Issue Report: Foldable Phone

Is a foldable phone worth buying and will it be popular?

A foldable smartphone is a smartphone that can fold down the middle. This allows access to a larger, tablet-like display when needed by unfolding the device, while still maintaining a similar footprint and functionality to a standard smartphone when folded. The screen may either wrap around to the back of the device when folded (as with the Royole Flexpai and Huawei Mate X), or use a booklet-like design where the larger, folded screen is located on the interior, and a screen on its “cover” allows the user to interact with the device without opening it (such as the Samsung Galaxy Fold). Precursors to the concept have included two separate screens on a hinge in a similar manner, but the term foldable smartphone is currently synonymous with use of a flexible display; concepts of such devices date back as early as Nokia‘s “Morph” concept (2008), and a concept presented by Samsung Electronics in 2013 (as part of a larger set of concepts utilizing flexible OLED displays), while the first commercially-available folding smartphones with OLED displays began to emerge in November 2018. The debate on whether to buy one or whether they will succeed as a product category center around the strength of the use cases, the durability of the screens, the footprint (depth and weight) of the phones when folded, their value in adding to one’s productivity, the look and feel, the price, and a few other factors. See the core arguments summarized below.

Use cases: Are there strong use cases for a foldable phone?

Foldable phones are a phone and tablet in one

Taha Khan, "Pros and Cons of Buying a Foldable Phone," MSN, June 12, 2018

“Pros: Flexibility. Foldable smartphones, as the name suggests, can be folded in the center. With this innovation, you can either fold it to wallet size or open it up to the size of a tablet. It’s certainly a handy prospect, fitting your smartphone into your pocket when not in use and expanding it again when you want a bigger display. Multi-tasking is a cinch when using this type of phone, you can enjoy full advantage of that flexibility anytime, anywhere; Convenience. Imagine going to work or traveling carrying a laptop, phone and tablet. Sounds inconvenient, right? You need to open your laptop to start working, while at the same time being disturbed with text messages or calls on your phone. Having a foldable smartphone with you would be a game changer. With only one device, you can be on the move easily. The display screen will provide you with a wider workspace, while using the same device to accept messages and calls. You don’t have to bring your laptop or tablet along when traveling or going outside. Having everything you need in one device seems pretty cool.”

Foldable phones will be great for enterprise remote workers

Danny Palmer, "Foldable Phones: Why they won't change the shape of the smartphone industry," ZDNet, March 4, 2019

“Huawei thinks the killer combination is a screen which folds out to eight inches across — almost the size of a tablet — and 5G data connectivity. One of the themes of its presentation was that this can be deployed by the enterprise, allowing remote workers to conduct business much more easily, thanks to the dual screen of the foldable phone and the ability to look at more than one application at once.”

Foldable phones are great for streaming media on the go

Paul Armstrong, "How To Decide If You Need A Foldable Phone That Costs $2,000," Forbes, Feb 25, 2019

“Streaming media is the biggest reason to switch to one of the foldable phones thanks to the increased screen size. If you’re a commuter or you watch a lot of movies, these are designed to make you salivate. The average screentime is ten hours for Netflix per week or five hours if you subscribe to Amazon or Hulu [CNBC/GBH Insights]. As 5G rolls out expect huge pushes from all side to watch more video and stream more content than ever before.”

Nobody really needs a foldable phone

Raymond Wong, "Why foldable phones have no chance at succeeding," Mashable, October 26, 2017

“Foldable smartphones and dual-screen phones just don’t work. A single, large edge-to-edge screen works perfectly fine, and that’s the direction that all phones are moving towards. We all think we want a larger screen (why do you think Samsung put a projector into a phone?), but we don’t really need it. It’s not as practical as it sounds. The technology to make it happen isn’t available today. The cons outweigh the pros.”

Having to unfold phone all the time is unappealing

One of the advantages of normal phones is that you can pull them out of your pocket and quickly access your media. Having to add the step of unfolding the phone to access the main screen is a hassle and inconvenience, given how frequently people have to move their phones in and out of their pockets each day.

Foldable phones require two hands for operation

Foldable phones require that you need to use two hands both to unfold the phone and then to operate the larger screen when the phone is unfolded. This can be unhelpful in situations in which you are on the go and want to quickly operate the phone with one hand or want to free up your second hand to do something else.

