Buddy Lo
Buddy Lo is a Sr. Technology and Consumer Electronics analyst at Mintel. He is responsible for researching and writing reports on technology and consumer electronics.

If it feels like folding touchscreens have come out of nowhere, you aren’t alone. Folding smartphones have gone from hushed rumors and secret company projects to actual production announcements seemingly overnight. The rapid development of folding touchscreens is a testament to how quickly technology evolves and develops in today’s landscape.

Royole, a Chinese flexible electronics company, was one of the first to make a splash in folding screen tech with its Flexpai smartphone model at CES 2019, and within two months a flurry of folding smartphone competitors have entered the folding smartphone conversation. Samsung’s Galaxy Fold will arrive in the US on April 26th while Huawei’s Mate X should arrive in Europe mid-2019. Apple revealed patents on its plans for a folding iPhone, Xiaomi has a two-fold smartphone concept model and Motorola’s folding phone is expected to reach the US market by the end of 2019.

What we’ve seen

We got a chance to take a peek at the Flexpai at CES 2019, and we didn’t exactly come away impressed with the demonstration. The Flexpai was bulky and did not fold flat, which could be quite cumbersome for what is supposed to be a mobile phone. Secondly, there seemed to be a significant lag from the phone’s UX changing from folded to unfolded, but that issue shouldn’t be too difficult to overcome.

What will it take to be successful?

Success in folding smartphones will rely on three key factors: Affordability, design, and software.

Affordability

Pricing has been announced for the Galaxy Fold and Mate X, at a rate of $1,980 and $2,600 respectively. The hefty price point for these models will exclude everyone except the most enthusiastic early adopters in the space. As more models enter the market, the competition should ramp up, the economics of producing folding smartphones should improve and pricing should eventually lower to more palatable levels. Samsung may have to lower their price if and when Apple produces a folding iPhone to better compete in the high-end smartphone space.

Design

The design of folding smartphones will be critical to consumer adoption and reception. Folding smartphones will need to be fold flush, with no bulky joints or jutting hinges; smartphones still need to remain mobile after all. Secondly, the design of folding phones must be durable. With price points well north of $1,500, a folding phone needs to be able to handle the wear and tear from everyday use, as well as drops. Among smartphone owners planning to buy a new phone within two years, more than half want a shatter resistant screen according to Mintel research on mobile phones. Overall, durability will need to be a key component of smartphone designs.

Software

If folding screens are going to be the next big thing for smartphones, what are the primary use cases? Beyond having a larger screen in certain situations, will applications utilize the potential of a folding screen? According to Mintel research on mobile phones, only two in 10 smartphone owners said they would like a bigger screen, and more than half of smartphone owners not in the market say they are satisfied with their current phones. Brands will need a compelling reason to get smartphone owners to upgrade.

While mobile gaming is a prime category to benefit from the potential of folding screens, will brands use the opportunity to connect with shoppers? Can other use cases for folding screens draw interest and bring new consumers to the market?

It remains to be seen what the consumer appetite is for folding phones this early, but until affordability improves and useful applications are developed, we expect folding screens to remain a niche novelty for tech enthusiasts in 2019.