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An illustration of a foldable phone behind a silhouette of a person
Foldable phones have been around for three years, but they're still missing their breakout moment. Can Samsung make it happen?
Robert Rodriguez/CNET

Foldables Are Still Looking for a Breakout Moment. Samsung Wants to Change That

Three years later, Samsung is still proving the promise behind foldable phones.

Tyler Reeves, a 28-year-old computer engineering student living in California, bought Samsung's first Galaxy Fold shortly after it launched in 2019. It was an expensive and bold choice for someone like Reeves, who enjoys outdoor sports like rock climbing and backpacking. 

Most people would be reluctant to take a nearly $2,000 phone up a mountain, especially since Samsung delayed the device's originally planned launch over durability issues. But that didn't bother Reeves. In fact, his first-gen Galaxy Fold is still in good condition aside from a few scratches.

"I tend to bring my phone in places where you usually wouldn't want to bring something like that," he said. 

Reeves is the exception rather than the norm. Foldable phones are a nascent but growing part of the broader smartphone market, with sales booming in 2021 compared to 2020. Research firm Omdia says 11.5 million foldables were shipped in 2021, representing a 309% year over year increase. The International Data Corporation pegs global shipments at 7.1 million in 2021, a 264.3% jump compared to 2020. The industry is only expected to continue growing, with shipments hitting 14 million units in 2022 according to Omdia. 

Even though foldable devices represent a sliver of the overall market (286 million phones were shipped in the second quarter of 2022 alone, says the IDC), these statistics underscore a similar point. There are more and more people like Reeves, who are interested in buying foldable phones.

Samsung is as convinced as ever that foldable phones are the future. It announced its fourth-gen Galaxy Z Flip 4 and Galaxy Z Fold 4 on Aug. 10, cementing these devices as regular fixtures in the tech giant's sprawling phone lineup. With companies like Google and Apple also rumored to be working on phones that can bend and twist, foldable phones aren't going away anytime soon.

Answering the "why" behind foldables is easy for Samsung. Just think about all the other products in your life that fold in half, like laptops and notebooks. Their ability to fold is precisely what makes these tools useful. 

"So this sort of a foldable format is really something that has been with humanity for such a long time across the world," TM Roh, president and head of Samsung's mobile experience business, said in an interview with CNET. "And that really makes the case for the foldable form factor."

What's less clear is precisely how impactful foldable phones will be in our everyday lives. Three years after the first crop of bendable devices arrived in 2019, their breakout moment has yet to arrive. The modern smartphone revolutionized the way we work, communicate, record personal memories and learn about the world. Tech companies are searching for the next major iteration of the personal computer, Samsung sees foldables as the key to answering that question. 

Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Z Flip 4 held side by side

The Galaxy Z Fold 4 (left) and Galaxy Z Flip 4 (right)

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Samsung is the king of foldable phones today

Almost every major smartphone manufacturer has released or announced a foldable phone at this point. And the ones who haven't are heavily rumored to do so. 

Motorola just announced its third foldable Razr flip phone, while Chinese tech giant Oppo debuted the Find N in December 2021. Huawei, the second biggest foldable phone maker behind Samsung, has already released several foldable phones, including its Mate X phone-tablet hybrid and P-series flip phone. Even Microsoft has released two foldable Android phones: the Surface Duo and Surface Duo 2

Google is rumored to be working on a foldable Pixel, according to 9to5Google, although a report from The Elec says the project has been delayed. Apple has begun early testing on a foldable iPhone, according to Bloomberg

Microsoft Surface Duo 2

Microsoft's Surface Duo 2, a less successful Android foldable.

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

But for now, Samsung leads the foldable phone market by a wide margin. Display Supply Chain Consultants reports that Samsung accounts for 74% of foldable phone shipments, while Omdia says the South Korean electronics manufacturer is responsible for 88% of the foldable market. Samsung's flip phone is especially popular, with both reports citing Z Flip 3 as the top-selling foldable.

Samsung's lead isn't just about being early to the market. Its presence in the display supply chain also gives Samsung an advantage over the competition. 

"The supply chain is always important," said Ross Young, cofounder and CEO of Display Supply Chain Consultants. "And particularly in this case, when so much of the technology and know-how is owned by one player, being Samsung."

Young thinks it's unlikely that current contenders will challenge Samsung's leading position. But who will take second place? Oppo is expected to tie Huawei next year thanks to rumored upcoming foldables that could include a sequel to the Find N and a clamshell-style flip phone similar to the Z Flip. Oppo's rumored flip phone is expected to be priced aggressively, according to Young, potentially taking share away from Huawei and Samsung.

Foldables still need a breakout moment

Several hurdles are preventing foldable phones from becoming as ubiquitous as standard mobile devices. For one, they're more expensive than your average phone. And two, companies like Samsung are still figuring out how to put those bendable screens to use in a way that meaningfully distinguishes them from standard phones. Since foldable phones have only been widely available for roughly three years, it's also unclear how well they'll hold up over long periods of usage. 

