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14th Mar 2018

Will Samsung Launch the First Foldable Phone?

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Will 2018 be the year that the world finally gets a flexible, foldable mobile phone? The tech industry is abuzz with possibility, with plenty of sources and signs pointing to Samsung’s potential plans.

Last September, President of mobile, DJ Koh, shared that Samsung was aiming to release a phone with a bendable display in 2018. More recently, he gave more evasive answers when asked about a possible release date, and supplied very few details on the project.

It seems as though they intend to perfect the technology further before presenting it to the public. Koh said, "I need complete confidence that we're delivering the best user experience when we're launching a new category."

Samsung has been talking about foldable phone technology since as early as 2011, and it seems that they may finally achieve it with the Samsung Galaxy X.

If the rumours and speculations are true, we may be seeing a foldable phone in the near future---if not this year, at least by 2019.

What We Know So Far

Back in 2013, Samsung shared a commercial at CES (one of the world’s largest technology gatherings), in which a foldable device makes an appearance. Just a few weeks ago, Samsung was awarded a patent, and not just any patent: one with a design that looks suspiciously like the device seen in the commercial. This could be an indication that Samsung has been way ahead on this technology for several years, which suggests that the current work is focused on production, rather than still in the design stages.

In the patent, a somewhat dense mobile device is shown with a wrap-around display. It has a hinged portion which allows the device to unfold into an even larger display. Some sources state that this will be a 7.3-inch display area, which will allow the device to be used as a tablet. Other patents filed in 2016 and 2017, however, show different foldable models, so it’s as yet unclear exactly what the mechanics of the Samsung Galaxy X will be. And it’s important to note, too, that patents are filed frequently, especially by Samsung, and these products don’t always end up coming to fruition.

Rumours were fueled in 2016, when Samsung displayed a rollable OLED screen as part of their “Project Valley,” the supposed codename for the Galaxy X. And just a few months ago, Samsung said that it "will continue its efforts to differentiate its smartphones by adopting cutting-edge technologies, such as foldable OLED displays”.

It’s safe to assume that Samsung is hard at work on foldable technology, but what form that will take still remains shrouded in mystery.

How Will it Work?

A foldable device will require highly advanced technology. It’s difficult to say with certainty how it might work, but patents and some expert renderings can offer clues.

Many sources seem to lean toward the more recently-approved patent, which shows a device that appears to have two separate OLED panels or screens. But there have been indications of a longer, taller phone made with a more bendable material. This type of device would fold down the middle, ostensibly to close when not in use. The possibility of this design is not unheard of. As far back as 2013, a report stated that Samsung was in the final development stage with flexible plastic screens. This could certainly have been the beginnings of a future folding OLED display. That same year, a foldable prototype was showcased at CES called Youm. Whatever the final design entails, a foldable device will need to be built to withstand the repetitive bending movement of the device.

If the latest patents are to be believed, we may be likely to see a dual-display device emerging. This could potentially function as a single-screened device, expanding or unfolding as necessary to transform into two side-by-side displays. There are many possibilities here. The two screens could work in tandem to show an expanded image. They could also function independently, enabling the use of two apps simultaneously, for instance. A full-screen mode would be a plus for activities such as watching videos or viewing images.

This technology has already started appearing on the scene, in the form of the ZTE Axon M. This is a dual screen mobile phone that is already available in some markets. If Samsung aims to be the first with a truly foldable phone, they’ll likely have to get moving on strong and flexible OLED screens.

Foldable Devices: Pros & Cons

The next question is: do we really need foldable phones?

Mobile manufacturers never stop working on innovating and creating, but sometimes their innovations miss the mark. The demand for a foldable phone will largely depend on the market, and what features consumers are hungry for. It seems that at the moment, it could go either way.

There are many plausible benefits

A foldable phone, particularly those boasting double the screens, could be key for increased productivity. It would introduce new ways of gaming, using apps, or even sending messages.

With a flexible phone design, there’s also the potential for higher quality photographic equipment. Manufacturers could focus on one exceptional camera, capable of functioning in various settings and in various phone setups.

But there are also some clear concerns.

A foldable phone seems likely to be heavy, bulky, or even awkward. We’ve grown so accustomed to the sleek nature of today’s smartphones---and indeed, progress has appeared to move towards increasingly minimal and streamlined designs---that adding to the size seems to be a step in the opposite direction. It might even be a step in the wrong direction.

Another issue is that, with greater complexity, often comes a greater risk of problems. With hinges, flexible screens, and other new elements, there’s more potential that things could go wrong. A foldable device will also undergo a lot more “rough handling,” since it will be repeatedly folded, unfolded, and flipped around. This necessitates a truly sturdy design, which may prove exceptionally challenging given the goal of a flexible screen or a foldable device.

Finally, it’s almost a certainty that this type of device is going to come at a premium. The high cost of a foldable phone may make the technology less accessible to the masses. Will users pay for these new features?

One thing is certain, there’s no limit to the incredible changes coming to our mobile devices. Keep your eyes out over the next few years to see all that’s coming.

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