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Gimmick or genuine progress? Foldable phones are coming to MWC

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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.

  • MWC19 Los Angeles


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