Peeling displays. Creaking hinges. Screens that can be damaged by just a fingernail.
The latest foldable phones from major smartphone manufacturers haven't gotten off to a strong start: Both Motorola's nostalgic Razr reboot and Samsung's Galaxy Z Flip launched with their fair share of issues, even with their steep price tags. Samsung couldn't even nail it on its third attempt at a folding phone, after the Galaxy Fold it unveiled early last year had to be redesigned in the fall.
Despite these quite public missteps, companies are forging ahead into the brave new world of foldable smartphones. Experts told Protocol that though there are advantages to conducting public research and development, the companies' hubris could ultimately be a mistake.
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"None of the problems that have occurred actually surprise me," William LaCourse, a professor of glass science at Alfred University, told Protocol about the issues the first few folding phones have faced.
The Motorola Razr uses an easily scratched plastic screen, and its adhesive — reportedly supplied by 3M — was shown to warp the whole screen in cold temperatures. Samsung, meanwhile, touts its new ultrathin glass, produced by Schott, as being "tough, yet tender" — so tender, in fact, that it, too, is covered by an easily damaged plastic layer. Producing foldable displays is difficult, according to LaCourse: For glass to fold, it has to be extremely thin, but making it thin makes it less durable. So why are companies rushing to get this technology out?
Increased competition is pushing smartphone manufacturers into uncharted waters. "The Android players are more under pressure to show something unique, to show leadership, and to improve their brands," Roberta Cozza, a senior director analyst at Gartner, told Protocol. With so much similarity among Android software, it's "hard for them to differentiate" Cozza said, hence the dramatic hardware experiments. For a brand like Motorola with less market share than that of the dominant smartphone players, coming out with something truly different is one of the only ways to stand out.
According to Cozza, releasing early-stage products is a good way for manufacturers to test products in the wild. "It's a way for them to understand what are the problems, and keep on improving," she said.
Kevin Williams, a senior marketing and entrepreneurship lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business, agrees. "You can really only get kind of incremental results from market research; consumers can't predict a breakthrough or a disruption," Williams said. "And so about the best you can do is to throw stuff out there and see how people react to it."
This strategy could be particularly true for Samsung, which wants to license its processed folding glass to other manufacturers. Last year, Samsung's consumer electronics business had an operating profit of 2.61 trillion won, or about $2.1 billion, while its "device solutions" business, which sells displays and chips, made 15.58 trillion won (nearly $13 billion). Samsung can afford a flop in its consumer business, if that flop helps it uncover real-world faults and fix them for its much more valuable corporate customers.
But it's a risky gambit: There's plenty of evidence that first-mover advantages are by no means guaranteed, and Williams says being first is typically a disadvantage. "You wind up taking on the market risk for all your competitors, and they get to learn from your mistakes," he said. In a way, Samsung and Motorola are offering themselves up as sacrificial lambs for later-entrants like Apple who can swoop in once the kinks are worked out.
"The less-than-generous interpretation is just pure hubris," Williams said of why Samsung and Motorola are pushing out these early devices. He argued that tech companies are often run by technologists and engineers "who think they already know" what success looks like. "I'm sure there are people at Samsung that think, 'Hey, we figured it out, this will take off,'" Williams said. "And then it's rejected out of hand by consumers, because they just are looking at different criteria, different definitions of what's better."
Although it can be a questionable business decision, others see the social upside in putting yourself out into the world, warts and all. "I've got to give companies like Samsung and others a lot of credit for just pushing ahead anyway, despite the tremendous costs from an R&D side as well as from a PR side," said Peter Fader, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Someone needs to innovate to succeed, after all, and their work could eventually lead to something genuinely novel.
Neither Samsung nor Motorola were immediately available to comment on their strategy for folding phones.
Corning, which supplies its Gorilla Glass to Apple and other manufacturers, told Protocol by email that it's "actively developing" what it referred to as "glass-based products" for foldable devices, and said it expects to bring them to market "within the next 12 to 18 months." Given Corning's timeline, LaCourse said he thinks "we are less than a year away from an announcement" of a folding device from Apple, but that the company may try to play it safe by debuting a larger device. Rather than an iPhone, a large device — like an iPad — can be thicker. That means the glass can have a larger bend radius, which in turn means it can be thicker and more durable. Apple has also signaled with patents it's filed that this could be the direction it's heading.
It's not just technical problems that experimentation solves. Many of the experts Protocol spoke with noted that there's no hugely compelling use case for foldable phones yet. "For the mainstream user, I really don't see what the value really is," Cozza said.
Beyond overcoming technical problems, these devices need to "demonstrate some kind of wow," Fader said, much like the first iPhone did. They have to show some use case that people will actually want to pay for — one that's not possible with existing devices. This, he says, "will happen, in multiple ways and multiple forms." And it's only through experiments like the Razr and Z Fold that we'll get there.
"We really should be letting a thousand flowers bloom instead of just going out there stomping on anything that looks a little different," Fader said.