Year-after-year we see smartphone manufacturers mass produce and unveil identical small black boxes, albeit with their own little twists to catch the eye.

But fundamentally they are all the same: not since Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone and catapulted smartphones into the mass-market have we seen innovation really capture consumer imagination.

People camped outside Apple stores for days to get their hands on a device which promised to communicate, entertain and inform consumers better than ever before.

Since then smartphones haven’t changed very much and the snaking Apple store queues have shrunk over the years, which presents the question: has smartphone innovation gone stale and is another revolution needed to push the sector to new heights?

Foldables are in
We are at the beginning of a new dawn with smartphone form factor through foldable devices employing flexible displays, a segment holding massive potential for growth.

Among the top vendors, Huawei and Samsung were first out the gate in 2019 with the Mate X and Galaxy Fold respectively, following up with the Mate XS and Galaxy Z Flip.

Other vendors are also moving in on the form factor: Lenovo re-launched the iconic Motorola Razr, while Oppo, Xiaomi, Vivo and TCL Communication have produced prototypes.

In a report issued prior to the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, Strategy Analytics tipped shipments of foldable devices to grow from just under 1 million units in 2019 to 100 million in 2025.

However, Orange VP of marketing Guillaume de Riberolles told Mobile World Live (MWL) the segment is going through growing pains, as “customer demand so far has not been huge” due to high prices, limited volumes, a lack of variety and “quality issues”.

Foldables still have a long way to go argued Biju Nair, president and CEO of used device specialist Hyla Mobile, as they “are still very unwieldy” with current designs “too thick and heavy” in comparison with standard and plus-sized smartphones.

However, every analyst contacted by MWL mentioned flexible devices when asked to comment on form factor innovation, with some tipping it as a game-changer for smartphones which could boost shipments.

Marta Pinto, IDC research manager believes “flexible displays can play an important role as the market is declining and the incremental innovations on camera set-ups and processing speeds are already imperceptible to the mass consumers and doesn’t drive upgrades”.

Pinto’s sentiment was echoed by Jusy Hong, Omdia mobile handsets director, who said consumers can instantly recognise smartphone innovation through form factor changes, making this an “effective” route to “stimulate” upgrades.

Foldables will “refresh” the smartphone segment, but Hong noted price tags north of $1,000 remain a huge challenge for the sector. He tipped pricing to “decrease over time” as vendors strive to have foldables more widely adopted.

Ben Stanton, Canalys senior analyst, branded this as the “best time for form factor innovation in the past decade”, crediting flexible displays for a new wave of innovation.

But, he pointed to “often overlooked” manufacturing and logistics innovations which bring “amazing features down to genuinely affordable price points” as a massive achievement in recent years.

Stanton said such innovations are illustrated in current $200 devices, which are far superior to those available three years ago and more “vital for driving demand in the world’s few remaining growth markets, like India, Africa, and parts of Latin America”.

Ben Wood, CCS Insight chief of research concurred and revelled in the potential of flexible screens for smartphones. However, he noted some view the technology as a “solution looking for a problem”, while echoing Stanton’s comments around components he described as “nothing short of remarkable”.

“No more so than in the case of 5G where we are seeing the most complex antenna architectures ever witnessed in mobile devices. Cameras is another area where huge strides are being made. I have to admit that back in 2010 when Nokia’s charismatic head of mobile Anssi Vanjoki declared that mobile phone cameras would replace DSLRs I scoffed, but I was wrong.”

“The quality of pictures from mobile phones, although not at DSLR levels to the very discerning eye, are astonishing these days.”

Innovate or die
In a recent interview with MWL, Huawei UK Consumer Business Group MD Anson Zhang was eager to point out the vendor’s year-on-year increases to R&D investment, stating the company “burned” through $17 billion in 2019 and hinted spend could surpass $20 billion this year.

The Huawei executive warned the smartphone industry must continue to “innovate and bring new value” to end-users or risk being “forgotten and replaced” by emerging technologies.

Despite his displeasure with foldables, Nair gave vendors credit for their recent efforts, noting they must “innovate or die”.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.