In November 2018, the first ever commercial foldable smartphone called “FlexPai” by Royole was launched. It beat all the big brands to the red carpet, but the quality of their product is debatable. We’ll wait to see what the big name brands come up with. We know that Samsung is set to release a foldable smartphone this year, and all other major brands should follow suit pretty soon, except Apple. They like to play the long game.

FlexPai is a disruptive innovation. It’s a litmus test that other mobile phone manufacturers will need to watch closely to see how the market responds to the whole idea. So far, the reactions are mixed and it’s hard to tell if this is going to succeed or is just another failed idea, like Google Glass. Clearly, it’s far from perfect, and personally, I wouldn’t buy one just yet. They will probably have better iterations in the coming months. If you want to know more specific details about FlexPai, visit their website here.

Foldable phone launches by leading brands

Apart from Samsung, Motorola, and LG have also indicated they plan to launch their own foldable smartphones. At Samsung’s developer conference last year, we saw the unveiling of the Infinity Flex foldable phone, as well as announcements by Android that they have released tools to fully support foldable screen devices.

Another rumored folding phone that might be launched this year is the Motorola Razr. Motorola filed a patent for a two-screen folding phone that, when flipped out, can be used as a tablet. LG also filed a patent for a mobile phone with a foldable flexible display. The race is on!

The year it all comes together

2019 is the ‘it’ year for exciting new innovations, from hardware to software and artificial intelligence, we are getting a breath of fresh air after a long hiatus in revolutionary inventions – back to the novelty that we experienced in the 90s and early 2000s with the introduction of firsts like mobile phones, touch screens, and digital cameras. But for the foldable phone, we have one question: What problems does it solve? This is what consumers will need to know from the get-go. And so far the answers are not so impressive. Could this be another ‘Google Glass’?

Certainly, we’re still in the early stages of foldable display technology, so we cannot make an all conclusive prediction as to whether this will be a success or failure, but we can, with certainty, point out areas that will prove to be a challenge, such as hardware and software adaptation, and consumer behavior.

Battery life, size, and weight

Design of a foldable smartphone. 3d illustration.

Abstract three-dimentional sketch of a foldable smartphone. Technical drawing. 3d illustration.

Batteries quietly power the mobile device industry and even though most tech media outlets do not discuss battery technology often, we’re all heavily dependent on them. Most of these foldable phones are aiming for a 7-inch display when unfolded.

Such a large screen will require powerful long-lasting batteries. It remains to be seen how manufacturers will pull that one off without ruining the thin sleek designs that consumers imagine. The last thing you want is a new smartphone that resembles your breakfast peanut butter sandwich with a weight of three apples. But this is exactly what we saw with FlexPai and the prototype that Samsung used when unveiling the technology at the developer conference last November.

A bigger battery means more weight and a thicker device. Understandably, this is an area that will spur competition. It’s a welcome challenge and whoever gets the breakthrough first will win big.

Apps to support foldable smartphones

Developers will need to update the over 2.9million apps in the Play Store to support foldable displays. It’s like having both the tablet version and mobile phone version of each app in one. Sounds easy to do, but it’s not. It’s only simple if your app was built with app creators like Andromo where code updates are made for you, and you can push them to your apps with a few clicks.

For the majority of developers, this will require redesigning their apps and spending many hours coding – especially that several devices are launching in a space of a few months. When devices go on sale, consumers expect their apps to work flawlessly with no excuses. Any deviation from this rule has serious consequences; consumers can and do use their wallets to punish ill-prepared manufacturers.

App developers define how we interact and feel about our mobile devices, and if they can create immersive user experiences, then the foldable device market has a very bright future. If they fail, it too will fail. Blackberry, Symbian and similar closed loop platforms with limited apps for their devices failed for the same reasons, a very costly miscalculation. But seeing that everyone is steaming ahead, maybe they’ve got it figured out.

Not quite there yet

The hype surrounding foldable smartphones and the media attention it is getting reminds me of another experimental device – the Google Glass. If smartphone companies are not careful, they may end up making the same missteps Google did. If the market is not yet sold out on the idea, it’s almost impossible to change public perception, even with millions of dollars spent on marketing.

Ian Altman, writing in Forbes, says “Google Glass didn’t fail because of the technology, rather because it wasn’t clear to the customer what problem it solved or why they needed it.” Early adopters of foldable smartphones or any other “new” technology usually do so just because it’s the next cool thing. But it’s only after understanding the problem you are trying to solve that consumers will truly appreciate foldable devices and make informed purchase decisions. Marketers will need to craft good messaging around this subject.

Lessons from Google Glass

Although Google Glass failed, it gave us valuable lessons, so in that sense, it wasn’t a total failure. As for Google, they also learned a lot from their experience because Glass is back, but an exclusive enterprise solution. They discovered real problems that can only be best solved with Glass. And businesses in health care, logistics, and many other industries are reaping the benefits.

What started out as a mass market product, blew through millions of dollars in production and marketing, is now back as a really useful tool that improves productivity and saves time and money for businesses today. How about that? Good job Google! I’d like to believe this was the original purpose for Google Glass but they got carried away with thinking that it would work for the mass market. Maybe Google should consider extending this technology to drivers.

Other uses for foldable display technology

Likewise, foldable displays may not be for everyone. This technology might be useful to digitize newspapers and books while keeping publishers operational. Let’s face it, reading a textbook from a tablet might be more interesting if it was a flexible lightweight device. Tablets can get heavy in the hand after a while. Also, maybe a newspaper that updates itself every morning. I always get irritated when pages fall out of my newspaper. Okay, that’s probably in the future but, at least it gives you an idea of what the possibilities are.

First things first

So, with Google Glass in hindsight and FlexPai in their view, Samsung, LG, Motorola, and others, will need to ask themselves and answer these critical questions: (a) What problems are we trying to solve? (b) Why is our product needed? If they can answer each question clearly without hesitation, and consumers agree, they will succeed. If they are not 100% certain that this works for the mass market or not, that’s tricky ground.

At Andromo, we’ll be watching this new technology race very closely. Just like artificial intelligence before Big Data and IoT, it was difficult to use the tech for everyday activities. But now, with Big Data, 5G and IoT in their prime, we are experiencing tremendous growth in AI technology. So it’s too early to say whether foldable displays will succeed or fail. They may just be too early. We’ll have to wait for the market response.

What do you think about foldable display devices? Is this something you’re looking forward to, and why? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section.

Mwenge Ngona

Mwenge Ngona

Head of Marketing at Andromo. Without marketing, we would never know anything about anything. Think about that. We'd be missing out on life!