Those of us familiar with mobile phones in the late 1990s and early 2000s will remember the popularity of so-called ‘clamshell’ or ‘flip’ phones – Motorola produced some iconic designs, from the 1996 StarTAC to the bestselling RAZR V3 introduced in 2004, and even registered the term “flip phone” as a trade mark in the US. The evolution of smartphones having increasingly expansive touchscreen displays has led to these designs being largely superseded, but they might be making a comeback.
Followers of developments in the mobile phone market will be aware of a recent trend for manufacturers announcing devices having foldable displays, made possible by developments in flexible touchscreen display technology. These devices offer either a large screen within a more compact folded device, or a display which converts from one size to another depending on the configuration of the device.
Commercial products now arriving on the scene include the Samsung Galaxy Fold, Motorola’s next-generation Razr, and the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip. Early reports of some devices have raised concerns about the resilience of the point where the screen folds and also the durability of its surface. In many cases the screen has to be particularly thin to allow for the folding configuration, and therefore not able to use the same coatings and finishes as are used to strengthen conventional displays. The launch of Huawei’s Mate X was postponed in 2019, reportedly to allow for further extensive testing in response to problems experienced by Samsung with the durability of its Galaxy Fold.
Flexible displays have been in development for some time, and have been exhibited in concept devices including Polymer Vision’s Readius device in 2006, which was an e-reader featuring a rollable screen, and Nokia’s bendable Morph phone, which was a non-functional concept device shown in 2008. However, it is only more recently that the development of thin OLED displays appears to have made foldable touch screens commercially viable.
Can the ability to provide a large folding screen in a small device offer the best of both worlds, and do consumers feel they need this technology in a phone? There has certainly been a rush to launch commercial products, but will this prove to be the next evolution of the smartphone, or just a gimmick? It remains to be seen whether the demand is there, and whether the durability of these products can be made to meet the requirements of the marketplace, but this technology is certainly driving some exciting innovation in smartphone design.