What is a Foldable Phone?

Everything to know about bendable phones, and a few rumors, too

An image of a foldable phone from the Samsung Developers Conference.

Courtesy of Samsung

A foldable phone is a smartphone with a special display that can be folded in half, much like a sheet of paper. In 2011, Samsung first started talking about these bendable displays that could be folded or rolled, but it wasn’t until 2018 that the first foldable phone was unveiled.

Flexible screens are not new. Collectively, we’ve been watching them for years, dreaming of the day we could have devices that benefit from that flexibility. But it has taken years to see even a tiny bit of the capabilities allowed by that technology.

Foldable Phones Are Not New

When you use the term "foldable phone" what probably comes to mind is the flip phone of old. Those clamshell devices that had a keyboard on one side and a tiny screen on the other. Those were the original foldable phones. But we’re in the 21st century, so it would make sense that technology should catch up to our current capabilities.

The ZTE Axon M dual screen, foldable phone.
ZTE Axon M.  Courtesy of ZTE Mobile Devices

To some degree, it has. Take, for instance, the ZTE Axon M. It’s a foldable phone, but it has two screens facing each other, separated by a bezel in the middle. It doesn't have a single, flexible screen that folds seamlessly, but rumor has it those types of displays (and by extension, truly foldable phones) are on the horizon.

The Samsung Foldable Phone

The most notable folding phone announcement came on November 7, 2018, when Samsung announced its first folding phone.

Design sketches of the Samsung Foldable phone shown on-screen at the 2018 Samsung Developers Conference
Courtesy of Samsung

The announcement came during the Samsung Developers Conference, in a the form of a short, shadowy video showing a box-like device that not only had a seamless, 7.3-inch folding display on the interior – called an Infinity Display – but also a fully functional 4.5-inch front display that allowed users to interact with the device when closed.

The thickness of the phone was disappointing to users who later learned Samsung had the phone disguised to hide the real form factor.

The Royole Foldable Phone

A common misbelief is Samsung held the first announcement of such a phone. In truth, Royole, a relatively young Chinese company, announced the release of their own foldable phone, the Royole FlexPai, in October 2018. Calling it a second generation device, Royole started shipping them in December 2018.

The Royole FlexPai foldable smartphone.
Courtesy of Royole Corporation 

The FlexPai can be used folded, as a smartphone, or it can unfold into a 7.8-inch tablet running the Water OS. Unfortunately, early reviews of the device claimed it was chunky in size, and not completely reliable when in use.

Challenges for Bendable Phones

The concept of a foldable phone is a futuristic dream of a small, slim device that folds to fit neatly into your pocket. Folded, it can be used as a smartphone; open, it behaves more like a tablet. However, the reality of such a device presents multifaceted challenges manufacturers must overcome:

  • The Display: Finding the right material to build a display that is both foldable and sturdy has proven to be more difficult than most manufacturers realized, hence the reason Samsung has been in development on a foldable phone since 2011. Users are accustomed to the strong, beautiful, glass touchscreens found on most smartphones. Those screens stand up to the pressure of fingertip input and have even graduated in durability to resist scratching from constant use and stylus input. A foldable phone won’t have those capabilities. Due to the nature of the phone, a bendable display will need to be flexible, meaning designs made with polymer plastics, which are subject to scratching and scuffing.
  • The Battery: A larger display, or even dual displays, means dramatically increased power demands which could be a challenge for current smartphone batteries. Many advancements have been made in battery power and life over the last few years, but it’s likely that more improvements are needed to accommodate the power requirements of a functional tablet and smartphone combination.
  • The Operating System: Current operating systems are designed for either a smartphone or a tablet, but not both. A foldable phone would need an entirely redesigned operating system (and the apps to go along with it) that can adapt to an ever-changing screen size. Google’s Android OS seems to be the best answer to that problem, since Android has long been required to work seamlessly across a variety of devices of all sizes and functionality. To that end, Google announced at the Samsung Developers Conference it's working closely with Samsung to develop an operating system suited for the new form factor. The company has even gone as far as to state publicly an upcoming Android version – Android Q – will have built-in support for foldable phones.
  • The Manufacturing Process: A new form factor means a whole new manufacturing process. Current smartphone manufacturing is well-established, but designing foldable phones means more than just a change in display. It also means changing the cases for those displays, the adhesives used in the manufacturing process, and many of the components inside the phone. Companies moving into this space must be willing to invest heavily in manufacturing costs to build this new style of phone. Of course, much of that cost will be passed on to consumers in the price of the devices. The Royole FlexPai retails for around $1300 US, making it the most expensive phone on the market, but with users already willing to pay around $1000 for a smartphone, it might not be such a stretch for manufacturers to ask for higher prices.

    Foldable Phone Rumors

    The foldable phone market is very young, and as such, there are many rumors circulating on the internet. Here’s a sampling of those rumors:

    We’ll keep this updated, so check back regularly to learn what’s new in this market.

    • Huawei Foldable Phone: In September 2018, Huawei made a statement saying they're working on a foldable phone that should release within a year. Rumors are circulating the internet that Huawei is rushing to try to release the device ahead of rival Samsung.
    • Microsoft Foldable Phone: Microsoft has been tight-lipped about its plans for a foldable phone, but Microsoft executives have mentioned a “pocketable Surface device” that may currently be in development.
    • Apple Foldable Phone: True to the company’s nature, Apple hasn't even acknowledged a foldable phone, and there's been nothing from the company about plans to release any such device before 2020. However, Apple tends to wait to see what everyone else is doing before releasing something that blows the doors off the market, so who knows what the future might hold on the bendable phone front from this company.
    • Intel Foldable Phone: Intel, like ZTE, has been working on a dual screen device, and rumors indicate that could be the first step toward a foldable device, but nothing concrete has been publicly shared.

      Xiaomi, Lenovo, and LG foldable phones are also rumored to be in the works. Stay tuned for details.