Foldable smartphones emerged as a breath of fresh air a few years ago. The hitherto glass, plastic, and metal slabs – indistinguishable from each other in most cases – were getting boring with iterative upgrades year on year and little innovation in chassis or form factor for quite some time.
It was 2019 when Samsung launched the first Samsung Galaxy Fold and debuted the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip the following year. Huawei, too, launched its maiden foldable smartphone – the Huawei Mate X – the same year, but the company’s trade issues in the US (as well as other markets, including India) meant that the smartphone, and its subsequent iterations, never launched outside of China.
However, at the time, there were genuine worries about their reliability and long-term durability. And they were prohibitively expensive, costing close to $2,000 (around ₹1.6 lakh). Yet, despite concept and showcases devices from a slew of brands, for most of the people around the globe, Samsung was the only option if one wanted to pick up a foldable smartphone.
All that is changing now. For the first time in their short journey so far, foldable smartphones are making their way into the mainstream, with frequent sightings in the wild and more brands joining the fray. Google’s Pixel Fold, which was announced recently, is the latest sign that the Android operating system is priming up for foldable displays as well.
Foldable smartphones come with several advantages, apart from the obvious larger screen estate or the compactable form factor. There are, of course, a few downsides as well.
The obvious benefit of a foldable smartphone is the size – you get more than what you pack. The ‘Fold’ phones open up to a tablet-like screen estate making content consumption, everyday productive work, and multitasking much more convenient while the ‘Flip’ ones fold the display into half, making them compact and easy to pocket.
Then there’s all that more you can do with the cameras. Using the more powerful rear cameras for selfies, using the external display as a viewfinder, or propping one up to use as a tripod while clicking photos.
The biggest concern about foldable devices has been the display crease and the hinge that folds. While earlier generation devices struggled to allay consumer worries, current iterations offer some confidence. Progressive upgrades have aimed to make the crease better and better – the end goal is to make the crease almost invisible in everyday use.
There’s no denying that foldable phones are quite expensive. But if you’re fine with splurging quite some money to experience the future of smartphones, you might want to grab these premium, next-generation devices. The shiny devices have often fallen short of rational arguments but those who appreciate technological breakthroughs and innovation take the plunge anyway. Early adopters, of course, help refine the products, the supply chain, and the ecosystem as well so the technology permeates down the value chain with time.
While Google isn’t launching Pixel Fold in India, there are quite a few options already in the market to choose from.
Both Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Galaxy Z Flip 4 continue to remain the primary considerations for anyone looking to pick up a foldable smartphone, but they don’t come cheap – the Fold starts at ₹1,54,999 while the Flip starts at ₹89,999. Now in their fourth iteration, both devices have matured over the years and ironed out teething issues we saw till the second generation.
Then there’s Oppo. Launched in India recently, the Oppo Find N2 Flip wants to go against the Samsung Flip with exquisite build quality and almost no crease on the display – available for the same price.
And then came Tecno. The affordable smartphone brand is taking a jab at the premium segment with a foldable smartphone. Yet, it doesn’t want to break your bank. The Tecno Phantom V Fold is a capable foldable smartphone with a starting price of ₹88,888. It’s not perfect and there are a few mishits here and there, but it offers you a competent foldable experience under a lakh.
In China though, the competition is more intense. And it is likely that a lot of it would trickle down to other markets sooner or later as Oppo’s recent launch indicates. Chinese smartphone players like Xiaomi, Huawei, Honor, vivo, and Oppo have put out a slew of foldable smartphones in China, pushing the envelope in innovation and driving adoption. Globally too, there have been Motorola’s 2022 Razr, a Surface Duo by Microsoft, and now Pixel Fold from Google. As adoption grows worldwide, we’ll see wider launches and more availability.
Of course, you would’ve noticed that we’ve been about foldable smartphone options only in the Android world. The conspicuous absence of Apple in the growing category is now making iPhone fans and analysts restless. In fact, Apple is the only major global smartphone brand now without a foldable device in its portfolio.
It’s not unlikely for Apple to take its time before introducing a capability or jumping into a new category, riding on its dominant position with the iPhone portfolio, but the wait is now looking stretched. Anecdotally, I’ve seen several iPhone loyalists jump ship to Samsung only to experience life with a foldable smartphone.
While foldable smartphones are only a tiny fraction of the smartphone market right now (they made up only 1% of smartphone shipments in 2022, according to the research firm IDC), they are also amongst the fastest-growing category in an otherwise struggling market.
If Apple doesn’t have a foldable device on the shelves in the holiday season next year, the company’s shareholders and fans might have reasons to worry, considering the segment will command tens of billions of dollars in revenues by then. Some of it will come out from Apple’s kitty. The company’s intervention will also benefit the industry as a whole, advancing innovation and adoption.
According to IDC, in 2022, Samsung enjoyed a 79% share of the global market for foldable smartphones having kicked off the category four years ago. While the first-mover advantage has helped the brand establish itself as the pioneering and formidable foldable smartphone player, other smartphone makers are now looking at pulling some of that market share in this category in regions outside of China.
The foldables market, after all, is predicted to triple by 2027, accounting for 50 million units annually. Foldable smartphones offer an additional incentive to consumers to upgrade their phones, and since these are premium devices that fetch higher prices, the margins are higher. Double win for the smartphone brands.
Foldable phones are some of the coolest mobile tech gadgets available right now, and it’s fun to experience one.
Abhishek Baxi is a technology journalist and digital consultant.