As smartphones enter the ‘maturity’ stage of their product life cycle, sales are in steady decline.
Gartner recently estimated that global mobile phone shipments will fall from 1.81 billion units in 2018 to 1.75 billion units this year.
This change in purchasing behaviour has been going on for a while, driven by a number of issues – most notably a lack of innovation.
There hasn’t been a major step forward in smartphone tech for a few years now, and even 5G hasn’t encouraged people to trade in their existing handsets for new 5G-compatible hardware.
In a world where phones are increasingly similar, why would consumers spend hundreds of pounds to trade up to something that’s only slightly different to what they already own?
It seems they wouldn’t.
Instead, people are hanging on to their phones for longer. And many experts predict that the phone market will continue to stagnate until a new technology turns up.
Is it phone? Is it a tablet?
Despite the name, we don’t really use smartphones as phones any longer.
The annual number of voice calls is plummeting. Instead, smartphones primarily serve as cameras and entertainment platforms.
Future phones will increasingly resemble scaled-down notebooks with multiple cameras, 4G/5G access and the obligatory voice calling.
But how will tomorrow’s smartphones replicate the versatility and capabilities of notebook devices, given their diminutive screen sizes?
And how does a notepad replicate the convenience of a smartphone, when you can’t fit it into your pocket?
The answer lies in the origami-like nature of folding handsets.
The new divide
The foldable phone has been the Holy Grail of phone manufacturers for some time, and it’s easy to see why.
It bridges the divide between the pocket-friendly size of a smartphone and the display capacity of a notebook.
That’s why most smartphone manufacturers are investing in foldable phone technologies.
However, developing and producing foldable phones hasn’t been easy.
Glass won’t bend, so the focus has been on plastic screens – foldable, but not always durable.
Early attempts to introduce this concept went badly wrong back in April, when the initial launch of the Samsung Galaxy Fold was scrapped due to problems with press review models.
Consequently, the UK launch of Samsung’s Galaxy Fold 5G last month attracted huge attention. It has a 4.6-inch display when folded and a 7.3-inch screen when flat.
Samsung have ironed out some of the original problems, but the company warns the Fold is still more delicate and easier to break than most smartphones.
That’s worrying on a device costing almost £2,000, but it may well be a sign of things to come.
Now that foldable phones are a reality, innovation can come to the fore. There’s already talk of OLED screens being printed onto the plastic bodies of folding devices.
And it’s generally agreed that both tablets and smartphones (which are inevitably going to converge) will increasingly offer foldable – or even rollable – screens.
The sheer convenience of the foldable phone as a smartphone/tablet hybrid will surely be enough to shift units.
However, it’s less clear whether this innovation alone will persuade consumers to resume replacing their phones every couple of years.
Smartphone manufacturers certainly hope so, which is why many brands are following in Samsung’s wake.
Chinese phone-maker Xiaomi has posted videos to the Weibo social network which seem to show a tri-fold foldable phone – possibly a prototype of a forthcoming device.
If it is, this would be the first time anybody has installed a tri-fold screen on a smartphone.
Huawei’s foldable Mate X was revealed at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona back in February but has yet to hit the shelves.
Huawei say this is due to a lack of 5G coverage rather than any design or manufacturing problems, and the Mate X is expected to go on sale later this month.
Motorola’s own foldable phone is also due to go on sale before the end of 2019, probably under the Razr brand.
Patents suggest this latest Razr phone will fold inward, unlike the Huawei model shown at Barcelona which had an external foldable screen.
Whatever happens over the next few months, these early models are very much testing the limits of modern technology. They’ll also command the usual early-adopter premiums.
But if anything can save the smartphone sector from the ‘decline’ stage of the product life cycle, foldable phones seem the likeliest candidates.