Use cases do not justify high price tag of foldable phones

Danny Palmer "Foldable Phones: Why they won't change the shape of the smartphone industry," ZDNet, March 8, 2019

“With a $2,000 price tag, it’s difficult to see how these devices are going to gain a mass audience any time soon. When the price comes down, maybe that will change, but for now, the devices appear to be designed to mostly just drive conversation about the mobile industry. In that way, they’ve been a success already. But I’m still trying to bend my mind around that idea that foldable smartphones will be seeing mass adoption any time soon.”

Screen durability: Will foldable phones be sufficiently durable?

Flex screen of foldable phone are less susceptible to breaking

Giorgos Papazoglou, "Foldable Phones: The Case For and Against this Latest Trend," FieldScale, November 14, 2018

“Less prone to breaking. We all have broken our smartphone screen at some point in our lives. If the screen is able to bend without breaking, it also should be able to withstand falls without breaking, right? Exactly! With foldables, broken screens will be a much rarer incident. To be able to fold, the touchscreen module will consist of flexible materials that can absorb forces without breaking. Instead, they will just flex. To be able to flex, the touchscreen will be covered with plastic instead of glass. Plastic can be durable enough to withstand scratches and flexible enough to be folded.”

Many foldable phones simply have two separate glass screens

A foldable phone does not necessarily need a bendable screen surface. Rather, many foldable phones (and arguably the best), simply have two separate screens attached by a hinge and a small bevel separating the two. While a small bevel does divide the two screens, instead of there being a seamless single screen, this is one way to accomplish folding while not sacrificing any screen durability or the look and feel of a glass (not plastic) screen. ZTE Axon M is one example along these lines.

Foldable phones are not durable where they fold

Giorgos Papazoglou, "Foldable Phones: The Case For and Against this Latest Trend," FieldScale, November 14, 2018

“Hardware-wise, there are doubts about the touchscreen’s performance. The main area of concern is where the device folds. That is the most critical aspect of the design. Will touches register properly at that area? Will it be bright enough?  And will it be able to withstand the wear that comes with folding/unfolding actions?”

Foldable phones' plastic screens are not high quality

Brian Barrett, "Want a foldable phone? Hold out for real glass," Wired, March 3, 2019

“the early folding phone manufacturers are leaning on plastic polymers. Which makes sense in that the materials not only can bend as far as you’d need, they can do so repeatedly; Samsung claims its Infinity Flex Display can withstand hundreds of thousands of openings and closings. “The polymer is better at flexibility; it’s easier to bend at the same thickness,” says John Mauro, a professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State University who had previously spent 18 years at Corning. But plastic is also, as you may by now have guessed, worse at all kinds of things. It’s much less hard than glass, which makes it easier to scratch and ding up. And unlike glass, plastic will crease over time, leaving you with a large unfolding display, sure, but one bisected with an unsightly wrinkle.”

Footprint: Is the bigger screen size worth the larger footprint?

Foldable phones offer bigger screens with same footprint

Giorgos Papazoglou, "Foldable Phones: The Case for And Against this Latest Trend," Market Trends, November 14, 2018

“The first obvious advantage that foldable phones will have over traditional smartphones has to do with screen real estate. When smartphones got mature enough, we started consuming content we normally would on our computers, on them. Smartphone manufacturers adapted to this behavior by providing options with bigger screen sizes. Consumers loved this trend. In fact, they loved it so much that screen size has almost doubled over the past 10 years. For example when first introduced, the iPhone 3GS featured a 3.5” screen in 2009, while the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max come in 5.8” and 6.5” respectively (2018). But this trend comes with a drawback. Even though customers love big screen sizes, they hate large devices. That’s why manufacturers tried reducing the bezels so that they could cram bigger screen sizes in the same device footprint. Bezel-less is the current trend; foldable could be the future. Foldable screens give the ability to essentially double the screen size, keeping the same footprint!”

Foldable phones are heavy and bulky

Taha Khan, "Pros and cons of buying a foldable smartphone," MSN, June 12, 2018

“Heavy and bulky. Foldable phones are going to incorporate a bigger battery and more hardware which, though they will make your phone run more smoothly, they also make the phone heavier and thicker. Additionally, the large screen is basically double the size of a normal phone, weighing almost 8 ounces. This extra feature not only makes your phone bulky but also helps to make it more expensive.”

