The big problem with folding phones? The screen just isn’t bendy enough yet

2019 is the year of the folding phone prototype, with companies including Samsung, Huawei and LG touting their own versions of the new form of smartphones.

Before these devices even go on sale for consumer use, problems are reportedly already starting to crop up, mainly around how the screen can handle being folded. 

According to a report by Bloomberg, Samsung is trying to improve the durability of the display of its folding phone, the Galaxy Fold, announced last month.  

Allegedly, a crease begins to appear on the panel after it’s been folded about 10,000 times – which isn’t that much really. On average, people check their phones 28 times a day, usually once an hour.

That amounts to more than 10,000 times a year – which means that if you’re checking your folding phone as much as a normal smartphone, the screen is going to have a disconcerting crease after only one year of usage. 

Given the price tag is going to be about €2,000, that’s not a great cost-per-usage ratio. 

This demonstrates the big issue with folding phones – is the form factor right yet? Has the usage case even been proven? Is this really the device we’re all going to be buying in three or four years?

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week, the conversations revolved as much around who hadn’t released a folding phone yet, as well as those who had. 

Chinese tech company Xiaomi didn’t have a folding phone prototype in Barcelona. It unveiled a video preview earlier this year of how its version of the phone could look, but Xiaomi’s director of product management, Donovan Sung, told the Standard, it’s still very much in the concept stage. 

“We’re the kind of company where we really want to make sure something is ready before we reveal it. [Folding phones] is one of the many directions that we’re exploring,” he said. 

For smartphone maker OnePlus, co-founder Carl Pei said the company doesn’t have the confidence yet that folding phones are the next step in smartphone development.

“For us, we have a decision that we will only make a product that consumers are guaranteed to love or we’re very confident that people will love. We don’t want to put our brand on something that’s just an experiment,” Pei told the Standard.

“Now, we don’t have the confidence yet that the folding phone is something that people are going to embrace. For us, it’s more a wait and see approach and see whether consumers are really going to embrace it or if it’s just something that’s a flash in the pan.”

Corning, which makes the Gorilla Glass screen that tops nearly every smartphone in the world, gave a few publications an insight into the folding glass it’s currently working on that will enable the next-generation of folding phones. 

The ultra-thin bendable glass the company is working with is about 0.1mm thin, which CNET reports “can bend almost in half like a piece of paper to a 5mm radius”. Now that is thin. 

John Bayne, VP at Corning Gorilla Glass, told the publication: “The foldable opportunity is a little bit of a moving target now, because the use case isn’t quite and the form factor isn’t quite clear. Until these things start to manifest themselves and become more clear we’ll have to innovate in different material options in the glass space to see what the right product is … and time our development accordingly.”

There’s no denying that folding phones are an exciting innovation in the smartphone space. But before you think of dropping €2,000+ on one come the summer, you might want to wait a few years for these design challenges to be solved.

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