It only took 4 months for the future of the smartphone to crash and burn
- Four major smartphone makers - SAmsung, Huawei, Oppo and Xiamo - unveiled their first foldable smartphone prototypes earlier this year.
- Samsung and Huawei, the two biggest smartphone manufacturers in the world, were expected to launch their first foldable phones, the Galaxy Fold and Mate X, in the first half of 2019.
- But after Samsung bungled the debut of the Galaxy Fold, and Huawei delayed its own foldable device, the future of the foldable smartphone is up in the air.
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Over a decade ago, the world started shelving their cellphones - with their static screens and limited applications - to embrace smartphones, which offered large touchscreens to watch movies, play music, and even browse the web.
We have loved and lived with these rectangular designs for years. But several months ago, we got a glimpse of something new: potentially the next evolution of the smartphone.
Imagine holding your phone as it is right now, but opening it up like a book, and seeing a new display inside that was double the size of your outside screen. That's the dream of foldable phones, to be both a phone and tablet in one form factor. Unlike smartphones, which have singular, fixed displays, foldable phones promise more screen real estate when you need it.
When a handful of the biggest smartphone makers in the world announced their first foldable phones in February, it looked like the world was ready to welcome a new form factor once again. But it only took a few months and a bunch of upset tech reviewers to postpone that dream for the foreseeable future.
In late February, a handful of smartphone makers announced their plans to release foldable smartphones in 2019.
Samsung surprised everyone expecting to see the new Galaxy S10 phones at its Unpacked 2019 event by debuting its first-ever foldable smartphone at the very beginning of the show.
Samsung's Galaxy Fold, with its two screens and five cameras, would be about twice the price of most premium smartphones — about as expensive as a high-end laptop.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Galaxy Fold was that it didn't have some far-off release date. Samsung said the Galaxy Fold would be ready on April 26.
Samsung's surprising announcement sparked a period of hype around foldable phones.
The same weekend Samsung announced the Galaxy Fold, Huawei — the second-largest smartphone maker in the world, next to Samsung — unveiled its own foldable phone at Mobile World Congress, called the Mate X.
Unlike Samsung, Huawei refused to offer a specific release date beyond "later this year". Some reports said Huawei was hoping to have the Mate X ready by June.
Also that same weekend, Oppo — the third-most popular smartphone maker in China — unveiled its own foldable phone concept.
Oppo's foldable phone didn't come with a price or release date, but it created the impression that more companies were ready to start building radically new smartphone designs.
The foldable phone concepts kept coming in March, when Xiaomi — the fifth-most popular smartphone maker in China — posted a video to Twitter showing off a concept for a foldable phone, which generated a lot of buzz online.
You can watch Xiaomi's 10-second promo for its foldable phone below.
Meanwhile, April 26 — the release date of the first foldable phone, the Galaxy Fold — was fast approaching.
As the Galaxy Fold's launch loomed, Samsung began shipping the first units to reviewers and tech publications in early April.
This is when foldable smartphones hit their first rough patch.
Many journalists and reviewers that received Galaxy Fold review units said their $2,000 devices broke within a day or two of use. Not weeks. Days.
Samsung did not communicate this at the time, but the Galaxy Fold units came with a thin screen protector, which you can see here. It was not meant to be removed, but many reviewers didn't know this information and peeled off the protectors. Ensuing issues made the phone totally unusable.
Some Galaxy Fold devices broke even though the screen protector remained intact. In a handful of these cases, dust or debris got between the screen and the protector, creating noticeable bubbles in the display and making it outright unusable in some instances.
Not every Galaxy Fold review unit broke, but almost all of them grew noticeable creases along the center of the display, where the phone's hinge is located. To have these issues in just a few short days wasn't a good look for a $2,000 phone.
On April 22, the excitement around foldable phones hit a screeching halt. Just days before the planned launch of the Galaxy Fold, Samsung announced it was delaying its device until further notice.
Here's Samsung's full comment on the matter, which was shared with The Wall Street Journal:
"We recently unveiled a completely new mobile category: a smartphone using multiple new technologies and materials to create a display that is flexible enough to fold. We are encouraged by the excitement around the Galaxy Fold.
While many reviewers shared with us the vast potential they see, some also showed us how the device needs further improvements that could ensure the best possible user experience.
To fully evaluate this feedback and run further internal tests, we have decided to delay the release of the Galaxy Fold. We plan to announce the release date in the coming weeks.
Initial findings from the inspection of reported issues on the display showed that they could be associated with impact on the top and bottom exposed areas of the hinge. There was also an instance where substances found inside the device affected the display performance.
We will take measures to strengthen the display protection. We will also enhance the guidance on care and use of the display including the protective layer so that our customers get the most out of their Galaxy Fold.
We value the trust our customers place in us and they are always our top priority. Samsung is committed to working closely with customers and partners to move the industry forward. We want to thank them for their patience and understanding."
Huawei just recently decided to delay its own foldable phone, the Mate X, citing the Samsung Galaxy Fold fiasco as a reason for waiting. "We don't want to launch a product to destroy our reputation," a Huawei spokesperson told CNBC.
The $2,600 Mate X, which will support 5G, is now expected to launch around September, according to CNBC, but it's possible we could see further delays.
The Mate X is still expected to run on Google's Android operating system, despite Huawei being included on Trump's US Entity List, which bars American companies from doing business with any company on that list. Huawei says the Mate X was launched before it was placed on the Entity List, which is why it will run on Android.
Right now, it looks like many companies are going back to the drawing board with their foldable designs, hoping to prevent another Galaxy Fold fiasco.
Since the Galaxy Fold was delayed, we haven't heard any news about foldable smartphones from Oppo or Xiaomi. It's possible these companies were also spooked by the failed Galaxy Fold launch, but we haven't heard one way or the other.
Despite seeing so many promising designs a few months ago, it looks like 2019 won't be the year of foldable smartphones after all.
Foldable phones may have crashed and burned in 2019, but you shouldn't count them out just yet. Analysts expect foldable designs, as well as support for 5G, to start becoming available in 2020, which will spark another big upgrade cycle among consumers.
Samsung suffered an embarrassing moment with the initial Galaxy Fold launch, but the company still plans to release the phone eventually - and it's just a matter of time before other companies do the same. Regardless of the high cost and risks associated with these kinds of phones, people are still going to buy these things. (Our take: There are plenty of reasons you should avoid any first-generation product, particularly foldable phones.)
Foldable phones, whenever they're ready, are expected to drive a big replacement cycle, according to a UBS research note published in May 2019. The report mentioned that foldable phones and 5G will "drive more of an innovation-led replacement cycle than is currently the case" next year, in 2020, and that consumers see value in these new form factors and will feel compelled to buy them.
The first foldable smartphones are going to be very expensive, but hopefully over time, the cost of making them will drop enough so more companies can build them, and more consumers can get their hands on them. Maybe then foldable phones will have their day in the sun, and overtake the traditional rounded-rectangle design. But it's not going to happen this year - it's going to be awhile.
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