Samsung's Foldable Phone Doesn't Appear Ready for Prime Time

Samsung's (SSNLF) recent foldable phone reveal was the smartphone industry equivalent of a teaser trailer.

The Korean tech and electronics giant shared just enough about the phone and its "Infinity Flex" display to tantalize and intrigue the tech press and gadget enthusiasts. Meanwhile, it left observers to make educated guesses regarding some key details about Samsung's plans to commercialize foldable phones, and to purely speculate about others.

Throw in the fact that some of the details that were shared suggest that Samsung's first foldable phone is more likely to be a niche product than a blockbuster hit, and one shouldn't count on the phone upending the industry in 2019 -- even if its underlying technology clearly has a lot of long-term potential.

Samsung's Prototype, and What Rivals Are Up to

With the lights dimmed to avoid revealing too much, Samsung exec Justin Denison briefly showed off a prototype foldable phone on Wednesday at his company's annual mobile developer conference. The device has a 4.58-inch "cover display" that's used when it's closed shut, and a 7.3-inch Infinity Flex display that turns on when the phone is folded open.

Denison said that Samsung will be ready to start mass-producing the Infinity Flex display, which is covered with a composite polymer rather than glass in order to fold without breaking, in a "matter of months." However, no date was given for when a foldable phone containing the display will launch.

Samsung is far from the only phone maker to show an interest in launching foldable phones -- China's Huawei, Xiaomi and Lenovo have all done so to varying degrees, with Huawei reportedly looking to launch a device next year. Chinese phone make Royole recently launched a foldable phone called the FlexPai. However, its software, performance and form factor apparently leave a lot to be desired.

Apple, meanwhile, has filed a patent application for a device with a flexible display, and was reported last year to be exploring the concept of a foldable iPhone.

Since flexible OLED panels are to develop foldable displays, OLED materials and patent-licensing firm Universal Display (OLED) stands to benefit from their adoption.

Why Foldable Phones Could Eventually Take Off

Since the Samsung prototype's Infinity Flex display has a 4.2:3 aspect ratio -- close to the 4:3 aspect ratio at which photos are typically shot -- its diagonal display size doesn't do justice to how much larger it is than the displays on phones such as Samsung's Galaxy Note 9 (6.4-inch diagonal display size) or Apple's (AAPL) iPhone XS Max (6.5 inches), which have aspect ratios north of 2:1. And the same should hold for the display sizes of rival foldable phones.

Applications that could use the extra screen real estate run the gamut from gaming to web browsing to photo and document viewing/editing. Multitaskers could also make good use of it; Samsung says the main display can support up to three app windows.

Ever since Apple launched its original 3.5-inch iPhone in 2007, consumer desire for additional smartphone screen space has been an industry constant. Hence the creation of longer phones with wide aspect ratios, the rollout of edge-to-edge displays and the removal of the home button.

In many ways, foldable displays are the next logical step for this trend. And with global smartphone sales now declining, top OEMs have a strong incentive to make large-scale adoption of foldable phones happen sooner rather than later.

Why it Could Take Some Time

While consumers want lots of screen space, they also want phones that are thin and light. And the prototype phone that Samsung briefly showed off look pretty bulky when closed shut.

Moreover, while many high-end phone buyers have shown a preference for larger displays, they also tend to care about the image quality delivered by those displays. Here, it's worth noting that both the main and cover displays for Samsung's prototype have a relatively low pixel density of 420 pixels per inch (ppi). Most new high-end Android phones, including the Galaxy S9 and Note 9, have densities above 500 ppi. In addition, Samsung says that in order to build a thinner display, it reduced the thickness of a polarizing layer on the main display that helps reduce glare by 45%.

We still have no word on what battery life will be like for Samsung's first foldable phone will be like, nor about its expected retail price (chances are that it won't be cheap). And while Alphabet/Google (GOOGL) is working to make Android foldable phone-friendly, getting both Android and popular apps that run on it to properly support the form factor will take a little while.

Provided form factor and battery life concerns can be addressed, foldable phones have a pretty good shot of becoming quite popular over the long-term. However, as is the case with so many new technologies, "mainstream" consumers will probably be better off passing on the first-generation foldable phones that will soon roll out, and waiting for devices with more refined hardware and software.

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