Foldable gadgets gained an unlikely new champion here at CES 2019: TCL, the company behind BlackBerry Mobile phones and budget Alcatel phones; affordable TVs; and the new, tiny Palm.
The device maker told CNET in an interview at the MGM Grand that it will introduce its first foldable product in 2020. We're just not sure if this device will be a phone, a TV panel or something else entirely.
"It's not just smartphones," said Stefan Streit, TCL's general manager of global marketing, said, adding that other consumer products like wearables, home appliances and TVs can also benefit from a the new form.
TCL dipping its toes into the foldable device waters underscore a broader interest by the industry to push devices with flexible or foldable screens. The foldable phone is hailed as the next major innovation to hit an industry that's churned out millions of static rectangular handsets. It's one that needs a shot in the arm, with flagging sales and a mindset by many consumers that their current phone is good enough.
Samsung's foldable phone is here, with brand-new One UI for AndroidSee all photos
There are real tangible benefits that come from having a foldable display, like the ability to fold out to a larger display. It also enables a new array of physical designs that don't just have to be a slab.
Samsung will lead the rush to foldable designs with its rumored Galaxy X phone, likely to be followed by LG and Huawei. TCL says it's in no hurry to compete with the pack.
"We don't want to be the first in the market," Streit said. "We want to make sure there's a real value proposition behind it." Whatever "it" may be.
Before committing to its first foldable device, TCL wants to suss out what people really want. Will buyers prefer something small that opens into something large -- like a smartwatch you can open into a phone -- or a larger device that packs up into a tiny package for storage, say a TV? (LG's "incredible" rollable TV at CES this year certainly makes the idea of a TV with a foldable screen plausible.)
Hanging back until 2020 also gives TCL a chance to let Samsung, FlexPai, Google, Corning and others work out the most common kinks: how the software will work on a foldable screen, what kind of materials work best and how flat these devices will truly be able to fold.
While TCL is eager to make a foldable device, it's also interested in making the screens themselves. TCL owns CSOT (China Star Optoelectronics Technology), a components maker that sells panels other companies. Selling foldable panels to other manufacturers is part of TCL's broader agenda.
A foldable BlackBerry phone? Don't hold your breath
It'd be tempting to think that TCL's first foray into foldable would be a BlackBerry phone. Unfortunately, that's just not likely. TCL Group does license the BlackBerry Mobile name, but the brand is slow-growing.
"We were probably a little bit bullish about objectives," said Francois Mahieu, the general manager for BlackBerry Mobile. Mahieu wouldn't share sales figures, but described his operation as "small".
The brand's keyboard-equipped BlackBerry Key2 and more midrange Key 2 LE are gaining the most traction as work phones that companies and governments buy for their employees.
Enterprise handsets like these are chosen because they're reliable and secure productivity machines that can get a job done. Flashy, expensive and untested new features like a foldable screen would be more of a liability than a must-have feature.
Read: There won't be a 5G BlackBerry phone in 2019
Foldable devices will go mainstream in two-to-five years
Although Samsung's foldable phone is rumored to arrive in March, these bendable devices won't really become important for another two to five years, Streit predicted. But when they do, they'll prove to be an important way that products stand out against non-folding rivals.
While there is one foldable phone you can buy now, the Royole FlexPai, these are indeed early days. We only glimpsed Samsung's rumored Galaxy X prototype back in November, and many questions about how the phone will look and work are left unanswered.
Google has thrown its weight behind foldable, announcing that Android will support a smaller screen that opens into a tablet.
Meanwhile, glass maker Corning -- who manufactures Gorilla Glass for most midrange and high-end smartphones -- is also developing a bendable glass so thin and pliable it could one day be used for foldable devices.
LG and Huawei have both announced their intentions to make a foldable phone.
With such a massive shift on the horizon, it's a fair bet that TCL's future foldable device will be one more among many. The question is if the device will get lost among its competitors, or if holding back will wind up being the smarter play.
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