What a difference six months makes. Rewind to MWC Barcelona in February and smartphones with folding displays were a major industry talking point, but have widespread reports of damaged review copies and delays smashed the prospects of “foldables” beyond repair?

By the time of the world’s biggest mobile tech show we’d already had months of teasers about the release of smartphones with flexible screens. Anticipation around the form factor was huge.

The excitement about the creation of a new style of device was understandable, as a completely novel handset design had failed to gain significant market traction since the launch of the first batch of smartphones. Even when the provisional price tag for Samsung Galaxy Fold came in at around $2,000, expectations were not dampened.

While Samsung and Huawei were making the most noise in the run-up to MWC19 Barcelona on flexible screens, a number of other handset manufacturers were also trying to grab their share of the headlines.

LG demonstrated its second-screen foldable case, TCL Communication teased its ambitions in this area and Xiaomi’s co-founder (left) was pictured in January with what was presumed to be a prototype flexible device.

Although demonstration versions were in display cabinets in Barcelona, it took a long time for working models to be distributed outside of the manufacturers, and when they were Samsung’s was found to have such significant errors the release date was pushed back and review models recalled.

In the wake of a barrage of negative publicity for rival Samsung, Huawei sent its Mate X prototype back to the engineers.

Samsung’s mobile chief DJ Koh described the whole incident as “embarrassing,” while Huawei reportedly stated it did not want to “launch a product to destroy our reputation”.

Months later and still no commercial versions have materialised. Samsung plans to finally release its device in the coming weeks (at the time of writing) while Huawei is targeting November.

However, has the hype train already derailed?

Media slaughter
In April, when expectation was still high for the form factor, analyst firm Gartner published a report cautioning on short-term potential, though noted the devices could “potentially re-inject innovation in the smartphone market.”

It estimated foldables would make up five per cent of high-end sales by 2023, at around 30 million units.

Analysts spoken to by Mobile World Live four months later are even more cautious on the chances of the new form factor.

Discussing Samsung’s negative publicity, IDC EMEA research manager for mobile devices Marta Pinto noted its plight echoed issues just three years ago with the Note 7.

“On one hand, bringing such innovation to market was a plus. Showing that it is able to manufacture foldable displays was really good publicity,” she said. “On the other hand, having the device being slaughtered in every news piece brought the ghost of Note 7 and the conclusion that the rush of showcasing something new can play against a brand when it is not a finished product.”

Strategy Analytics associate director for emerging device technologies Ville-Petteri Ukonaho added vendors needed to spend “serious marketing money” to convince consumers the devices were durable following the well-documented design issues.

“The negative publicity has definitely impacted the purchase decisions of consumers regarding foldable devices,” he added. “Generally, the concept is still wanted and trusted, but durability has risen as the main concern among potential buyers.

“Delays are inevitable with such big design changes so the problems have not destroyed trust around the concept but the public image of the vendors that rush on publishing products that are not yet ready for mass adoption has definitely been affected.”

A high price to pay?
IDC’s Pinto noted the form factor was unlikely to be a mass market play due to the cost of devices and usability factors, at least initially, as developers would need to adapt applications.

She added: ”Consumers are always waiting for the next big hit and the next great innovation, especially in a segment such as smartphones where the developments arrive to the market quite fast. Expectation will be there when brands start teasing consumers again.”

Ukonaho agreed the devices were going in at the “ultra-premium category where naturally there is quite limited clientele.”

“The devices are primarily targeted for business users and for that segment the price might not be that much an issue, but it is clear that for mass adoption the prices must come down.”

In a forthcoming Strategy Analytics survey of 2,500 smartphone users in the US, only four per cent listed “foldable” as one of the most important factors. Of those spending over $1,000 on handsets, just 9 per cent stated it was one of the most important factors.

Ukonaho revealed its current market projection showed “very tiny volumes for this year”, but expected improved sales in 2020 as Samsung, Huawei and potentially Xiaomi resolve issues with the form factor.

With the revamped Samsung device set for launch next month, we are potentially weeks away from knowing if the new version will be showered with praise from reviewers or if the response will be underwhelming.

The initial reception may go a long way to decide the fate of these devices and if a swathe of similar designs from elsewhere ever see the light of day.

With design issues and delays still fresh in the mind, further negative publicity could mean the already niche clientele for these high end devices may end up sticking with more traditional – and trusted – devices.

Much hinges on the usability and reception of early units.

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.