For the most part, Roh agrees. Speaking to CNET in a rare interview through a translator, Roh pointed to three ways foldables could improve: They need to be more affordable, the battery life should be longer and the software needs to be better tailored for their unique screens. 

The Z Flip 4 and Z Fold 4 are the result of Samsung's latest effort to address these issues and prove the promise behind foldable phones. But these phones also illustrate the challenge in doing so. Both phones include new software features meant to make better use of their bendable screens along with upgraded cameras. The Z Flip 4 also has a bigger battery than its predecessor. 

But Samsung's new foldables also feel more like iterative updates that lack some of the wow factor found in earlier foldables. It's a challenging balance to strike, but Roh is confident that these devices will get better over time.

"We will continue our endeavor to perfect the experience with a thinner and even more portable device," he said. "And this will play a significant role in bringing about that breakthrough for mainstreaming of the foldable category."

The Galaxy Z Fold 4 has a tablet-sized screen inside.

Richard Peterson/CNET

Both new phones are also priced higher than the average smartphone -- especially the $1,800 Z Fold 4. It's a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Prices need to be more accessible for foldable phones to gain wider traction. But costs likely won't come down until foldables become more mainstream. That's often the case with new mobile technologies, like 5G support, which once demanded premium prices but can now be found in phones that cost less than $500. 

Samsung did not lower the prices of the Galaxy Z Flip 4 and Z Fold 4 compared to last year, although it is continuing to sell the Z Flip 3 at a $100 discount. 

"It's definitely a challenge that we are tackling, and we will need to tackle," said Roh regarding the Z Fold's price. 

Even though Samsung is convinced of the promise behind foldable phones, the question of whether they will ever replace traditional smartphones isn't as simple to answer. Foldables will likely drive sales of high-end, premium phones in the future, possibly playing a similar role as the Galaxy S22 Ultra and iPhone 13 Pro Max, according to Roh. But regular bar-style phones will continue to co-exist as affordable options.  

"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. But rather I see the different categories coexisting together."

A big thing that could determine whether foldables become a hit would be Apple deciding to join the fold. After all, it's the world's second-largest phone-maker behind Samsung.

Although Apple has filed patents for devices with foldable screens, there's little evidence suggesting a foldable iPhone is in development. Bloomberg's report from early 2021 is the most concrete indication we've seen yet, but even that story suggested Apple was only experimenting with the technology. Analysts like Young and TF International Securities Ming-Chi Kuo, who has a reputation for making Apple product predictions, forecast that 2025 is the earliest we'll see a foldable iPhone.

"You just pick up any device and it will work straight away," said David McQueen, research director for ABI Research, in reference to Apple devices. "And I think that's probably the key for why Apple has been so successful." 

samsung-ces-2022-foldable-main-2.png

Samsung Display revealed several foldable concepts at CES 2022, including the Flex S tablet shown here.

Samsung

Where foldable phones are going next

Samsung's current foldables are barely three years old, but the company is already thinking about where it may go next. And there's a good reason why: It took eight years for Samsung to launch its first-gen foldables after conceptualizing them, says Roh. 

The tech giant previewed a few of these ideas at CES 2022 in January. The Flex S concept, for example, has an accordion-style tri-folding display that unfolds into a tablet. The Flex G concept also folds in two places, but the left and right panels fold over the inner screen to provide protection. Then there's the Flex Slidable, which as its name implies has an extendable screen. 

Roh couldn't comment specifically on which one, if any, would come to market. But he did say these designs, as well as many others, are under consideration. 

"It's everything you saw [at CES] plus more," he said.

Young agrees that there are plenty of ways for book-style, large-format foldables to evolve.

"The rollable concept has a lot of potential to replace that book-type device in my mind," said Young. "Because it's going to be a lot thinner. And it should be a lot lighter."

There's certainly no shortage of interest from tech companies. TCL, which has yet to release a foldable phone, has also been busy developing prototypes. In February, the Chinese electronics-maker demonstrated foldable phone concepts with hinges that can bend 360 degrees and rollable displays. 

But new types of large-screened foldables may also present more production challenges for the industry, especially if companies plan to use bendable glass in future designs. It can be challenging for supply chains to handle that type of glass properly since foldable phones are still relatively new, according to Mathias Mydlak, senior manager of business development for glass maker Schott's ultra thin glass cover product group. Schott's flexible glass is used in the Vivo X Fold, a book-style foldable phone that debuted in April. 

As smartphones have matured, annual updates have begun to feel more incremental and less innovative. Foldable phones are Samsung's way of changing that, but it's going to take more than three years to figure out what the next major evolution of the smartphone might be. Samsung is off to a strong start, even if it only has niche shoppers like Reeves convinced for now. 

"It'll be another foldable," Reeves said when asked what phone he plans to buy when it's time to replace his aging Galaxy Fold. "I don't think I could go back."