I Visited Samsung's Home Turf to See if Foldable Phones Are Really the Future
As I sit in a quaint Japanese-style pub in Seoul's ritzy Gangnam district, a member of the waitstaff excitedly walks over to my table. He's spotted the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 I'd brought with me sitting alongside plates of meat skewers and cups of sake and is eager to get a closer look.
Like many people I met in Seoul last month, Donghwan Yoo is a fan of foldable phones. Such devices are seemingly everywhere in the capital city of Samsung's home country, and many Koreans that my colleague Amy Kim and I spoke with have adopted them in the last six months to a year. Yoo was enamored with Samsung's flip phone from the very start, having purchased the first model more than three years ago because it's easy to carry around, he tells me through Google Translate.
"It's small and convenient to bring anywhere," he says.
Yoo's appreciation sums up the impression that Samsung and other major phone makers are hoping foldables will have. While smartphones have gotten faster, thinner, larger-screened and smarter over the last 15 years, their overall shape -- that solid black slab -- has largely remained the same. Samsung was one of the first companies to attempt changing that, nearly half a decade ago, and now in 2023, other major phone makers like Google and OnePlus are following suit.
That shift is a sign that major tech companies view the smartphone as in need of a shakeup. Seoul seems to be embracing it wholeheartedly, with Z Flips and Z Folds visible on a daily basis.
The emergence of foldable phones doesn't mean traditional smartphones are disappearing. But my studying of market research data and my conversations with both analysts and foldable phone owners suggest they could become the new norm for high-end Android phones.
As I wandered around Seoul, a city of more than 9 million people where Samsung's influence is broadly reflected in the consumer tech market, from flip phones to refrigerators, I felt like I was getting a glimpse into that future.
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I also attended Samsung's product launch of its newest foldables in Seoul, visited its headquarters in Suwon and toured its mobile device factory in Gumi -- all of which impressed on me that Samsung is shining a bigger light on its foldables than ever before. Perhaps even more so than on its popular Galaxy S phones, a product lineup that made Samsung one of two companies that rules the global smartphone market.
Many Flip and Fold owners Amy and I spoke with both praised and criticized their foldable devices, illustrating both the promise and risk that comes with adopting new technology. My takeaway is that Samsung and its rivals are on to something. But they also have plenty of work cut out for them before foldable phones become the new standard for premium phones around the world.
Samsung foldables are everywhere in Seoul
Regular smartphones like iPhones and non-folding Samsung Galaxy phones are still the most prominent types of devices you'll find in Seoul. That's true around the world: Foldables represented only 1.2% of global smartphone shipments in 2022, according to market research firm International Data Corporation.
Still, I couldn't help but notice foldables almost everywhere I went during my trip to South Korea for the unveiling of Samsung's Galaxy Z Flip 5 and its larger compatriot, the Z Fold 5. Young women riding the Seoul Metro were buried in their Z Flips during their commute. I spotted a businessman in a suit carrying a Galaxy Z Fold near the World Trade Center Seoul. A girl sitting next to me at the sandwich chain Egg Drop scrolled and swiped on her Flip all throughout the meal. A woman snapping a photo of her daughter in the base of N Seoul Tower was doing so on her Z Flip.
By contrast, when I'm out and about in New York City, where I live and work, I see iPhones, non-folding Samsung phones and Google Pixels.
And it's not just my observations. South Korea was the fourth largest market for foldable phones in 2022, according to Counterpoint Research, ranking after significantly larger regions like China, North America and Europe. In 2021, South Korea placed second only behind Europe.
The Seoulites that Amy and I spoke with were mostly drawn to foldables for one reason: design. Whether it's because they find the Z Flip attractive or easier to put in their pockets, Samsung's flip phone stood out for its unconventional shape.
"Definitely, 100% design," 26-year-old Moonjoo Lee says when asked why she bought the Z Flip as we sipped soju in a restaurant in the famous Gwangjang market, where diners flock to bustling food stalls to sample staple dishes like tteokbokki (chewy, cylindrical rice cakes cooked in sauce) and mung bean pancakes.
Jinsung Lee, a 31-year-old freelancer who's been using the Galaxy Z Flip for a year, said she likes the device because it's "pretty" and can be easily decorated with accessories.
