Will foldable screens convince smartphone users to upgrade?

Global smartphone shipments have been slowing since last year as many of the latest models have failed to convince consumers to upgrade.

This year, however, the market may see some signs of recovery as smartphone makers introduce more attractive features and innovations.

Some brands, for example, are set to launch models with foldable screens. This could be a game changer if the new phones are reasonably priced, among other considerations.

Xiaomi Corp.’s (01810.HK) co-founder and president Lin Bin on Wednesday posted a video on his Weibo account revealing the company’s three-panel foldable phone. He says it’s the world’s first double-folding smartphone.

In the video, Lin demonstrates how the handset works. It is tablet-sized with a curved screen when fully unfolded.

When held horizontally, the two sides can be folded back, making it a regular-sized phone with screens on both the back and the front.

In unveiling Xiaomi’s first foldable phone, Lin said the designers have to overcome a series of technical problems related to the folding screen, four-wheel folding shaft, flexible cover and MIUI operating system.

The symmetrical dual foldable screens provide the user with the combined experience of a tablet and a mobile phone. It is not clear, however, if the phone has additional features resulting from the foldable screen.

Lin notes that the model is just a working prototype, and mass production will depend on the response of the market.

He asked people for suggestions on the name of the phone. Lin volunteered two: Xiaomi Dual Flex and Xiaomi MIX Flex.

During the demonstration, nothing is said about the camera, which is not visible on either side of the phone — whether it is folded or expanded into a bigger screen. And without a camera, how much value could such a phone have?

In providing a sneak peek into the model, Xiaomi is apparently determined to launch the phone as soon as possible in order to take advantage of being one of the first to offer such a feature in the market.

This is good news for consumers. Xiaomi is known for its ability to trim down production costs, even in the case of a model with complicated features.

We won’t be surprised if Xiaomi could price such a revolutionary product at an affordable price — say, below 5,000 yuan (US$736).

Aside from Xiaomi, several phone makers are planning to launch foldable phones this year. It has been reported that Samsung plans to launch the world’s first foldable smartphone in the first half of this year.

A Samsung executive unveiled a prototype of the foldable phone during the company’s developer conference last month.

The front of Galaxy X has two 4.6-inch screens, which become a 7.29-inch tablet when unfolded. The rear of the device has a third 3.5-inch screen, which means it can be viewed even when folded. The phone will probably use a series of intricate hinges.

The device will run on Samsung’s new One UI software, which hopefully will allow app developers to have their apps running smoothly in different screen sizes.

Chinese phone maker OPPO is also expected to announce its first foldable phone at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next month.

Not much has been said about the new model so far. But according to the patent applications filed by OPPO in July last year, there are three designs for the foldable phone.

One is an inward folding design with a clamshell appearance and airbag-like shape in both halves of the screen. The second is a three-display foldable design while the third one is a fold-out design which turns the phone into a tablet when the screen is unfolded.

The foldable smartphone is on its way to becoming a mainstream trend this year, but whether the innovation will convince customers to upgrade remains a question.

Pricing is one of the key factors for, after all, the phone is primarily intended as a tool for communications and for daily use.

If users start believing that a foldable screen will bring them more trouble than convenience, then such an innovation may not be accepted by the market.

Users will also be on the lookout for glitches and issues related to foldable screens.

Customers must develop confidence in the new display technology for it to convince them to upgrade.

Originally published at www.ejinsight.com on January 24, 2019.

A columnist in political development in Greater China region, technology and gadgets, media industry, parenting and other interesting topics.

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