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Before we had smartphones with screens almost too big to fit in your pocket, there was the flip phone.
The flip phone's clamshell design meant it was small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, even if you couldn't do much more than make calls and send texts.
Then, as phones became "smarter", they also got larger and larger.
But now a new wave of folding smartphones promise to combine the technology of modern-day smartphones with the convenience of smaller and more compact foldable designs. So, could these phones be the future of the smartphone industry?
A report from IDC shows there is demand for foldable phones, with 7.1 million units shipped last year – well up on the 1.9 million units shipped in 2020. The tech analyst predicts that foldable phones market will reach 27.6 million units with a value of $29 billion by 2025.
"The foldables segment is here to stay as it's an interesting form factor with a unique value proposition," says Nabila Popal, research director with IDC's Worldwide Tracker team. The analyst expects 80% year-on-year growth in 2022 alone, with almost 13 million shipments (that number might sound impressive, but it's worth remembering that even by 2025 these phones will probably account for less than 2% of the total smartphone market).
So if the foldable market is growing, what's the attraction? The major selling point of a foldable phone is the convenience of a smaller phone without having to compromise the screen size. In some cases, the full screen size is actually even larger than on a traditional device. But can the benefits outweigh the higher price point?
Within the foldable phone are phones that fold and flip. The phones that "flip" split down the middle, horizontally, like a hamburger, while the ones that "fold" split down the center, vertically, like a hotdog.
Phones that "flip" have a slightly larger screen than your average smartphone when open, but are half the size when closed. For example, the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip3 of the "flip" category has a main display of 6.7 inches when open. However, the phone's cover measures only 1.9 inches when closed.
The phones that "fold" have an extra perk; the screens are a lot larger than your average smartphone. The size on some foldable phones can even be compared to those of a tablet. The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 has a display of 7.6 inches when open and 6.2 inches when closed. In comparison, my iPhone 11 has a display of 6.1 inches at all times.
One of the unique features of the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 is its "Flex Mode", which allows apps to automatically adjust to fit the folded screen.
Aaron Gray, an early consumer of the Fold3, says he uses this feature for everything from streaming to meetings.
"I like to use this feature when browsing YouTube, as I can browse and enjoy videos without holding my phone up. It's also handy for hands-free video calls, as I can make full use of the stylus pen when delivering a presentation or collaborating on virtual whiteboards," Gray tells ZDNet.
Consumers aren't the only ones benefiting from the foldable phone. Neil Mawston, executive director at Strategy Analytics, says that all sectors of the mobile phone industry can benefit from the adoption of foldable phones.
"Foldables deliver a bigger screen in a smaller package and this is highly attractive for consumers, device makers, and carriers," Mawston says. "For example, consumers prefer to watch TikTok videos on a larger display, device makers like Samsung can raise their revenues with expensive $1,000 models, while carriers such as Verizon can attract wealthy subscribers who spend more on data every month."
With so many advantages, why hasn't the foldable phone gone mainstream? With new technology comes new kinks that take time to work out, so there's lots of experimenting to be done before the phones become both accessible and attractive to the public.
"The main barriers for consumers to buy foldable devices are related to the price of the devices, trusting the device to be robust and operate well, and finding unique use cases for foldable form factors," says Runar Bjorhovde, research analyst at Canalys.
The price of a foldable phone starts at $1,000 and can reach up to $2,000, which makes it hard for the device to compete with a standard smartphone that can be bought for much less.
In order for foldable phones to become mainstream, Popal says the prices would have to drop significantly, with average selling prices below $400 – as that is the price segment that is driving over 70% of global smartphone shipments. Making those cuts is going to be a big challenge for smartphone makers.
Prices will likely decrease as more competitors enter the market and demand increases. However, until then, high costs will deter the average consumer from taking a chance on the innovative phone.
Early models of foldable phones had their problems, too. Samsung introduced its first foldable phone to the market in 2019 and has been the pioneer in the space since. Being the first in the game brought some challenges, including problems with the display, such as cracking, air bubbles and scratches.
Since introducing the foldable device, Samsung has worked on building, refining and selling the phone. In 2021, Samsung shipped over 90% of foldables, according to Canalys' Bjorhovde. This growth marked a four-fold increase in Samsung foldable phones shipped since 2020.
China-based tech companies Oppo and Honor also have released their take on foldable phones with the Oppo Find N and Honor Magic V. Despite the growth in the foldable market, it will take time for the phone to become a more established, trusted model.
If Apple chose to jump into the foldables market, that would significantly help boost credibility. "Apple has a golden touch that can ignite new markets," said Mawston at Strategy Analytics.
And there has been a lot of speculation on whether Apple will enter the market. "We expect Apple to launch an "iFold" in the US before 2025," said Mawston. The foldable market is growing too quickly for Apple to continue to ignore it, he says.
The verdict: foldables are picking up momentum, even if you haven't seen many of them out and about. And as demand grows, more competitors will likely enter the market, lowering the price of the phone and thus making it more accessible.
It may be a couple of years before you see foldables wherever you go, but with tech companies pushing them hard as the next big thing, don't be too surprised if you find yourself carrying one and enjoying that super-big screen in a few years.