"I can design it in whatever way I choose," she says while holding up her phone, which was speckled with stickers.
The purpose of phones that flip and fold
Having a phone that can fold to fit in your pocket or expand to show slide decks on a bigger screen represents a shift in how we use our phones. While traditional smartphones are static, foldables can change their shape and screen size to adapt to the situation. The Z Flip 5, for instance, is about 3.4 inches long when closed with a 3.4-inch screen showing your calendar, the weather and other snippets of information in the palm of your hand. It opens up to roughly 6.5 inches long with an 6.7-inch screen. The hinge opens it vertically, like an old-school clamshell-style flip phone.
Phones like the Galaxy Z Fold and the newly introduced Google Pixel Fold, meanwhile, open like a book and have a tablet-size interior screen that may be ideal for watching movies or playing games. But if you just want to send a quick text message, you can fold that screen in half and just use the more moderately sized cover display.
Junsuk Kim, an IT project manager, likes the Z Fold 3's big screen for using PowerPoint while messaging colleagues, as well as for reading books and watching animation.
"It's the main reason why I choose Galaxy Z Fold 3," he says. "It's perfectly suitable for work."
The Z Flip and other new flip phones like the Motorola Razr Plus and Oppo Find N2 Flip let you fold a regular-size phone in half so that it can more easily fit into a pocket or purse. And when you need to read a news article or check your email, you can simply unfold it to use the full-size screen.
That's why 33-year-old clinical laboratory technologist Sangbum Seo was drawn to the Z Flip. He likes Samsung's flip phone because of its compact build that easily fits in the pocket, a key attribute for those who don't carry handbags.
Clamshell phones like the Galaxy Z Flip are already shaping up to be the most popular foldable phone style. Data from IDC provided to CNET indicates flip phones accounted for about 58% of the foldable phone market in 2022.
Samsung has been observing how these changes impact the way users engage with their phones. T.M. Roh, president and head of Samsung's mobile experience business, said in an interview through a translator last year that people tend to spend more time on foldable phones compared with regular, bar-type phones.
"Both Fold and Flip are characterized by long usage time for different reasons," he said last August. "Fold is used for longer durations because it's really focused on productivity and entertainment. And a Flip is used by a lot of young people, so they consume a lot of time on their phones."
How mobile phones have evolved
The emergence of foldables is just the latest transformation of the mobile phone. Look through history and you'll find countless examples of how phones have evolved over time as people craved access to communication and the internet on the go. Phones transitioned from the gigantic brick-shaped Motorola Dynatac 8000x in the early 1980s to the more portable iconic candybar-shaped Nokia 3210 in 1999 and to camera-equipped flip phones like the LG VX-6000 in 2003. The original Razr from 2004, with its sharp standout appearance, made flip phones cool and trendy.
BlackBerry and Nokia phones ruled the cellphone world before the smartphone era. Nokia was known for its bold designs, while the keyboards and messaging features available on BlackBerry phones made them stand out. "Aside from the business use, that's really what pivoted BlackBerry's growth in the consumer space," said Nabila Popal, a research director at IDC.
With its multitouch screen and the introduction of the App Store, which came later in 2008, the iPhone is credited with laying the foundation for today's smartphones. But that foundation has largely remained the same ever since, with phone makers building on top of it with larger screens, faster processors, new sensors and more sophisticated cameras.
Before foldables arrived, the most dramatic shift we saw in smartphone design was the proliferation of larger screens. Like foldables, smartphones with big screens used to be a niche and were available only on devices geared toward early adopters like the original Samsung Galaxy Note. But as the app economy boomed and people began relying on their phones for nearly everything, from banking to calling cabs, watching movies and snapping photos, people embraced larger displays.
Now just about every phone on the market has a screen that's six inches or larger, making the 2011-era Galaxy Note's 5.3-inch display seem minuscule. And perhaps unsurprisingly, South Korea was one of the first markets to adopt this shift too.
When data research firm Flurry Analytics sampled 97,963 iOS and Android devices worldwide back in 2013, only 7% of those devices were so-called "phablets," a portmanteau of "phone" and "tablet" that was previously used to describe phones with big screens. But for South Korea, that number was 41%.