Productivity: Will they add to your productivity?

Foldable phones will improve productivity and multitasking

Giorgos Papazoglou, "Foldable Phones: The Case for and Against this Latest Trend," Market Trends, November 14, 2018

“Keep it folded in your pocket and it’s a smartphone. You can take photos, get calls, browse the internet and do everything you normally would on your smartphone. Unfold it and you have a tablet! You can be more productive in a tablet. Foldable phones will double as tablets (there’s even a term for that: phablets). Phablets can be a precious productivity tool, especially if you are constantly on the go.”

Foldable phones aren't really productivity replacements for computers / tablets

"Why you should be excited for foldable phones - and why you shouldn't," TNW, April 18, 2019

“Foldables might be capable of multi-tasking, but they may not be great for productivity. As things stand, the larger displays on these devices appear to be good for watching videos and reading, but they’re not replacing your tablet or laptop’s ability to help you get some real work done. If you’ve got an iPad with a keyboard cover, for example, you could realistically leave your laptop at home, and write, create presentations, and work on spreadsheets fairly efficiently. The foldables we’ve seen thus far aren’t designed for this, and as such, their limited utility may make it hard for some people to justify their high prices.”

Look and feel: Will the look and feel be strong?

The overall look and feel of a foldable phone

Despite any issues with a plastic screen, the overall look and feel of a foldable phone is quite remarkable. The ability to foldout a tablet for big screen viewing on the go and then fold it into your pocket is quite remarkable. This is both fun and eye catching to bystanders.

Modern polymers offer a strong look and feel

Modern polymer plastics are quite capable screens, offering both a strong appearance of the screen and a good tactile experience. While they might not be quite as good as glass on this front, they are good enough, and overall coupled with the foldable capability are well worth it.

Plastic screen to make phone foldable will look/feel cheap

Giorgos Papazoglou, "Foldable Phones: The Case For and Against this Latest Trend," Market Trends, November 14, 2018

“The screen cover on foldables will most likely be made of plastic, since glass can’t bend as easily as plastic. This might displease some potential buyers: if you spend more than $1,400 on a phone, you would expect a premium feel and build. Plastic feels cheaper and is currently used in low-end phones.”

Price: Is the price just right or too much?

Spending $2,000 on a phone+tablet could be worth it

Spending a substantial amount of money on something that will be on your person at all times and may be central to your consumption of news, media, and social media could be entirely justifiable. Foldable phones promise to add substantially to this every-day experience and therefore may be worth spending substantial amounts of money on.

The price for foldable phones is too high

"Why you should be excited for foldable phones — and why you shoudn’t," TNW, April 18, 2019

“For the next year or two, these devices are going to cost you a pretty penny; Royole’s rough-around-the-edges Flexpai costs something like $1,300, and Samsung wants $1,980 for its Galaxy Fold. At those price points, they’ll likely only appeal to early adopters who are truly excited about the technology, and fall out of reach for folks who don’t want to spend what they would on a high-end laptop.”

Cases: Can foldable phones accommodate cases?

Foldable phones fold to protect their own screens

Foldable phones often act as their own protection by folding to protect the screen on the inside. They need not accommodate cases.

Modern phones and glass need no case cover

Modern guerilla glass and strong bodies of phones do not require protection with a case.

Foldable phones do not accommodate protective cases well

Foldable phones have trouble accommodating protective cases. This means that the phone ends up being very bulky with the case on it, when it is already very bulky without the case and that the case leaves vulnerabilities no inherent with normal cases on normal smartphones.

Performance: Will the performance of foldable phones be better?

Foldable phones have more space for computing power

"Foldable smartphone pros and cons. Why you need one?," Technicles:

“Extra space for hardware. As the phone gets bigger, there is going to be more room for the hardware. Manufacturers can cram in bigger batteries and powerful processors that need even cooling into a foldable smartphone easily.”

Computing power is no problem in normal smartphones

Normal smartphones have plenty of computing power. While surely a larger foldable phone could have more, normal phones are able to pack a huge punch. Therefore, foldable phones don’t solve a problem by providing more computing power.