Goldman Sachs is right: Samsung's folding phone may be a genuine threat to Apple's iPhone
- When it comes to folding phones, Goldman Sachs thinks "Samsung has at least a two-year lead" over Apple.
- Though the Samsung Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X are clunky prototypes, they still look great.
- Apple was four years behind the big-screen "phablet" craze that is now the standard size for phones.
- If people do want phones that can also be iPads, then Apple is already behind the game.
The Goldman Sachs analyst Rod Hall and his team made a big call last Wednesday favouring Samsung's new folding phone, the Galaxy Fold: He told clients that Apple's iPhone range might be two years behind the curve.
A folding phone "may not be doable for Apple," he said. "We see this as challenging for Apple, who could find themselves with no access to the critical flexible OLED technology, for which we believe Samsung has at least a two-year lead over other display competitors."
This feels absurd. Is Apple really two years behind the future of phones? History shows that the idea is plausible.
Samsung is known for its gimmicks. The Fold costs nearly $2,000 and is launching into a marketplace where almost no one has ever said, "Gee, I wish this was fold-ier."
Predictably, pro-Apple bloggers like John Gruber dumped all over the Fold.
"I look at the Galaxy Fold and I still see a prototype. It looks terrible when folded - a thick device with a tiny display with huge forehead and chin," he wrote, adding, "It just seems clunky."
He later added: "The Galaxy Fold looks like a prototype, not a shipping product. I think flexible, foldable displays have a good future, but this isn't it."
This feels like 2010 all over again
But now, at the massive Mobile World Congress tech trade show in Barcelona, foldable phones are the only story.
The concept is simple: It's a phone roughly the size of an iPhone XS or XR, but it opens up like a book, and then you're looking at a screen twice the size on the inside (the Samsung Galaxy Fold) or the outside (the Huawei Mate X).
Suddenly, it feels like 2010 all over again.
That year, Samsung began selling large-screen "phablets" - a move then scorned by Apple. Apple's CEO at the time, Steve Jobs, said "You can't get your hand around it" and "No one's going to buy that."
By 2013, however, Apple realized Jobs was wrong. Internal documents produced for a lawsuit showed that iPhone sales growth was slowing even though the market as a whole was growing fast. All the growth was among phones with screens bigger than 4 inches; the iPhone was 3.5 inches. The title of one slide in Apple's documents was "Consumers want what we don't have."
It wasn't until 2014 that Apple launched its first large-screen phone, the iPhone 6.
It's obvious why people want larger screens
People like larger screens. They want to see their photos at scale. They want to play games and have the full experience. They want to watch movies they can actually see.
Folding screens are a giant step up for anyone who wants that. (Imagine reading a book that's actually the size of a book.) And yet they are the same size as a regular phone.
The threat to Apple is that Samsung and Huawei have correctly identified that people want big screens in their pockets, and those are already in production. At Apple, they exist only as patented diagrams, as far as we know.
What if there is no longer a need to buy a phone and an iPad?
There is a second threat. When open, the Fold or the Mate X is the size of a small tablet. Part of the appeal here, surely, is that people will be faced with a choice: Pay twice for a phone and a tablet, or just buy a folding phone and get both at once? Apple reliably sells 10 million iPads per quarter. How much of that might Samsung steal?
Gruber is right about one thing: The Fold and the Mate X look like prototypes - really good prototypes, it must be said. These devices will get thinner, their bezels will shrink, their batteries will last longer, their hinges will get less clunky, and they will probably get cheaper. That's when the real challenge for Apple sets in.
Samsung already makes phones more beautiful than the iPhone, with specs to match. It can be expected to repeat that with folding devices.
It took Apple four years to catch up with Samsung when the latter began setting the pace in large screens. Today, iPhone sales are declining, and there is no hint of a new iPhone format in sight. It will be interesting to see how long Apple waits this time around.
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