That same report says the market for connected devices in South Korea grew more rapidly than the worldwide market in late 2011 and early 2012. Growth in South Korea slowed after that, but Flurry Analytics interpreted that as an indication that the country was the first to reach mobile saturation.
"As such, it provides a good early indicator of what other markets can expect once the rapid growth period the mobile market has experienced over the past few years ends," Mary Ellen Gordon wrote in Flurry's report back then.
Samsung's home turf advantage
Based on my observations in Seoul, it's tempting to think history may be repeating itself. Just as South Koreans were the first to adopt big-screen phones before they became the norm, perhaps a similar pattern is happening with foldables.
But there are a few important caveats to consider. Samsung holds an outsized presence in South Korea, especially in the smartphone market, which plays a major role in the country's early adoption of foldable phones and likely phablets before that.
Samsung employs 120,000 people in South Korea and accounts for around 20% of the country's gross domestic product, according to reports from the Korea Times and Nikkei, making it highly influential in the Korean market. Its campuses span the country, from its design center in Seoul to its headquarters in Suwon, located roughly an hour outside of the city, all the way down to its home appliances factory in Gwangju. Samsung also has a mobile device factory in Gumi and semiconductor operations in Giheung, Hwaseong, Pyeongtaek and Onyang.
Visiting Samsung's campuses in Suwon and Gumi gave me a sense of its monumental presence. Its campuses feel like miniature cities of their own, with the Suwon headquarters including everything from a convenience store to a fitness center on campus for employees. Perhaps it's fitting for a company with its name on everything from an insurance company to an amusement park, an indication of just how deeply the company is woven into the fabric of South Korean society.
"It's Samsung's home market, so the marketing is very strong there," IDC's Popal said.
But consumers in regions like South Korea also tend to be more interested in design than those in other parts of the world.
"It is a very innovative market," said Brad Akyuz, executive director at market research firm Circana. "We know that the adoption rates for new innovation tend to be higher in markets like South Korea or Japan."
Popal said consumers in areas such as the United Arab Emirates, China and Korea typically want "the latest and greatest device," noting that branding is very important in markets like these compared with the US.
What's next for Samsung? More competition
Never was this point more obvious than at Samsung's Unpacked event in Seoul on July 26. The presentation took place at the Coex Convention Center in Gangnam, a sprawling complex attached to a shopping mall, a movie theater, an aquarium and a hotel located across the street from Bongeunsa Temple, a scene that encapsulates the blend of modern and traditional cultural landmarks that Seoul is known for.
While most Samsung keynotes take place in an auditorium or theater, this venue felt less formal but much more flashy. Surrounded by wall-length screens blaring Samsung advertisements, journalists, analysts and -- most importantly -- celebrities sat on minimalist stools that formed a circle around the tiny center stage.
Euphoria and The White Lotus star Sydney Sweeney was in attendance, as was Suga of Korean pop sensation BTS. I've been covering Samsung product launches for a decade, and this was the first time I'd seen legions of fans gathering outside the auditorium door in hopes of a celebrity sighting.
It was a stark contrast to the Galaxy S23's San Francisco launch in February, where the surprise guests were executives from Google and Qualcomm who joined Samsung's Roh on stage to announce a new tech partnership.
The message was clear: Samsung wants the world paying attention to its foldables.
That may be because it's facing more competition than ever before. Motorola, a fellow early entrant to the foldables market, released a new version of its Razr flip phone called the Razr Plus in June to much critical acclaim. Xiaomi, a popular Chinese smartphone company, also announced a new book-style foldable phone called the Mix Fold 3 just days after Samsung's Z Flip 5 and Z Fold 5 went on sale. Oppo, a major player in the Chinese smartphone market, recently introduced a new flip phone called the Find N3 Flip, furthering its rivalry with Samsung in the foldable phone space.
While Chinese tech giants like Huawei and Oppo have been making foldable phones for years, Google and OnePlus are just now entering the fray. Apple is also rumored to be working on a foldable phone that could arrive in 2025, according to TF International Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who is known for his Apple product predictions.
Brian Rakowski, vice president of product management at Google, said the company waited until 2023 to launch its first bendable phone because the technology has matured.
