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If foldable phones catch on, you can thank an unlikely source

When it comes to creating phones that take new shapes, little-known handset maker ZTE wants to lead the charge.


Smartphones with foldable displays are either a waste of time or the next breakthrough in handsets.

It just depends on whom you ask.

You can count Lixin Cheng, head of ZTE's mobile business, as someone solidly in the pro-foldable camp. Last year, ZTE released the Axon M, a clamshell-like phone that has two screens and can be opened up to create a single larger display. It includes a hinge and doesn't have a true foldable display, but Cheng believes the design will inspire a new wave of phones.


The Axon M has a unique two-screen design that flips out to form a larger display.


"I'm confident we'll be leading this way for some time to come," Cheng (no relation to this reporter) said last week during a dinner in Las Vegas, where the CES 2018 trade show was taking place. "We're committed to this category."

It's one thing if ZTE, a Chinese telecommunications equipment maker best known in the US for selling budget phones, talks about a new design scheme. But consumer electronics heavy hitter Samsung lent this idea some weight in September when its mobile chief, DJ Koh, said he hoped to launch a foldable phone this year. Lenovo has weighed in on atypical screens, too, with a concept watch that can wrap around your wrist

Lenovo's phone-centric Motorola unit and Samsung weren't available to offer an updated comment for this article.

Let's face it: Phones could use a radical shake-up. They're all essentially the same plastic or metal slab with a glass display -- a design popularized by Apple and Steve Jobs with the original iPhone, which debuted 11 years ago. Last year saw the proliferation of "borderless displays," which pack more screen into a smaller body, as seen in the iPhone X, Galaxy S8 and LG G6.

We're already over it.

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A foldable display that can expand or contract based on your needs has a chance to really get us excited about mobile devices again. It would mark a significant jump in innovation and design for smartphones, which generally see only incremental updates each year.

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James Martin/CNET

But there are a ton of technical and practical hurdles. And while early adopters and gadget enthusiasts might salivate over the prospects of displays that bend and fold, mainstream consumers could shy away from such a big deviation from the norm. After all, phones utilizing other unique concepts, like modular parts or the squat keyboard design of the BlackBerry Passport, received cool receptions. Kyocera actually had a fold-out phone, called the Echo, back in 2011. It received scathing reviews.

"Someday foldable will be great, but today it's just gimmicky," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research.

What do the other big players in the industry say? I got a chance to talk to some of them at CES last week.

Cautious interest

LG Electronics, one of the world's largest consumer electronics makers and perennial crosstown rival to Samsung, wouldn't comment on whether it was building a foldable phone, but President and Chief Technology Officer Il-pyung Park called it an "interesting feature."

"Any new technology and innovation that makes sense we will consider in our future products," he said in an interview at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

Like Samsung, LG has a separate business that focuses on building displays, and at CES it showed off a 65-inch television that you can roll up like a poster. It's not a huge stretch to imagine that the company is considering smaller-scale devices like phones.


LG's OLED television can roll into a little box like a poster. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

One other company, which for competitive reasons didn't want to be named, is working on a foldable phone, but that device wouldn't appear this year.

ZTE, meanwhile, is laying the groundwork by getting developers to start thinking about apps that take advantage of both the two separate screens (when folded in) or the single larger screen (when folded out).

The Axon M just launched in China, and Cheng said he's working to spur more app development there.

Cheng showed me a double-sided camera app. One screen is the typical viewfinder display, while the second screen, facing outward toward the subject, offers colorful and cute imagery, designed to catch the attention of your child.

As the shutterbug parent of a son who's about to turn two, I immediately glommed on to the idea.

Just a gimmick?

Despite Cheng's excitement, there're plenty of rivals who prefer to stick with making thinner, more powerful phones.

"Personally, I don't like flip phones," OnePlus CEO Pete Lau said at a cafe in the Bellagio. "I hope phones can be as simple as possible."

The biggest benefit from tinkering with foldable displays has been the improvements they've spurred in industry design, Lau said, citing the curved-edge display found on the Galaxy S8. He said there's some opportunity to create a wraparound screen that goes to the back of the device -- but with limitations.

His concerns are shared by many in the industry. It's not just about bendable displays. Phone makers need to figure out how to get the components and battery to move too. There are a myriad of practical concerns.

"How susceptible is it to breakage or permanent wrinkles?" said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC. There are still too many questions, Llamas said, for him to want to make the jump.

George Zhao, president of Huawei unit Honor, said foldable displays and multiple screens are concepts the company plays with in R&D. But such features would come at the cost of having heavier and thicker devices, and the ideas are thrown out when the company readies a mass-production smartphone.

"I don't see enough value for the consumer," Zhao said during an interview at the Hard Rock Cafe Hotel.

Others just prefer the conservative approach. Gareth Hurn, global head of devices for TCL's BlackBerry unit, said the idea of a foldable phone wouldn't fit with its pillars of reliability and productivity.


BlackBerry tried a unique, squat design in the Passport. But now it's going back to basics with a focus on reliability and productivity.


"With something new, there's always trade-offs," Hurn said in an interview at the Encore Hotel.

Cheng, however, doesn't see any sacrifices when it comes to a new design and adding value for the consumer. The new design could inspire different apps, like the baby camera.

"Consumers deserve to have better products that are meaningful and useful to them," he said. 

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