Samsung may dominate the emerging market for foldable smartphones, but it is by no means the only player.
And now, as the market matures and moves ever closer to mainstream acceptance, existing players and newcomers alike are unveiling new products in hopes of snagging a slice of this fast-growing pie.
Unfortunately, most of that effort thus far has been limited to the Chinese market.
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For its part, Samsung was not only among the first to enter the fold-style segment in 2019, or in the flip-style market the following year. It was until recently the only company with offerings in both foldable smartphone segments.
Additionally, as other early entrants hesitated or faltered along the way, Samsung’s commitment remained unwavering. The electronics giant is the only player, for example, to establish a regular cadence of annual updates – and stuck to it.
That said, one of the biggest obstacles to high-volume sales of foldable smartphones isn’t predictability. It’s cost. Glass that bends, a life-affirming component for foldable smartphones, is difficult and expensive to make. And packing radios, antennas, processors and batteries into a device with two half-bodies is much more challenging than arranging them inside conventional single-bodied smartphones.
But when suppliers do overcome those hurdles, all indications are that the foldable market will quickly scoop up a hefty slice of smartphone sales. As an indication, Samsung introduced the Galaxy Z Flip3 5G a year ago at $1,000, and it quickly became the largest-selling foldable.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, smartphone makers unveiled their flagship devices in Barcelona’s ballrooms, halls and pavilions, usually during the last weekend in February, just ahead of the cellular industry’s annual Mobile World Congress.
But as CES came to a close in Las Vegas that January, it became increasingly clear that Samsung and Chinese electronics giant Huawei were both on a path to announce foldable phones – and each wanted to lay claim to first.
As it turned out, getting there first was already a moot point.
Royole Corp., a young flexible displays manufacturer with offices in Silicon Valley and Hong Kong, unveiled the first foldable smartphone in the fall of 2018. In hindsight, the quirky device seemed more of a demonstration vehicle for its displays than a serious consumer product.
More:Samsung Galaxy Z Flip4 and Galaxy Z Fold4: New folding smartphones launching Aug. 26
In any event, Samsung managed to make its announcement ahead of Huawei. The electronics giant pulled in its annual Unpacked winter reveal to an old San Francisco theater the Wednesday before MWC, and just 48 hours before many of us attending the event left for Spain.
Huawei’s Mate X foldable was an impressive device, with a giant display that wrapped around the phone’s exterior. Folded, you could use either half of the display. And unfurled, the 8-inch display was noticeably larger than the original Galaxy Fold’s 7.3-inch screen.
But with a small exterior screen available for use when the Fold was, you know, folded, its big screen did seem to be far better protected. And at $1,980, the Fold was significantly less expensive than the Mate X, which started at about $2,400.
In the meantime, Lenovo’s Motorola hoped to capitalize on nostalgia with a vertical foldable smartphone created in the image of its iconic circa 2004 Razr flip phone. Motorola unveiled the Moto Razr in late 2019. The Razr was an attractive smartphone. But Motorola under-configured the device with last-generation components – and set the price at a stunningly high $1,500.
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A few months later, when Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Z Flip – its first vertical flip foldable – it was clear that Motorola missed the mark. The Flip was much more richly configured. And at $1,450, it was even a little less expensive.
The following fall, Motorola solved one of the original Razr’s two critical misfires by packing the Razr 2 5G with premium components, including – as the name implies – 5G cellular. It also lowered the price a bit, to $1,400.
And this week, Motorola revealed it had solved the second failing of the original Razr. The company unveiled the Razr 2022, which is packed with premium components like The Flip4, at a price below $1,000.
Unfortunately, the Razr 2022 will only be available in China for the moment. No word on when the new flip-style foldable might be coming to the US.
Most of the activity thus far has been limited outside of the Chinese market. Late last year, Huawei introduced the P50 Pocket, its first flip-style foldable, for an impressively high $1,850 – nearly twice the price for the Galaxy Z Flip4. And a few months later it unveiled the Mate Xs 2, a more refined version of its foldable exterior display. Unfortunately, it’s priced at about $2,400.
An even bigger downside to both devices is that, due to US sanctions, Huawei is forbidden from using Google services, which means there are few third-party apps available.
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A couple of other new Chinese manufacturers have also joined the fold, so to speak. OPPO launched the OPPO Find N, a fold-style device available only in China. And Xiaomi started shipping the Mi Mix Fold 2. It has many of the top-tier components as the Fold4, plus it’s a little thinner – and at about $1,350, a little cheaper, but only available in China.
With Chinese vendors entering the market – and Apple reportedly considering it – what will happen to prices going forward?
On the one hand, Chinese suppliers invariably force prices lower. And though it hasn’t really happened yet, it should only be a matter of time.
Rather than lowering market prices, on the other hand, Apple has more of a reputation for convincing consumers that the high prices they charge are reasonable. So which of these two opposing forces will have more of an impact?
USA TODAY columnist Mike Feibus is president and principal analyst of FeibusTech, a Scottsdale, Arizona, market research and consulting firm. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MikeFeibus.
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