Samsung’s latest release could flip the smartphone industry on its head, but critics are asking if it’s a case of style over substance.
Samsung’s latest release could flip the smartphone industry on its head, but critics are asking if it’s a case of style over substance.

Phone giants go back to the future

First, they opened and closed like a book.

Now they flip and slam shut like a 1990s throwback.

But the future of folding phones is far from settled and what we see next could roll out, slide up, or fold over on itself.

Smartphone makers and analysts agree that flexible, bending and folding smartphone are likely to play a major role in the next generation of devices but none can claim they've nailed the form that will send the technology mainstream.

And with questions about their longevity, $2000-plus prices, and competition from beefed-up cameras and 5G connections, can folding phones attract big enough audiences for manufacturers to persist?

It's a question industry analysts asked again this week after Samsung released its latest folding phone experiment, this time targeting an entirely new audience.

The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip, unveiled in San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts, is a 6.7-inch smartphone that folds in half to become a highly pocketable gadget.


The smartphone featured in an ad during the Oscars telecast, played a role during New York Fashion Week, is available in mirrored purple and gold finishes and, as all of that suggests, targets a new, fashion-focused audience for folding phones.

Samsung Electronics Australia mobile vice-president Garry McGregor confirmed the Z Flip was a fresh experiment for folding phones, designed for potential buyers who would not have considered the big and book-like Galaxy Fold but wanted to slip a large smartphone into a small pocket or bag.

"We're really excited to see where it can go," he said.

"We've obviously got two different folding devices now but I think we reserve the right to explore and look at new forms that bend, twist and stretch as consumers demand.

"Twelve or 18 months ago, some people said this was a gimmick that would never take off but now I think people are starting to see that there is credibility in this space."

Head of Samsung's Next Generation Product Design Group, Taejoong Kim, confirmed that the style of the ultimate folding phone had yet to be settled, even for the world's leading folding screen brand.


While Z Flip designers "went through hundreds of prototypes" to develop a practical folding, flip phone, Mr Kim said the company would consider other styles that could work for users.

"We are introducing a foldable to provide a special new experience," he said.

"To provide new experiences, I do believe this category will expand.

"We'll continue to research the needs of consumers and with the new foldable category will provide a greater, pleasurable experience to our customers."

Creative Strategies principal analyst Carolina Milanesi said the flexible screen technology had massive potential but part of the reason companies including Samsung, Motorola, Huawei and even Apple, which has filed flexible screen patents, were still investigating new phone forms is that no one has nailed the unique style that could appeal to every user.

"We're still at the stage where they're trying to figure out which audience this (folding phone) is going to be for," she said.

"This (Samsung Galaxy Flip) is fashion, style, 'I want look different, I want to be different, and that is why I'm spending ($2000)' versus the Fold when it was like 'I want to be tech first, I want to be about productivity, I want to figure out how I can use this differently and maybe not take my PC with me'.


"The reality is that we haven't worked out which audience is bigger and where it is all going to end up. It's not a bad thing to try and position things in a different way, especially when, as a company like Samsung, you don't have to make a decision."

And behind this new technological push was a massive financial motivation, Ms Milanesi said: consumers were no longer being won over by smartphones with slightly larger screens and slightly thinner bodies.

"Everyone is concerned about stagnant sales and how they are going to revamp the market and 5G will get us there but it's a long tail," she said.

"It's going to take time so you need something that is going to get people excited."

A Telsyte study into the Australian smartphone market this week showed sales fell by five per cent in the last half of 2019 as more consumers held on to existing smartphones for more than two years.

Telsyte managing director Foad Fadaghi said a growing number of Australian consumers were interested in folding phones but the technology still had a long way to go.

"About one in five consumers say they're interested in folding screens but it's failing to create mass interest at this point in time," he said.

"The challenge with folding screens has been the lack of specific applications that make the use of a folding screen to set the product apart. The first generation of devices also suffer from a little bit of consumer caution."


Some of that caution surrounds Motorola's new flip phone, the folding RAZR, which uses a plastic folding screen rather than one made of glass.

Reports of screen ripples and bubbles have emerged, and tests questioned whether it would last longer than a year.

Similar issues stopped Huawei launching its Mate X folding smartphone early last year. The smartphone has since gone on sale in China alone.

Mr Fadaghi said manufacturers would have to work hard to quell concerns about the durability and longevity of folding phones to justify their higher prices.

"It's difficult to sell premium priced devices, particularly ones where prices could depreciate rapidly," he said.

"There's no guarantee these devices will hold their resale value in two or three years' time given how fast the technology might evolve. It definitely has potential but, to the average consumer, the price premium is still likely to be too much right now."

Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Samsung.