this minor ‘flaw’ in the devices.

Price is another consideration; can Apple create a product which is friendly enough to the wallet? Apple customers are of course used to paying a premium, but foldable devices could take this to a new extreme. Huawei’s first foldable device was priced at $2,600 while Samsung’s was $1,920. Apple is traditionally more expensive than these two, but that would surely be too much to ask of customers.

The second-wave of foldable devices are likely to be cheaper, and soon enough economics of scale in the manufacturing facilities will kick-in. But whether smartphone manufacturers are pricing themselves out of the market remains to be seen with future launches.

Finally, the durability of the devices needs to be questioned. Smartphones are already delicate pieces of kit, just look at the number of cracked screens which are being carried around today, and introducing a fold introduces another weakness for the clumsy and drunken to take advantage of.

These are a challenges Apple engineers will have to consider if it wants to woo its followers back into line.

That is not to say Apple customers blindly follow however. Not only have you got some switching to more price-friendly alternatives, you have to remember how long it took the Apple Watch product line to gain traction. Even now some might say this is a product line which is struggling to live up to the promise.

But Apple is Apple…

If anyone can crack the foldable devices market, Apple would certainly be a sensible bet.

Gimmick or genuine progress? Foldable phones are coming to MWC

Pretty much all the major phone manufacturers have been teasing the world with foldable smartphone launches, and now its Huawei’s turn to tickle the fancy.

The Chinese brand has not gone as far as promising a foldable phone, but in a tweet (which you can see below) the imagery suggests this might be the next step in the evolution of Huawei devices. Considering Samsung, Xiaomi, LG and others have all dropped their own hints, it should hardly come as a surprise Huawei is joining the party.

“It is certain that foldable devices using flexible display technology are going to be hot topic at MWC,” said Ben Wood, Chief of Research at CCS Insight. “Samsung’s intentions to deliver flexible displays are clearly building on its Infinity Flex Display showcased in October. Xiaomi has teased an interesting prototype and upstart Royole has managed to steal the limelight with its FlexPai foldable tablet/smartphone albeit little more than a clunky prototype still a long way from being a mass-market consumer device.”

But here is the big question; is this a gimmick to catch the attention of bored consumers, or could foldable devices be the next big thing in the smartphone world?

Starting with the gimmick accusation. The last genuine disruption to form factor for smartphones arguably came a decade ago. Apple released its smartphone which decided to ditch the keyboard, a move which was initially dismissed by some in the industry. Nowadays anything but a massive screen looks positively odd.

With global smartphone shipments flat-lining, manufacturers need to search for a means to re-capture the attention of the consumers, convincing them the increasingly extortionate prices are justified. The devices segment needs to be reinvigorated, but foldable devices need to be more than a gimmick.

“It feels like we’re currently in the Stone Age when it comes to products with flexible screens,” Wood said. “But this isn’t a criticism, merely an observation that we have seen the first very tentative steps toward implementation of a technology that may seem to be a solution looking for a problem now but is likely to become a pillar of designs of consumer electronic devices in the future.”

That said, the sceptics need to bear one thing in mind; smartphones are so much more than communications devices nowadays. These are devices which people work on, play games, watch content and increasingly access services such as online banking. Perhaps the foldable devices can help with increased interface.

A foldable smartphone could soon become a hybrid communications/entertainment device, folded for normal phone functionality, but then opened up to allow for a bigger screen to improve the gaming and content experience. More people are catching the gaming bug while video has been massive on smartphones for some time now. It can potentially address a pain-point for consumers.

Improving the experience is difficult as people don’t want to carry massive devices around with them. The convenience of a smartphone is its size, this is the reason its rare to see people carrying around a tablet. A foldable phone could bridge the chasm. That said, there could be some issues in the pipeline…

“The big worry I have with the sudden rush in foldable phones coming out now from several manufacturers is that the technology could be coming to market before the software is properly optimized to work with foldable designs,” said Ovum senior analyst Daniel Gleeson. “Turning technology advances into satisfying and impactful user experience changes has not be the strong suit of Android manufacturers.

“This is partially due to their lack of control over Android, but also the intense competition between various Android brands means that short term thinking tends to win out when it comes to deciding when a technology will be introduced. Apple on the other hand has traditionally been much more controlled with how and when it introduces new technologies, ensuring there is a good user experience and clear use cases associated with each innovation.”

As Gleeson points out, the devices need to pass the ‘so what’ test. As long as the device manufacturers prove there is a use-case and genuine applications for the advancement in form factor, this idea could be a keeper.

We are going to reserve judgement on the devices until we get to see, and play around with, them at Mobile World Congress later this month. If the experience is positive, it could certainly provide some impetus in the sluggish smartphone segment.