The flip phone: simultaneously a sign of the times and a signal of what is yet to come for smartphone technology. I love watching old movies and immediately dating them based on the cell phones used on-screen and how well they have aged with time. I also enjoy watching sci-fi films for the vision that they provide into our possible future, including glimpses of technologies we may eventually have at hand. Looking at both the past and the future, one form factor is an easy-to-spot preference for our telecommunication tastes: flip phones (now sleekly referred to as foldables).
Foldables, the technologically sophisticated evolution of our historical flip phones, are identified as a future innovation arc for today’s stagnant smartphone market, and they are receiving a lot of attention as a result. Breakthroughs in flexible display technologies, coupled with the retro nostalgia laced into current pop culture, is fueling the desire for foldable smartphones. Well, at least our smartphone makers hope that is the case! For as strong as the industry hype is for this form factor, participating vendors may not be enjoying meaningful sales results…yet.
In this early stage of progression, foldable smartphones are best deployed to market as “halo” products that give consumers a preview of a future ahead. These items are not mass sellers, but are important for a brand’s technological posturing and typically appeal to early adopters for that reason. Despite the fact that only two brands currently offer foldable smartphones for US buyers, the rush observed from others to announce their participation in the trend via patents, in-development announcements, and leaks illustrates this perfectly.
History of the Future
Excitement for foldable smartphones swelled in 2018, and Samsung was the first to deliver one to the US market with its official announcement of the $1,979 Galaxy Fold in February 2019. While initially intended for release that season, its pioneering nature led to a lengthy time-to-market as Samsung communicated several delays and worked past durability issues. US shoppers would not actually see a physical foldable phone in brick-and-mortar retail until October 2019. Four months after that, Samsung launched its $1,379 Galaxy Z Flip as the segment’s lowest-priced item to-date, which hit the market almost immediately (3 days) after launch, showing an increased confidence from the vendor in build quality. Samsung has since announced a 5G version of the foldable in the form of the $1,449 Galaxy Z Flip 5G, which as its name alludes to, adds 5G connectivity for a $70 premium. The manufacturer also recently unveiled the Galaxy Z Fold2 5G as the first official “second generation” refresh for a foldable smartphone, although this model’s launch timing (and exact impact on your wallet) is left to be determined this fall.
Motorola faced similar challenges in launching its debut foldable, a model that fittingly resurrected the company’s iconic flip phone branding. Motorola’s new $1,499 razr smartphone was revealed in November 2019, and was originally slated for availability by year-end, but it followed the pattern of Samsung’s first attempt with delays of its own. When pre-orders began in January 2020, the razr’s strong emphasis on retro style seemed to inspire more early reservations than Motorola was able to handle. Queues quickly backed-up, leaving interested parties waiting weeks to get one. In an apparent effort to control the backlog, Motorola/Verizon switched off promotions (no $700 savings, no BOGO) shortly after the launch, a bad look in a very competitive smartphone market that led to a lackluster launch. While back-logged orders could be interpreted as a sign of high demand, Verizon associates indicated that this was not the case, as they witnessed low in-store interest in the smartphone that folks could not get right away.
Foldables: You Can’t Touch This
Perhaps the best illustration of the struggles this segment has faced in going to market is the way that foldable smartphones are displayed in the brick-and-mortar retail channel: behind barriers that prohibit you from touching (and therefore, from breaking) them. The enclosures protecting today’s foldables range from small Plexiglas cases to full-scale sarcophagi atop in-store displays. These defenses are utilized to limit shopper interaction and preserve the longevity of the mounted fixtures, but sadly have the consequence of preventing tangible interactions, which is arguably the most important part of the foldable smartphone experience. The inability to explore the format’s unique interface and other features does not encourage customers to purchase a relatively new and unfamiliar technology.
Future or Bust! (But Seriously, Be Careful with Them)
The early investment from Samsung and Motorola, and especially their early missteps, are of critical importance to future players and their foldable market strategies. Vendors, merchants, and consumers are all watching this market segment develop as first generation products lead the way for increased awareness and design refinement. Although foldables will remain a luxury novelty for the immediate years ahead, this niche appeal is not limiting vendors’ aspirations in the segment. A familiar set of top smartphone brands will soon join the mix as each develops and delivers its own take on what customers want from a foldable smartphone.
Segment newcomers will meet Samsung’s aforementioned Galaxy Z Fold2 5G, while Motorola defends its position with a razr 2 foldable that boasts upgraded specifications and 5G connectivity this fall. LG may be next in line by debuting an “advanced smartphone with a rollable display” in early 2021, extending its passion for rollable TVs into smartphones, while leaked internal Google documents suggest a late 2021 release of a foldable Pixel model code-named “Passport.” Not to be outdone, Apple has filed its own patents for foldable devices over the years, including one that folds both inward and outward, showing active brainstorming of ways to make a foldable iPhone work.
Much is needed for foldable smartphones to grow from niche to mainstream in the US – specifically, wider distribution, lower prices, and sturdier designs. As eye-watering initial investments limit the reach of today’s foldables, enthusiasm around the unique style gives hope for the segment’s future, and today’s high level of vendor interest almost guarantees interesting innovations to come. Compelling use cases will emerge, and consumer demand for foldables should eventually match manufacturers’ fervor for forcing them to market, until ultimately the sci-fi visionaries of tomorrow show us new futuristic form factors to crave.
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