Foldable phones: Why do Apple, LG, Samsung and Nokia want to bend the norm?

foldable phones

With reports indicating that the likes of Apple, Nokia, LG and Samsung are investing in foldable phones, what kind of device could we expect to see on the horizon?

The modern inconvenience of smartphones is that – more or less – your choice in smartphone size is first directed by your budget, and secondly how comfortable a handset feels wedged between your palms. Back in the days of hinged gadgets, foldable phones such as a flip phone could be halved in size in an instance.

But things have rapidly matured from those days – and while we’ve seen recent attempts to resuscitate the market for flip phones from the likes of LG and Samsung, it would appear the order of the clamshell has closed its local chapter.

Read: Samsung slates foldable smartphones for introduction in 2016

In late 2016, murmurings began that Samsung, LG, and even the likes of Apple had begun investing in crafting a new breed of foldable devices. As brands such as OPPO and Nokia reportedly begun to enter the fray (or is that fold?) is the era of next generation smartphone design set to begin?

Samsung’s Project Valley designs – which reportedly fall under the name “Galaxy Wing” or “Galaxy X” – have been revealed in several apparent patents. One such filing reveals a design that would fold over thanks to an intricate hinge mechanism.

One such Project Valley patent shows a hinge design that’s quite reminiscent of the one found on Microsoft’s Surface Book; a push button would supposedly unfurl the phone while one interlocking hinge would support most of the strain of opening the device.

samsung project valley patents

While LG’s work on foldable devices has been far more subtle, the brand has been comparativley overt with its intention to produce displays as extraordinary as its rollable OLED panel.

Moving from South Korea, Chinese brand OPPO is another marque that bears long-term connections with a foldable device.

In late 2016, a Chinese tipster leaked an image depicting the OPPO foldable phone on messaging board Zaeke, which has revealed a large, phablet-size device with a hinge bisecting the device’s center.

Allegedly, the OPPO foldable phone has been in the early stages of production since August of 2015, and company engineers only finalized the device’s flexible display towards the end of February last year.

Nokia, a new entrant to the Android market, is supposedly furthering research on a new flexible handet, given that a patent for a “foldable device” was registered with the US Patent & Trademark Office all the way back in 2013.

Apple, which is reportedly preparing to release an all-glass iPhone with an OLED display, has reportedly established a relationship with LG in which the latter group will field flexible displays. According to reports, Google has similarly entered into an arrangement with LG after the quiet death of its Nexus 9 tablet.

samsung project valley

An uncertain future

The question which remains is what future could foldable devices have in the market space?

Largely, the competitive arena that was once smartphone hardware has begun to die down, and in its place has arrived a battle of AI assistants consisting of original OEM services, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant.

With manufacturers licking their wounds from recent market failures – and the likes of BlackBerry, LG Mobile, HTC, and Sony Mobile all skirting towards disaster – where could we expect foldable phones to draw serious consumer interest?

One could argue that the age of standalone devices is rapidly coming to a close. As Google CEO Sundar Pichai phrased it, the world is moving from a smartphone-first to an AI-first environment; with that in mind, should manufacturers become more conservative in hardware design?

A working theory is this; smartphones – as the home of AI platforms such as Alexa or Assistant – need to maximise both their applicable working space and processing power. One way to do that is to increase the surface area of the device – and, therein, a possible way to avert the production of chunkier, weightier phones is to establish a way for a smartphone to transition from a smaller to a larger state using a mechanism analogous to a hinge.

It’s no secret that the tablet industry is rapidly dying out – and while Apple’s iPad sales have dwindled, the company is reportedly working on a revised series of large iPad Pro models; which, while not reportedly flexible, work along our premise perfectly.

It is thus, then, that many high-end smartphones could, through the benefit of being foldable, replace our needs for tablets altogether. While many phablet smartphones – such as the Galaxy Note – already sell on that premise, a foldable smartphone could serve to rapidly increase or decrease in size as a user sees fit.

Arguably, the development of a hinge is the least complex issue manufacturers have to face; one need only look at the leaked Project Valley patents above or the hinge found on the Surface Book or Yoga Book to see how manufacturers have developed hinges equipped for the stress of a connected world.

The real challenge manufacturers have yet to solve is how to produce a screen for foldable phones that won’t compromise on performance – and if Xiaomi’s recent work on developing high resolution, flexible screens is any indication, we might not have long to wait.

Read: Samsung and LG increasing foldable display development

Have your say!

The beauty of the future is that discussion on it can begin now. What future do you see for foldable phones? Can flexible gadgets survive where static devices have reigned for so long? We want to hear your thoughts – be sure to leave them in the comments below!

Follow Bryan Smith on Twitter: @bryansmithSA

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  • Theunis Jansen van Rensburg

    Great piece!