Companies are always in search of the next big thing - that cool feature that captures the imagination and guarantees headlines and sales. Sometimes these are a wild success (Apple’s wireless Airpods, which caused confusion and mocking when announced), and sometimes they fall flat (3D TVs anyone?). For smartphones, the current obsession is with folding phones - a new age of flip phones where the screen itself is flexible, allowing it to fold in the middle.
The History of Folding Phones
Anyone older than 30 will remember the old-school flip phones that were popular in the early 2000s. The Motorola Razer and the Sony Ericsson Z520 were the cool phones to get - they felt so futuristic and allowed us to pretend we had a proper Star Trek communicator! They served a practical purpose as well - protecting the screen from damage, and making the phone itself smaller (if not thinner) by folding the screen and keyboard into a single space.
As cool as they were, the design couldn’t last: the advent of touchscreen phones like the iPhone meant that separate keyboards weren’t needed anymore. Without them, screens were free to expand, and wIth a single inflexible screen taking up the majority of the phone surface, folding phones became unworkable.
So it has been for the last 15-20 years or so - apart from a few experiments, smartphones didn’t really change from the design laid down by Apple with the original iPhone. The sizes may have changed with popular preference, but the rectangular, slate-like design has remained constant.
However in the last few years improvements to display technology has allowed phone designers to start to tinker with smartphone designs again. And someone was clearly a fan of the old Razer phones, because folding smartphones are making a comeback!
Flexible Screens For Everybody
The first smartphone with a flexible screen debuted at CES 2019 - this was the Royole FlexiPai, which used a bendable AMOLED display that could unfold to offer twice the screen. As an actual phone, it had substantial problems: the device was very slow, fragile and outrageously expensive. As a new concept however, it was startling and immediately captured people’s attention.
Folding phones were officially the Next Big Thing, and so the last 2 years has seen a flurry of activity, with several high-profile folding phones launched from Samsung, Hauwei & Motorola. While many of these phones are experimental - and therefore extremely expensive - the tech behind them is extremely promising, and it may well herald a new era of flexible smartphones and gadgets!
These new wave of flexible displays are made possible because of OLED technology, which is an ultra-thin display that doesn’t require large components or a hefty backlight to function properly. Because of this, the OLED screen can be printed onto a thin sheet of flexible material, which allows it to function properly while giving a degree of flexibility impossible using older technology.
While the tensile strength this design allows a high degree of flexibility, it still has limits. So current models use a ‘hinge’ system to keep the screen from folding too much or too sharply - giving the phones a subtle wedge design, which is thicker at one end than the other. This wedge helps increase the life of the screen, and prevents the screen from ‘creasing’ with continued use.
While folding phones are seeing a massive boom in interest, not every attempt has been 100% successful. Earlier models have been plagued by slowness, and fragile displays. The highest visibility failure was the first Galaxy Fold, which Samsung was forced to recall after the review models sent out to journalists failed at an alarming rate, some breaking after only a day of use. Thankfully Samsung have improved the system significantly since then, and the Galaxy Fold 2 has received rave reviews.
While flexible display smartphones are very exciting, they are also extremely expensive - and because of that, very niche. The tipping point towards mass-adoption could be Apple: there are rumours circulating of the ‘iPhone Flip’, Apple’s attempt at a folding phone. Knowing Apple’s tendency towards experimentation and trendsetting, the Flip (if it exists) may launch folding phones into the mainstream.
As these phones start to become more commonplace - and the technology starts to mature - we’re going to see a lot more experimentation in the design, as well as the way apps and the phone AI itself interact with a flexible-sized screen. Samsung has already started tweaking apps to detect whether a phone is folded or unfolded, and change accordingly, and who knows what crazy innovations Apple could bring to the table! It’s going to be a fun ride!
The future of flexible display smartphones is very exciting indeed. Imagine - a standard pocket-sized phone that can unfold into a full tablet! Small enough for phonecalls and travel, large enough for watching videos and doing work. The next few years are going to be very interesting indeed - assuming this technology really takes hold and gains mainstream approval. Much of that will be connected to the price - here at Kagoo, we will be carefully monitoring new releases, to see how these foldable phones fare over the next year or two. If you want to check out the future for yourself, take a look at our list of Folding Smartphones [LINK].