Smartphones are currently in the same transformational phase that we saw PCs go through over the last 10 years. While the PC category used to be defined by desktops and laptops, now, a PC has many different forms. These range from form factors like Dell’s Optiplex 3090, which neatly and discretely hides inside of a monitor, to the multitude of 2-in-1 laptops that detach or flip into different shapes. Smartphones are already well along a similar path of specialization and diversification. You can see it in phones like the CAT phone with FLIR sensors, or the numerous ruggedized smartphones from the likes of Zebra (and don’t forget all the gaming phones from ASUS and Black Shark). These changes are a sign of a mature market.
Current and past convertible phones
These new smartphones are designed to be multi-purpose, though most people will have a preferred mode they predominantly use. For example, with recent foldables like the Galaxy Z Fold or Huawei Mate Xs, you will find that you only need to fully open the phone about 40% of the time—most things can and will be done on the front of the phone. A counterpoint to this is the Surface Duo, whose two inward facing displays open like a book and then can be flipped into a traditional, one-display form factor. I jokingly tweeted that rollable phones are the new foldables, but realistically they are just an evolution of the concept of convertible phones. We have seen convertible phones before, such as slider phones and devices like the Sidekick (although those mostly existed because on-screen keyboards sucked at that time and people desired a real keyboard). Currently foldables exist in two forms: the fold and the flip. Samsung is the only company that has both right now, at least commercially. Motorola has the Razr 5G flip device but does not have a fold option.
The extension of this is to enable more than one fold or flip in a device with multiple hinge designs. Rollables expand on this idea by not having any hinge at all—instead, they utilize a motorized mechanism to unfurl the display (TCL and LG both have such offerings in the works). The issue with these designs is that it will be hard to maintain structural rigidity while they are fully ‘open’, and nobody has actually held or used one yet. Rollables are still mostly a dream, at least until someone tries to commercially launch one. Let us not forget that while Samsung’s first foldable had to be recalled and relaunched because of technical issues, it eventually got it right. Mine’s been going for over a year now.
The future of convertible phones
One fundamental technology that has enabled foldable and rollable displays is the industry’s move towards OLED which allows for flexible displays that can bend or roll up. However, glass technology has not yet evolved to the point where it can be fully flexible. As a result, many of these convertible devices are much more susceptible to damage (and that is not even accounting for the folding mechanism itself). Samsung attempted to address many of these concerns in the Galaxy Z Flip and Galaxy Z Fold 2 by improving the hinge mechanism and adding glass elements to the phone’s display, but these devices in general are still considered to be more fragile than the standard phone form factor most people use today. Future generations of these convertible phones (rollable, foldable, flippable, etc.) will have to address the durability issues while simultaneously improving pricing and refining features.
I believe that rollable displays will have their place once the market figures out where they make the most sense and how much they will ultimately cost. Currently, foldables are marketed as a premium product by companies like Huawei and Samsung, and cost anywhere from $1,300 to $2000 USD. Right now, most companies with foldables are currently on their 2nd generation devices and are queuing up the 3rd generation which promises to bring even more refinement to the category. Rollable phones are coming this year, at least according to LG, and we will see more affordable foldables from the likes of TCL and Samsung likely this year. I look forward to watching this smartphone diversification continue.