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With HUAWEI's and Samsung's current troubles, is the foldable phone trend cursed?
After years and years of rumors, patent filings and promises, 2019 was supposed to be the year a foldable smartphone with a flexible display would finally go mainstream. Two of the biggest phone makers in the world, Samsung and HUAWEI, both announced plans to launch foldable phones: the Samsung Galaxy Fold and the HUAWEI Mate X.
In just the last few weeks, it now looks like the foldable phone trend is in deep trouble — for reasons that we could not have predicted back when both of these devices were first revealed. After reports of display failures on the Galaxy Fold from a few media outlets hit the internet in late April, along with bumps appearing below the screen, Samsung quickly delayed the planned April 26 launch of the phone. So far, the company has yet to reveal a new release date for the Galaxy Fold.
The folks at HUAWEI must have been happy when Samsung announced the delay. It seemed to paving the way for the Mate X to beat the Galaxy Fold to market. What HUAWEI didn’t anticipate was the U.S. government blacklist it last week, meaning U.S. businesses could not supply hardware or software to HUAWEI devices.
On Sunday, Google said it would comply with the U.S. government’s order. While the U.S. Commerce Department has since allowed Google and other companies to offer software updates for current HUAWEI products until August 19, that exception does not currently cover future devices, which would indeed include the Mate X.
While HUAWEI is reportedly working on its own mobile operating system, it may not be ready for new devices until sometime this fall. There’s also no word on if this OS will work with foldable phones. That’s something Google already added to Android. HUAWEI may not be able to supply that kind of extra functionality in the Mate X for its upcoming OS.
Is the foldable phone trend cursed?
These developments are just the latest in the rather troubled history of trying to bring foldable phones. Samsung and other companies have been showing prototypes of these devices for literally years, but it appears that creating these kinds of devices with a foldable display on a large scale has been difficult until just recently.
Even now, some worry the plastic foldable displays of the Galaxy Fold and the Mate X won’t last very long. To be fair, both Samsung and HUAWEI claim results from their testing labs show the flexible displays on the Galaxy Fold and the Mate X should last for several years. However, as most people might know, conditions in a lab are very different than the real world. People can always create situations that cannot be tested for or even predicted in the lab, as we saw with the display failures in some of the review Galaxy Fold units.
There’s been work on creating foldable displays made of glass, but no word when those will be available. Corning, makers of the tough Gorilla Glass displays found on so many smartphones, says it has prototypes of flexible glass screens working in its labs, but we may have to wait a while before they will be put into future smartphones.
Of course, as we mentioned before, no one could have predicted the fate of the Mate X would be put in jeopardy by a U.S. government ban on HUAWEI. It’s the kind of left field development that, unfortunately, has become a part with the foldable phone trend.
What about the Motorola RAZR foldable phone?
With the Galaxy Fold and the Mate X currently in limbo, the only other foldable phone that might be released in the near future is the Motorola RAZR. Even that phone has encountered its own delays. The phone, which is supposed to have a clamshell design much like the original classic RAZR mobile phone, was first reported in January by The Wall Street Journal, who added that it might go on sale as early as February.
That timeframe came and went with no such announcement. During MWC 2019, Motorola VP of Global Product Dan Dery stated the company had “no intention of coming later than everybody else in the market” when it came to the foldable phone trend. It looks like Motorola isn’t in a hurry to launch a competing device anymore. In May, Motorola’s parent company Lenovo showed off a render video of what it said was the foldable RAZR phone to some members of the media. As it turned out, that video was made mostly by a fan, who was not contacted by the company for the use of his creation beforehand.
It’s now late May, and we have no clue on when Motorola will actually announce, much less release, the foldable RAZR smartphone. It’s possible it has decided to test the phone a while longer, so it doesn’t have the same problems Samsung encountered with the Galaxy Fold.
Did LG have the right idea all along?
Perhaps we should have listened more closely to another company’s take. LG has been working on its own foldable displays for some time, and it was supposed to show off its own foldable phone prototype in early 2019 at CES. However, in February, the company issued a statement saying it didn’t see a favorable market for “an expensive, first-gen foldable smartphone.”
Based on what we know now, LG could have encountered issues with display durability when testing its own foldable phone prototype and decided it was not the right time to release such a device. Indeed, recently Lenovo announced plans to launch a Windows-based laptop with a foldable flexible display, with that screen made by LG. However, that product won’t come out until sometime in 2020.
In the end, there’s no need to rush
In an earlier commentary, we remarked on how Samsung didn’t need to rush to beat HUAWEI in the foldable phone race. Now that HUAWEI may have its own delay for the Mate X, and there’s no telling when Motorola will launch its RAZR phone, it’s more important than ever that Samsung takes its time and makes sure the Galaxy Fold doesn’t run into any problems. In fact, Samsung should just go ahead and wait for Android Q to install in its first foldable phone.
As far as HUAWEI’s situation, it’s possible the current trade war between China and the U.S. will cool off, and HUAWEI will once again get access to Android in its future phones. However, we would not bet on that happening anytime soon. It seems like HUAWEI’s foldable phone plans for the Mate X are in flux, much like its entire smartphone business.