"It's inherently a more expensive device," Rakowski said in an interview ahead of the Pixel Fold's debut. "So we felt like if people were going to buy a top-of-the-line device, we wanted everything to work well."
But Oppo is becoming Samsung's biggest threat in this arena, Popal said, primarily thanks to the rapid growth of the foldable market in China. Samsung's share of the global foldable phone market dropped to 41% in the second quarter of 2023 compared with about 80% on average in 2022, according to IDC data provided to CNET.
However, the improvements Samsung introduced in the Galaxy Z Flip 5, along with the company's larger global presence, mean the Korean tech giant is likely to gain that share back.
"Despite the drop, Samsung is still way in the lead," Popal said.
For its part, Samsung sees the increased competition as an affirmation that it's on the right track. And analysts seem to agree; projections from Counterpoint Research and IDC both suggest that foldables are poised to grow. Counterpoint says foldable shipments increased 64% year over year in the first quarter of 2023, while IDC estimates worldwide shipments could reach 21.4 million units in 2023, an increase of more than 50% compared with 2022.
"Consumers will always judge which product is better, so I do not believe the competition is negative," Roh said through a translator in July. "Rather, I believe that for foldables especially, competition will serve to expand the market and in the end bring even better value to the consumers."
Roh also said sales of Samsung's foldables are almost on par with those of its now-extinct Galaxy Note line, which has essentially been folded into the Galaxy S series. That could be a sign that foldables are starting to follow the same path as the Note by appealing to more than just early adopters.
What foldable phones need to become the next big thing
But to get there, Samsung and its challengers still have important obstacles to overcome. Foldable phones are significantly more expensive than your average phone, with devices like the Galaxy Z Fold 5 and Google Pixel Fold commanding eye-watering $1,800 prices. Durability is also a challenge with foldables; shortly after the Pixel Fold launched, several users reported issues with their devices on Reddit.
The Samsung users that Amy and I spoke with in Seoul are well aware of these drawbacks. Misook Woo, a 53-year-old woman who has owned the Galaxy Z Fold 3 for eight months, mentioned the Fold's price as an area to improve. She also spent extra money on accessories like a case and the S Pen and said that the screen broke easily when she dropped the phone.
While 28-year-old clinical laboratory technologist Hyojung Park likes how easy it is to check texts on the Z Flip 4 without opening it, she also said her screen cover has broken several times within a year.
Lee, the 26-year-old I spoke with at Gwangjang market, wants to wait until future generations when Samsung further improves the Flip's build before buying another one.
"I really like the design, but it's kind of uncomfortable that I can't open it with only one hand," she says.
The Galaxy Z Flip 5 and Z Fold 5 represent Samsung's attempt to address those durability and design issues. Both phones have a new hinge with fewer moving parts, which makes them thinner and less susceptible to damage, according to Samsung. But pricing hasn't changed compared to the previous generation. Roh says a foldable Samsung phone priced lower than $1,000 may not be feasible anytime soon given the cost of the components.
"It is probably not going to be easy for us to offer a less than $1,000 foldable in the very near future," he said. "But we will keep trying."
For now, foldables are still waiting for their breakout moment. But projections about growing sales, combined with the fact that every major phone maker except Apple is developing foldable phones, suggests that inflection point could arrive sooner rather than later.
There may be a misconception that foldable phones are expected to replace today's smartphones entirely. Instead, they're likely to become the next generation of what would be considered today's premium phones, like the Galaxy S23. According to Popal, most Android phones in the $800 and up price range will likely be foldable in the next decade. Roh, Samsung's mobile chief, shares a similar outlook.
"I would not see either just a bar-type, or just a foldable, or just another potentially new form factor dominating the market," he said to CNET through a translator last year. "But rather I see the different categories coexisting together."
For people like Yoo, the waiter from the Japanese restaurant, that future is already here. When I ask him if he would ever switch back to a regular phone, the answer is a resounding "no."
Additional Reporting and Language Translation | Amy Kim
Visual Designer | Zooey Liao
Senior Project Manager | Danielle Ramirez
Creative Director | Brandon Douglas
Director of Content | Jonathan Skillings