When Samsung unveiled its first folding phone, the Galaxy Fold, in 2019 it was momentous occasion not only for the brand but for the entire mobile industry. For years many of us had bemoaned the stagnation in the mobile industry that resulted in every phone, regardless of OS and brand, being a rectangular slab of glass.
Fast forward to 2023 and that sense of excitement and possibility has largely waned among the public and the majority of the tech media world.
Much like the promised tablet revolution, the foldable phone revolution appears to not have delivered on its promise to change the way we work and create with a device that bridges the gap between phone and computer.
With the Galaxy Z Fold 4, Samsung, the only major global smartphone player in the industry, released a product that was basically a Z Fold 3 with barely incremental changes. To quote The Verge: “So what exactly does the Fold 4 bring to the table? As best as I can tell after a week living with the phone, not much. This isn’t a fundamentally different experience, but it is a tiny bit better.”
This incremental update is seen across the board with Samsung’s most recent flagship releases.
According to Samsung SA, “Like many other industries and markets we were negatively affected by the disruption of supply chains caused by the pandemic. This obviously also affected the supply of significant components involved in foldable smartphone production, like chipsets which contributed to the overall dip in activity. However this has now recovered and the innovation continues.”
While component shortages can explain part of the iterative update of the current fourth generation of foldables, another contributing factor is the lack of meaningful competition. Despite having just recently unveiled the Mate X3 — which equals the Fold 4 in terms of IP rating and exceeds it in terms of camera, battery and design — in China, with a SA launch expected in the near future, Huawei’s latest foldable device isn’t expected to sell as many units and make as much of an impact on the industry as the brand once did.
Speaking about Huawei’s first foldable, the Mate X, announced at MWC 2019, Akhram Mohamed, vice-president of operations of Huawei Consumer Business Group SA, said that the experience of the brand’s first foldable was compromised as a result of the US sanctions and that it not only limited what the brand was able to do but ultimately held back the entire industry.
This very sentiment was echoed by Android Authority back in 2021 in an article that said: “That loss will have a ripple effect across the entire industry. Without Huawei pushing other companies — most specifically Samsung — to innovate, it’s likely we’ll see less boundary-pushing and more incremental iteration from the big players.” That article continues by stating that not only was Huawei Samsung’s biggest competition, but that it was also Samsung’s best competitor in the foldable space.
The hope was that with the resulting vacuum, brands such as Xiaomi and BBK would step in an fill the void. Two years after that article was written, we can see that that definitely has not been the case.
While the likes of OPPO, Xiaomi and others have created and released impressive folding phones, they’ve kept these devices exclusive to the Chinese market, until now that is.
OPPO, known for their Find and Reno series devices, recently unveiled their clamshell foldable, the Find N2 Flip, to a global audience, making it the first foldable they’ve released outside of China. Sporting a larger outer display than the one found on the Galaxy Z Flip 4 as well as a better (on paper) camera — created in partnership with Hasselblad — a better battery and faster charging, the overall experience on the Find N2 Flip is not that much different from Samsung’s Flip range and it offers a software experience that isn’t quite as good. Samsung not only holds a stranglehold on the foldable phone market in terms of hardware but it’s also in a position to dictate much of the software experience for foldables and larger screen devices due to its close partnership with Google.
While this device is a welcome breath of fresh air, one has to question whether it’s enough to break the current stranglehold on the industry and whether it will help usher in a new age of foldables that deliver on the promises made years ago.
While I personally feel that foldable phones are a solution looking for a problem, Huawei SA’s vice-president of operations disagrees: “Internet proliferation, smartphone proliferation and the usage of social media all draw the market forward. Those behaviours are more moving in a direction that requires larger screens because of the type of things we’re doing with our phones. We’re using our phones as TVs, keyboards, content creation and work devices. How do you get somebody to have that experience when it’s required, and then when it’s not and you just need to have a smartphone, it can serve as that too. That is the gap that foldables are fulfilling. I think that is really, really exciting. We're still going to learn about the many use cases that are going to come for these devices in the future. Issue. But I personally see a great future for foldables and rollables.”
This excitement is shared by Samsung SA who said: “We are also confident that the foldable market is going to continue to grow based on our year-on-year growth as well as multiple other brands also entering the market.”
Despite only making up 1.2% of the total smartphone market, IDC stated that the foldable form factor was the one positive talking point in the total smartphone market which declined more than 11% in 2022.
The analyst house has also forecasted that foldable phone shipments will reach 41.5-million units in 2026, making it clear that folding phones are here to stay.
In order for them to become mainstream devices, they need to not only move beyond the novelty factor and ensure that they match, and exceed, their candybar counterparts in terms of features and functionality, we also need more competition to help drive innovation.