The flip phone is about to make a big comeback as foldable screen nears reality

The flip phone is about to make a big comeback as foldable screen nears reality
The flip phone is about to make a big comeback as foldable screen nears reality

"[A manufacturer] might have the right answer, but is it compatible with all the other things that go on in a device and can you scale it?" said William Stofega, program director for IDC's mobile device technology and trends research program. "What we really need is something that's not a lab experiment; something that can be produced in volume. It's a process."

Royole, a six-year old manufacturer, says flexible displays are production-ready; they're just waiting for the rest of the supply chain to catch up.

"Before flexible/bendable displays became available for commercialization, it was difficult for manufacturers to work on consumer product design to even begin to find out what potential issues may be," said Ze Yuan, Royole's director of R&D. "Now the situation has changed. We are ready to offer our display products, know-how, and IP for product integration. This is one area that can be built up quickly, not only for us, but also for a lot of different industries."

While much of smartphone innards have become somewhat more bendy and small over time —soft circuit boards, more flexible batteries — a foldable phone's enclosure needs to be somewhat lithe but also durable enough to keep the phone's inner screen protected. If done right, that could be a major selling point.

"The glass of current smartphones' screens is the bane of all existence — you have this beautiful jewel of a phone that you have to put a case on," says Daylight's Newman. "There is a place for a foldable screen [in the market] if it can provide a more secure shell for your phone such that you're not walking about with a piece of glass exposed in your pocket."

Tech designers and analysts say that bendable smartphones with truly continuous screens will probably come with the second- or third-generation of foldables, when the mechanical design detailing a screen's bend radius has been fully ironed out. And then, smartphone design may have reached its limit. "As design moves to a digital world where industrial design is just the housing or frame for a compelling user experience, design moves into the background," Newman said.

Foldable phones need to be capable of delivering whatever next-gen technology developers are pursuing, like 5G, AI and augmented reality, which Apple is pushing with its latest ARKit 2 platform.

"A flexible smartphone is cool, but it has to be backed up by services and features that actually deliver — otherwise, it's just a gimmick," said Y Studios' Lim.

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