Mobile Phone Makers’ Next Big Thing – Foldable Form Factors and Displays

Can you say Westworld: “the next front in the mobile phone feature wars—foldable form factors and displays—and how the phone manufactures themselves compete”

 

by: Adam Saxon | Senior Vice President of Licensing | April 10, 2018

Throughout much of 2017 the consumer electronics product that garnered the most anticipation was (what eventually became) Apple’s iPhone X.  From the beginning of 2017, up until Apple officially announced its new products last September, countless articles and blogs speculated about the features, upgrades, and capabilities Apple’s new flagship mobile phone would introduce.

And while a few of the iPhone X’s features were truly unique (for example, Face ID and the sensor technology powering that feature), we now know (from numerous reports regarding iPhone X global sales since launch) that many consumers were not interested in paying over $1,000 for Apple’s new flagship device.  It turns out that consumers upgrading their mobile phones do want better capabilities in a new handset, this much is obvious, but what is less obvious is which specific capabilities consumers are willing to pay up for.

As Apple found out with the iPhone X, while consumers appreciate a more nimble handset due to, for example, a newer processor (e.g. Apple’s newer A11 over the older A10 found in the iPhone 7 lineup), consumers are mostly unwilling to pay up for technology (e.g. Apple Face ID) that does not materially enhance the overall user experience.

It will therefore be interesting to see how consumers react to what is shaping up to be the next front in the mobile phone feature wars—foldable form factors and displays—and how the phone manufactures themselves compete against one another in this new category of mobile phone product.

No less than seven mobile phone manufacturers, including U.S. sales leaders Apple and Samsung, have released plans to manufacture mobile phones with a fordable form factor, with some of these new handsets slated to go on sale as early as this year.  It is believed that all of these companies (Apple, Huawei, LG, Motorola, Microsoft, Samsung, and ZTE) have been and continue to file patents covering these new types of devices and their features, so besides confronting the likely manufacturing complexities involved in making and assembling the components of these devices, and managing to convince the public that investing in the first generation of this new technology makes sense, it will not be surprising if these manufacturers become involved in at least some patent disputes over key functionality (both hardware and software) covering foldable form factors and displays.

This could be especially true if early entrants into the market are seen taking incremental market share from the more established players.  For example, while Huawei has had trouble entering and accessing the U.S. mobile phone market, the company is said to have a lead in introducing a foldable handset in 2018, while a foldable Samsung product (slated to be the Galaxy X) may not end up being introduced in 2018 and Apple’s first foldable products may not be available to consumers until 2020.

Given Apples’ issues iPhone X price sensitivity, the mobile phone manufacturers should focus on making affordable foldable handsets that offer consumers a compelling reason to purchase such devices based on usability efficiencies and experiences above and beyond what can currently be achieved using the ubiquitous slate form factor of current mobile phone generations.

For example, consumers tend to use their mobile phones in many different environments (from sitting stationary at home to using the phone one handed while standing in the checkout line), thus a foldable display that is bulky and cannot easily be opened and activated with a single hand may cause consumers to look at foldable devices that do not have such drawbacks.  Given that we are moving into what is only the first generation of foldable devices, only time will tell how consumers react to each manufacturer’s foldable product offering and which devices sink rather than swim.

With the above in mind, the information below speaks to a few of the manufacturers that have announced plans to offer foldable mobile devices to consumers in 2018 and beyond:

Apple: Reports that Apple is working with LG Innotek on flexible OLED displays for 2020-2021 product cycles.

Published Apple patent application for devices with flexible displays.

Huawei: Report that indicates Huawei may be first to market with a foldable mobile phone.

LG: Report that LG is patenting and working on a folding mobile device that can act as a phone or tablet (is a hybrid device) depending on use.

Motorola: Report that the next Motorola Razr handset may include a foldable display.

Microsoft: Report that Microsoft is working on a foldable device under the Surface product family.

Samsung: Report that the Samsung X will be foldable.

ZTE: ZTE’s foldable (chassis, not display) Axon M has been available in the U.S. since November 2017,

Oh, and where’s Xiaomi and Nokia in all of this?

photo: from Westworld

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