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Samsung admits it rushed the Galaxy Fold. Its next moves matter most

Commentary: The rush to make the Galaxy Fold first to foldable is mired in delay. There's a lesson here.

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The future of foldable phones is murky even now.

Angela Lang/CNET

Note: Samsung has announced it will relaunch the Galaxy Fold in September.

Even before Samsung's mobile chief, DJ Koh, admitted that he "pushed [the Fold] through before it was ready", massive delays to the first major foldable phone slammed the brakes on what was once billed as nothing short of a phone revolution. In the 67 days since the Galaxy Fold was initially slated to sell on April 26, Samsung's admission (some may say it stops short of a full apology) adds heft to fears that the foldable phones, which are part phone, part tablet, are more gimmick than revelatory gadget. What happens next is crucial to Samsung's foldable future, and could help or hurt the chances of unreleased foldable devices from other brands.

Foldable phones have been heralded as the next big thing because of their ability to double the device's display size with a large, bendable screen. They also aim to shake up design at a time when phone sales have waned amid lackluster upgrades. Samsung (and Huawei) wanted their Galaxy Fold (and Mate X) to prove how exciting and successful a foldable phone could be. But after the screens on some reviewers' test phones kept breaking (ours didn't), Samsung delayed the Fold

With only a mea culpa from Koh and not a whisper of a new release window for the Galaxy Fold, there's no telling if Samsung will be able to recapture the energy it inspired at the Galaxy Fold's flashy launch Feb. 20. Anyone who cares about the fate of foldable phones is suspended in Galaxy Fold limbo.

"I do admit I missed something on the foldable phone, but we are in the process of recovery," Koh told The Independent during an interview in Seoul.

For its part, Samsung might well be shifting gears to announce the Galaxy Note 10 at its next Unpacked launch event in New York on Aug. 7. Perhaps we'll hear more about the Galaxy Fold then.

Samsung isn't the only brand allegedly wrapped up in foldable phone delays. Huawei is said to have delayed its own foldable Mate X to "improve" the screen, the Wall Street Journal reported, though there's some question over whether Huawei slated the Mate X for "June" or for "summer", which officially ends September 21, in the northern hemisphere.

Samsung and Huawei are currently the world's largest and second-largest phone brands, respectively. All eyes are on them. Cancel sales and other phone-makers could also scuttle their plans in the hopes of dodging poor sales and public ridicule. 

Launch the phones late, but without issue, and careful rivals may be encouraged to introduce foldable phones, too. How well these devices do when they come into buyers' hands may decide whether foldable phone designs ultimately fail or succeed. 

Samsung and Huawei declined to comment on this story.

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The Mate X's screen bends outward, which means the plastic display covers the exterior of the phone frame.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Plastic is a problem, but bendable glass is years away

From the very beginning, phone-watchers remarked that the Galaxy Fold and Mate X's foldable plastic screens could be their very undoing. Because who wants to spend $2,000 or more on a scratch-prone phone?

Right now, foldable phone have to use a bendable flexible plastic screen, which make them especially vulnerable to nicks and gouges, pressure damage and bulges formed by debris tunneling under the display. 

Samsung's screen issues don't come as a total surprise. The brands only showed off their foldable phones briefly, unlike virtually every other models that see much more time in reviewers' hands before the final review unit appears. We used the Mate X for about five minutes in March and first touched the Galaxy Fold moments before we received our review unit in April. The phone-makers' elusive attitude was a strong tip-off that the foldable devices weren't ready for prime time.

Now playing: Watch this: Our Galaxy Fold didn't break. Here's what's good and...
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The key to making phones stronger is bendable glass, which won't be ready for a few years. CNET got an exclusive look at Corning's bendable glass, which, even if fragile, is still expected to offer a degree of protection over the Galaxy Fold and Mate X's plastic screens.

Observers were mostly concerned about the "ugly" crease you see when you unbend a foldable phone into its full-screen mode, and if this could lead to wear and tear over hundreds of thousands of bends. The crease either appears as a ridge or a valley depending on if the larger screen unfolds on the inside or outside of the device. 

For example, the Galaxy Fold opens like a book to reveal an interior 7.3-inch display, where the Mate X's 8-inch screen acts more like the book cover that wraps around the outside of the frame.

A plastic screen prone to scratches on its softer surface was another issue, especially for outward-bending models like the Mate X, where more of the delicate screen is exposed.

In the Galaxy Fold's case, where Gorilla Glass protects the interior screen when the phone is closed, I still noticed indentations and scratches on the plastic cover material after just seven days. Some of the Fold's issues arose because reviewers peeled off a protective layer that wasn't intended to come off, which made the phone immediately stop working. Samsung has reportedly fixed these problems but hasn't shared when it plans to put the Galaxy Fold on sale.

What about the US ban against Huawei?

Some have wondered if the US government's move to blacklist Huawei from its US partners plays a role in the Mate X's launch date. For example, Huawei has been cut off from any US-based business supplying software (e.g. Android), components and even consulting services across all of Huawei's businesses.

Although the ban received a temporary reprieve that allows Huawei to support current products, followed by a further easing of restrictions, it's uncertain if the Mate X will be able to access every component and scrap of software it needs to compete against the Galaxy Fold. The Mate X was announced before President Trump signed the executive order against Huawei, but has never received a firm release date.

If Huawei needs Google's support for foldable phones and Android apps to sell the Mate X outside of China, that could certainly influence its decision to wait. The Wall Street Journal reported that sourcing parts wasn't an issue, according to Huawei SVP Vincent Peng, but that Huawei and Google are still discussing the license over Android apps.

Android Q supports foldable phones.

Google

Don't give up on foldable phones yet

It's too soon to declare foldable phones dead. Samsung and Huawei still plan to launch an improved Galaxy Fold and the Mate X, respectively, and Google declared support for foldable designs in May at its annual Google I/O conference for developers. That means app makers are already optimizing their software to work on foldable phones.

While off to a sputtering start, these companies have invested millions into foldable designs. It's a gamble that they're counting on to pay off in the long run.

Other phone brands also have foldable plans. Apple, LG, TCL and Oppo have either filed patent applications for foldable designs or announced that they're already at work. Rumors are ripe for a foldable Moto Razr comeback design that will modernize the beloved flip phone.

Apple often waits years after a category is established -- think smartphone or smartwatch -- before coming in with a fully polished product.

The very first foldable phone models were always going to be niche, beta-style devices for bleeding-edge adopters, models that reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a brand-new design ethos that their makers could then fine-tune down the line.

Samsung and Huawei aimed to score the first points and force rivals to follow suit. But if competitors are learning any lesson, it's to slow down and get their foldable designs right. Hopefully Samsung and Huawei are taking note, too.

Posted June 15 at 5 a.m. PT. Update, June 16, June 18, June 19 at 7:15 a.m. PT.
Update, July 2, 2019 at 3:30 a.m. PT: Added news of DJ Koh's statement about his role in rushing the Galaxy Fold.